Like many other genteel young ladies of the day, Sarah Mabel Pugh’s education began at a regional liberal arts college for women. Raleigh, North Carolina’s Peace Institute (later College) was not far from Pugh’s hometown of Morrisville and proved an ideal launching ground for a career that took her to two of the country’s leading art academies as well as abroad to advance her studies. Following her 1913 graduation from Peace, Pugh moved to New York, where she studied at the Art Students League and Columbia University. She then enrolled for four years of study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where, in 1919, she was awarded the prestigious Cresson Traveling Scholarship to fund study in Europe.
Upon her return, Pugh settled in New York City and began an active career as an illustrator for popular periodicals (including McCall’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and The Forum) and books. Her woodblock prints, watercolors, and pen and ink sketches brought her commercial success and critical regard. During her time in New York, Pugh was represented in prestigious exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, National Association of Women Artists, Brooklyn Museum, and the 1939 World’s Fair. Sarah’s Piano, a woodcut dating to circa 1925, was honored at the Tenth Annual Exhibition of the Southern States Art League held in New Orleans in 1930. She also authored and illustrated a small volume for children, Little Carolina Bluebonnet, issued in 1933.
In 1936, Pugh returned to her Southern alma mater as a member of the art faculty, a department she would eventually chair. Her tenure at Peace College lasted until 1960, when she retired to focus on creative pursuits. An accomplished portraitist, Pugh painted the likenesses of several North Carolina political leaders. An undated woodblock print titled Little Church Around the Corner is held in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.