By Rob Hessler
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Visitors walking into Sabree’s Gullah Gallery at Savannah’s City Market #4 will experience a full sensory environment rather than just the colorful, vibrant style of painting the artist refers to as “happy art.”
They’ll likely catch a whiff of the citrus and eucalyptus scents that Sabree lets waft into the air, followed by the sound of soft music playing in the background. They may also notice cotton and Spanish moss for sale: the latter is an ingredient in Gullah herbal remedies utilized to help with upper respiratory ailments and high blood pressure; the former a reference to her background as a farmer.
And most of all, they’ll be greeted by the woman herself, a gregarious and spiritual creator whose warm smile is guaranteed to draw guests to the gallery in. One who has followed the path set forth by her ancestors to create art that tells the kind of stories that form the backbone of the people from which she descends.
“Growing up on the farm gave me a rich background,” Sabree told me during our conversation for this week’s Art on the Air. “And it also made me appreciate my culture, which is the Gullah culture.”
Sabree was part of a huge family, with fourteen siblings, plus an additional six brothers and sisters who were stillborn, for a total of twenty-one children. The three hundred acre farm that her and her family worked grew not only cotton, but also corn, tobacco, and any kind of vegetable that you can imagine.
Showing artistic aptitude as a child, she ultimately went to school for art, but found herself minoring in education and initially working as a teacher rather than as an artist.
“While teaching those first couple of years, that little voice that we all have, it just kept speaking to me, and it was saying, you need to be telling your story, you need to be painting your story,” Sabree recalled. “And I must admit that I did ignore the voice for a while.
“But then all of the sudden that voice, it just kept getting louder and louder and louder until I could not ignore it anymore. And to me it felt like the ancestors were screaming and they were saying to paint what you grew up in, serve the Gullah culture.”
And for the artist, when the ancestors give a directive, she listens. So she left her “comfortable life” and “went into the unknown.
“I move when they say move,” Sabree laughed. “I don’t play with my ancestors.”
That was back in 2010, and although she continued to do some private teaching until 2014, she’s now completely committed to her life as a full-time artist. And she has continued to listen to the not always subtle urgings of her forbearers.
“They speak to me in dreams,” she explained. “It can be voices. Sometimes there are certain perfumes or certain spells that come through. Even down to feeling cold or feeling hot. They’re just reminding me to tap into all of my senses and to bring everything that I have to the table.”
One such dream brought her to a composition that she’d ultimately gift to the Obama family.
The painting, titled "The Risk of the Roots," depicts “the Obama family as children, all of them as children,” described Sabree.
“The youngest daughter is sitting in the top of the tree, and she has made a home, so she’ll be the one to preserve the Gullah culture. She’ll pass along that knowledge.”
Malia Obama, the elder daughter, is shown gathering moss for the aforementioned medicinal uses. The Spanish moss in the painting is the actual plant affixed to the canvas, a technique the artist frequently uses in her works.
“Michelle Obama…in her hand, she has a bowl container of rice,” she continued. “And in the Gullah culture, we’ve got a thing for rice!
“And [Barack] Obama, he’s sitting on the root, but yet he’s a part of the root.”
Finally, above Michelle’s head is a beehive, meant to point towards the declining world’s bee population and the notion that “if the bees die, we die,” says the artist.
“And so the risk of the root, which is the name of the piece, the risk that the ancestors took in order to get us here, was a heavy burden to bear.”
Sabree takes her ancestral legacy as the bearer of such a burden very seriously. As she did growing up on the farm, she still wakes up around 4 a.m. every morning, often spending the whole day painting and at the gallery. In addition to her visual creations, she utilizes her social media accounts to pass along facts and history about the Gullah culture and history. It’s both an obligation and a pleasure.
'Embracing Liberty' by Sabree
“It is a big responsibility, but I’m going to tell you something: I enjoy it,” the painter asserted. “It’s another form of teaching. As the old saying goes, once a teacher, always a teacher.”
Learn more about Sabree at www.SabreesGallery.com and @SabreesGallery on Instagram. Her gallery space in Savannah’s City Market is at 309 West Julian Street in Studio 4 upstairs.
Sabree wants to keep you updated on news and awards about her.