Artist Khalilah Sabree is commemorating 20 years of creating art in the Capital City with a retrospective at Artworks Trenton, the downtown gallery where the artist has also had a studio.
There the exhibition, “Journey to Now,” uses several series of large works created during different phases of the artist’s life to quietly invite visual engagement and reflection.
Sabree’s artistic celebration is also taking place three miles away at the Trenton City Museum, Ellarslie Mansion, in Cadwalader Park.
At Ellarslie she is one of the 11 artists featured in the exhibit “Women Artists, Trenton Style,” curated by nationally known Trenton-based artist Mel Leipzig.
Recently, while working in a studio that has stacks of finished work and works in progress on the walls, Sabree shares some thoughts regarding the above mentioned journey.
That includes creating her mainly abstract works on birch wood panels. “I started with canvas. But with the medium I use, the canvas moved. I tried to use Masonite, but it was heavy. Birch wood is light” and firm, she says.
Then moving to her approach, she says, “I’m formally trained, but abstraction kind of happened in life, with the Islamic concept of not depicting the figure that much. As I developed my style I am able to convey the essence of the figure without depicting the figure.”
As an example, Sabree mentions her image of “Mary,” part of her “Vailed” series, early works created she says to “illustrate the notion of levels of personal enlightenment.”
About the subject matter that is usually connected to Christian art, Sabree says, “I have always found her to be fascinating, even in my pre-Islamic days as a Southern Baptist. When I became involved with Islam I found she was a very important figure.”
Talking about her approach to subject matter and interest in series, the artist says, “I’m a solitary painter and paint how I’m feeling and how things affect me. I’m not a painting-a-picture-to-hang-in-your-living-room type of person. It is a therapy for me.
“Generally I’ll spend some time thinking of a topic. And do some research. And put a collection of boards on walls and work on them simultaneously, and often it feeds off one another until the group is resolved.
“I move from one to another. It’s almost like it’s one painting, but they’re not.”
In addition to the variation of subject matter, she also unifies single and multiple works by techniques the retired Lawrence Township art teacher carried from “my art teaching background. Things in your formal training that help you to unify.”
She also adds something deeper. For example, in her recent painting, “In Translation,” a mixed media work that uses pages from the Koran, Sabree calls her deliberate and painstaking crossing-out of words and lines and the stippling of an image a “form of remembrance. It is a prayer and has a calming effect, like reciting with rosary beads. It helps transfer what I’m thinking to the viewer.”
This particular work is part of Sabree’s newest series on women. It also brings up a new consideration of the Islamic artistic practice of refraining from depicting human and animal figures. One cited reason is that it is only God’s prerogative to create living forms. Another is the potential for a form of idolatry.
“It was a problem originally,” Sabree says. “But in my research in Islamic art [I learned] the figure can be used and without crossing a religious line. It is something I struggle with. The women are figures. As I mature I have a better understanding of worshipping an image or not. But I am not a scholar, just an artist — not an Islamic scholar by any means.”
She says that the women are also women she knows and who live in Trenton — a city that is more than just then the place for her studio.
“I’ve been in Trenton since I was five years old. My mother (from Macon, Georgia) was a single mother with five children,” she says, adding they lived “predominately in West Trenton. Edgewood Avenue.”
She says most of her development as an artist “came from wonderful art teachers in Trenton schools: Jacob Davis in Junior Three and Carl Overton in Trenton Central High School.
“They were my mentors, and they always encouraged me. I’d tell Mr. Davis that I was going to come back and take his job, and I became an art teacher — 27 years in Lawrence Township Public Schools.”
About her connection to creating art, she says, “It just came naturally. It was a natural ability, even as a child. It was a passion. It’s a vocabulary. It’s how I speak. I can’t sing or write well. But I can say what I need to say visually.”
She says that she experienced the challenges one has when you “come from a single parent home,” but she says at the time — in the 1970s — there were programs to help with education.
“If you wanted to go to school you could,” she says about going to the College of New Jersey to get her degree in art education.
Her journey to graduate school and establishing herself as an artist came when “I was teaching at the middle school (in Lawrence), and I was told of a program to get your masters, but you needed a studio, so I needed to get a studio.”
At the same time she had been taking classes offered at Artworks, and one of her teachers who had a studio at Artworks mentioned he was leaving. She took the opportunity, entered a graduate program at the University of the Arts in Pennsylvania, and has been at Artworks for 20 years.
About her work and influences, she says, while everyone interests her, she singles out Rembrandt for her own “high contrast of light and darkness. I take from everybody. There is something that everyone has that influences me.”
Also influencing her work is travel. In addition to traveling to China to study calligraphy for a month, she has also traveled to the Middle East and participated in the annual Hajj and created the mix-media series based on that ritual.
It is also on display, along with other works important to the Muslim artist who is also of an American of African ancestry: “The Post 9/11 Series,” where she attempts to process the World Trade Center attacks; “Ebola Over Africa,” mixing traditional designs with the virus as a way to remind viewers that “no one is safe from global threat;” and “Destruction of Culture.”
“In that series I am focusing on the human aspect of war and destruction and what impact it has on the people. In the last piece the people are no longer important; they’re decimated. They’ve dissolved.”
Using a current war, she says, “All we hear about is Syria and the camps. We know very little about the people from the media. These are all things rattling through my mind.”
Reflecting on her art education background, she says that while many of the students she had will never become artists, they have an understanding of art as a way of communication.
One result is that it promotes understanding and tolerance. “If we understand (art), we can better understand each other. We need to understand one another more, to see from that other person’s view.”
Adding that she participates in a Muslim and Jewish dialogue group, she says, “If we understand, we don’t have to battle.”
Sabree, who recently moved from Trenton to Columbus, New Jersey, says her next series will be on the planet. “The Koran speaks a lot of about the environment, and that’s stirring around in my head, observing nature.”
But most on her mind is her 20-year retrospective and Trenton City Museum exhibition. “It’s like seeing your children grow up. As I was pulling (the exhibition works) out, I said to myself, ‘You have a lot of stuff.’
“My husband says ‘you’ve got to sell some of that.’ They are for sale. (But) I paint because it’s my passion — I can’t help it.”
Journey to Now, Artworks Trenton, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. Thursday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., through March 6 (masks and social distancing required). free. 609-394-9436 or www.artworkstrenton.org.
Women Artists, Trenton Style, The Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Friday and Saturday, noon to 4 p.m., Sunday, 1 to 4 p.m., through June 6 (masks, social distancing required, and timed entry). Free. For more information, call 609-989-1191. To reserve a viewing time, go to www.ellarslie.org.