One day, as a small child, Sabra Eagan was coloring on her toy box when her mother called her to come in for lunch. She never went in to lunch though because, in Eagan’s words, “I was having too much fun.” According to Sue Steppleman, a longtime friend of Eagan’s, this was how Sabra answered the question, “When did you first know you were an artist?”
In late May of this year, Jefferson City lost an extraordinary person and an amazing artist, Sabra Eagan. Her achievements in art were highly regarded around the world, but Jefferson City was her home. “Most mid-Missourians are not aware of the true level of her art because most of her honors were in Italy,” says Dianne Lowry, who worked with Eagan on her exhibit at St. Mary’s Health Center’s Centennial Celebration. Overseas, Eagan gained much recognition, winning 58 national and international awards. She also had 55 personal exhibits spanning from Europe, Africa, South American, the Caribbean and the United States.
Christy Trimble, an admirer of Eagan’s art, thought the artist’s work should be recognized in her hometown as well. That’s why in 2012 Trimble nominated her for the Zonta Mrs. William H. Weldon Lifetime Achievement Award, which Eagan received exactly one year before her death. That day, Trimble told her, “I just wanted to give you the thrill of your life.”
“You have,” Eagan assured her.
Falling in love with Venice
After receiving her first degree from Stephens College, Eagan went to work in the New York City fashion hub, but the work didn’t suit her. “The plastic city,” as she called it, didn’t embrace the same values she did.
During a visit to Europe with her parents, Eagan fell in love with Venice and knew that was where she wanted to be. Her mamá and papá, Edgar and Faye Eagan, eventually made that possible for her, and she never failed to credit them for her success.
Eagan began splitting her time between Italy and Jefferson City. Within two weeks of arriving in Venice, she met Luciano Dall’Acqua, whose art is exhibited in the Vatican and Guggenheim museums, and became his only student. He was a major influence on her art, and though she continued her studies at three schools in Italy, she returned to Dall’Acqua for advice throughout her career.
A generous spirit
When in Jefferson City, Eagan belonged to several organizations that reflected her love of music and history as well as art. Franziske Walleg says she met Eagan through the Morning Music Club around 1976. “To her, art and music were all together, and she loved them both,” Walleg says.
Lorraine Adkins, current board president of the Cole County Historical Society, spoke of Eagan’s service on the board and foundation. “It was a real pleasure working with Sabra,” she says. “She was one of our greatest volunteers. Sabra liked to welcome guests during the Living Windows open house and Fourth of July celebrations.”
Since the early 1980s, Becky Comley and Eagan, both alumni of Stephens College, shared similar interests and membership in several organizations. Comley reminisces: “There were many layers of our friendship that grew over the years. Sabra was a very private person, but once you became her friend, she was the most loyal friend you could ever have. She was an extraordinary person and such a gift to us in Jefferson City. To glorify God was her greatest purpose in life.”
The Rev. Dr. Rob Erickson of First Presbyterian Church also spoke of Eagan’s deep faith. “Even though Eagan was a deacon in the Presbyterian Church, she wasn’t confined to one denominational label,” he says. She was also open and receptive to the Catholic Church and other traditions.
“She would bring into her spirituality all of what the different traditions have to offer,” he continues.
“Sabra had a childlike curiosity in her faith. She had an awe and wonder that let her see little glimpses of God. On Holy Days, she would sometimes bring in a painting she had done and offer it up to the worship service. She worshiped God with her whole being, and her art was part of that.”
Always a lady
“She was always a lady, gracious in a way that is seldom seen today,” Steppleman says of Eagan’s character.
“Her script was so beautiful,” says Betty Weber, Eagan’s neighbor since 1980, of the calligraphic notes Eagan would write. “When Sabra tipped her hairstylist, she would put the tip in an envelope with one of her notes. Her stylist kept them all.”
Weber continues: “At Christmastime she would call and ask if it ‘would be OK if I motor over and drop off a few gifts.’ She was so full of energy, life and wonder. She loved to explore the world. There will never be another Sabra.”
Leaving a legacy
St. Mary’s Health Center in Jefferson City was very important to Eagan. She was born there, and her parents sought treatment there when necessary. She served on the St. Mary’s Board of Regents and was pleased when Mr. and Mrs. Pat Schanzmeyer commissioned three paintings for the hospital’s 80th anniversary celebration. The exhibit was named “Healing through Art.”
Eagan felt that prayer and art had been important to her own healing after the stress of her early fashion design work in New York City took a toll on her health. In her words, the slower pace of painting in Venice allowed “the spirit catch up with the body.”
St. Mary’s later announced that Eagan had been commissioned by an anonymous donor to create a statue for the hospital. The statue, named Stella Maris, is Latin for “Star of the Sea.” Before Eagan’s death, she completed the clay model, painstakingly hand-carried it to Italy and drew multiple sketches with specific instructions (in both English and Italian) for the Cervetes marble studio she selected in Pietro Santo, Italy. As has been the process since Michelangelo sculpted, the studio will carve the statue in white Carrera marble according to those specifications.
The finished piece will be 8 feet tall and stand about 15 feet high after placement on the base. Mary will be looking upward and holding a five-point star of blue Venetian glass. A seashell will be at her feet. Stella will be unveiled at the opening of the new St. Mary’s Health Center in 2015 in the courtyard, where it will be visible from most of the patient rooms.
Eagan had described the purpose of the statue this way: “Mary’s light is a welcoming beacon to all, offering hope, faith, safe haven and the healing of the mind, body, and spirit.” She considered the Stella Maris to be her greatest achievement. It will be her legacy to Jefferson City, and when the new St. Mary’s opens its doors, the Stella Maris will be home.
“It will be a place to reflect, pray and celebrate and is a wonderful gift to our community,” Lowry says.