Originally from Lake City, South Carolina, Patricia Sabree is a Gullah artist currently operating a colorful, lively gallery in the heart of City Market.
Her bold, vibrant paintings adorn every inch of the walls in her charming gallery, representing the happy, country lifestyle of the Gullah people.
Sabree’s upbringing on a family farm with 14 siblings is what first piqued her interest in art.
“Being raised on a farm, you see many different things. You see the textures. You see the beautiful view of the farmland. You get to connect with one another. You get to connect with nature. . . And before you realize it, you’re living a life of beauty,” she explained.
She also credits her parents, particularly her mother for sparking her creativity.
“My mother, she was an artist in so many different ways. . . My mother loved to quilt. She loved to decorate the home, and it’s not that we had a whole lot to work with, but what little she did have, she would put it all together and she would make it work.”
Sabree fondly recalls coming home from school and helping her mother make beautiful quilts. Her father was good with his hands and could build just about anything.
“So when you have two creative people who are your parents, you become even more broad as a person, and you’re more cultured too,” she added.
Sabree’s paintings transport you to a simpler time, featuring vivid landscapes where people joyfully interact with one another and nature.
“When it comes to Gullah art, when you see the artwork, it’s oftentimes depicted around the land as well as the water,” she explained. In her paintings, you’ll see people fishing at the riverbanks, women bearing baskets of rice on their heads, men tilling fields, and children playing outdoors, among other things. These scenes invoke serenity, contentment and the joys of life in the lowcountry.
She works with acrylic painting and also found materials to create her evocative scenes.
“I love incorporating different materials in the landscapes and seascapes I paint,” she expressed. “I use different assemblages with my painting. I use rice. I use spanish moss, seashells, rhinestones, whatever I could get my hands on even down to beads and rocks.”
In her most celebrated piece, which depicts the African deity Yemaya, she used yarn, seashells and pinecones, creating a stunning piece that leaves a lasting impression.
As a Gullah artist, Sabree describes her style as expressionism. She often paints featureless black faces juxtaposed against vibrant backgrounds full of rich colors.
“To the world, most Gullah pieces are featureless,” she began, “and the reason why they’re featureless [is] number one, you could see yourself in any of the pieces but number two, the most important reason, is the eyes are the windows to the soul. So, it is believed that when you open up those eyes, you stand at risk of opening up to other worlds and other entities. . . It’s a very sacred thing,” Sabree explained.
A popular subject of her work is also African spirituality, which is an important part of the Gullah culture. Sabree feels compelled to portray different deities in her work.
“The ancestors . . . want me to show all facets of the Gullah culture through the artworks,” she stated. “In the Gullah culture, there are over 402 different gods and goddesses. . . they are a part of our religion, our spiritual self.”
Sabree is currently working on a piece depicting African god Olokun, inspired by a vision that she had one early morning.
“It felt like I went into a trance. And an image . . . appeared in front of me, and he had a glow of light around him.”
She described the image of a strong young man in gold covered in jewels and surrounded by different kinds of coins.
“He made sure that he was very vivid to me. . . and I jumped out of bed and I just started sketching, just trying to remember as much as I could. . . I’m painting it right now,” said Sabree.
Sabree feels a certain responsibility to preserve the Gullah culture through her work. She felt called to higher purpose and that’s what motivated her to leave her background as an art teacher in the Carolinas and move to Savannah and start her gallery.
“I was teaching school, and the second or third year of teaching, my spirit said to me that you need to be telling your story and you need to be painting your story, and what a story to tell . . . being raised on a farm and coming from such a large family,” she recounted.
While she was teaching, she would set up outside the Charleston Market in South Carolina.
She recalls many visitors telling her she needed to get to Savannah.
She decided to finally make the move in 2015 after the worst of a series of car accidents.
She learned about City Market from a friend who’d invited her to take a trip there with her: “A friend was on her way going to Savannah. She wanted to go to City Market because she wanted to drop of some jewelry at one of the galleries, and she said, ‘come with me.’” Sabree was reluctant at first but ended up going. “I realized just how beautiful City Market really is,” she said. While there, she met gallery owner and artist Alix Baptiste and he inquired about having Sabree join the gallery. She completed the paperwork and shortly thereafter, she was in the gallery.
Today, she operates the gallery with her daughter Faridah, who Sabree considers to be the backbone of the business. Having her support “means everything” to Sabree: “You cannot do it alone, especially in business. You’ve got to have somebody to be there for you to help you because there are many different hats that you’ve got to wear. You have to have someone who can help you connect the dots.” For Sabree, her daughter is that person. Faridah operates the gallery at the beginning of the week, while Sabree is there Wednesday through Sunday.
In addition to beautiful paintings, Sabree’s gallery features detailed handmade dolls and jewelry. Online, she sells other products featuring her designs like umbrellas, aprons, mugs and more. She wants to leave an impression with her work while educating the public about Gullah culture: “I want [people] to take away a sense of pride to know who you are. That all cultures are important, and that the stories need to be told.”
Sabree’s Gallery of the Arts is located in City Market upstairs in Studio 4 at 309 W. Saint Julian St. Visit the gallery to see her work, or find her online at sabreesgallery.com.