Just weeks before COVID-19 changed our world last spring, Sabrina Tillman-McGowens had settled into her new gallery, ready to change the art world of High Point. But no sooner had that phase of her career started that Sabrina was forced to put that dream on hold.
Lucky for Sabrina, she has never been one to take the easy road when it comes to her career as a fine artist.
“I was told not to become an artist because everyone thought I was going to starve,” Sabrina jokes.
After she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sabrina took the advice of those around her and started a more “practical” career in computer graphics and advertising for an interior design company. But after two decades and several big moves, Sabrina realized just how much she missed creating art with her hands and not just a computer mouse.
“In 2008, I started my first business out of my garage,” Sabrina says. She returned to printmaking and painting, selling some of her pieces on her Etsy shop and exploring the possibility of art becoming the full-time job she’d always dreamed it would be. It was during this phase of life when her heart called her back home to High Point.
“High Point has always been home,” Sabrina explains. And as she began to uncover the “chaotic and creative” side to her art, Sabrina knew her long-held dream of being a full-time artist had to happen in her hometown. Sabrina had shown her work with Phyllis Bridges, former owner of Yalik’s Modern Art Gallery on Washington Street, but by the time Sabrina had decided to give art her full attention, Yalik’s had closed. That’s when Sabrina noticed the art gallery deficit in High Point.
“As an African-American artist, I felt that need to still be part of an African-American gallery,” Sabrina expresses. “I realized I was sitting on a hundred pieces of artwork in my own home, and that’s when I decided to open my own gallery.” In 2018, Sabrina became a full-time artist and gallery operator, starting with her own gallery on Westwood Avenue.
But last March, just before COVID-19 began, Sabrina and her business associate, Sheena Dawkins, came across The Gallery on Main.
The Gallery on Main now houses Sabrina’s, holds multiple gallery spaces, café space, and Sheena’s interior design boutique, Rhenovations. It acts as the perfect synergy between Sabrina’s and Sheena’s long history in High Point, their work with interior design, talent for fine arts, and passion for giving new artists the space to thrive and succeed.
And the first small step in a master plan for reimagining art and culture in High Point is the Art Market.
The exhibit, which features local artists from the Triad, is the first of many exhibits Sabrina hopes to host for new and upcoming artists to get their feet wet in the exhibit world. Sabrina points out that often for new artists, it can be extremely tough to break into new gallery shows – even if the artist has achieved informal recognition in other areas.
After expressing frustration at how galleries often showcase the same artists over and over, Sabrina received confirmation from the building owner that she could use the entire downstairs of the Gallery on Main to exhibit new artists.
“The mindset became any space that we have available to showcase artwork – that’s what we’re going to do,” she adds. And one evening last fall, into the Gallery on Main walked Maya Graham. Originally, Maya planned to stop by for an event, but after touring the gallery, she was immediately swept away by the opportunity to be part of the movement, and asked Sabrina, “How can I help?”
Within a few months, Maya had taken on the task of curating the Art Market for this summer, scoring acclaimed and new artists alike from all over the Triad. And it all fits into Sabrina and the gallery’s bigger goal: creating a thriving artist community in High Point.
“I watch what’s happening in other cities and how other artists’ communities are thriving, and I see the gaps here,” Sabrina explains. She points out how little space is often provided to artists of color.
“When I opened my gallery, I was told that there weren’t a lot of good African-American artists in the area, and I sat there thinking, ‘That cannot be true!’
“One of the things that I wanted to do is have a place for African-American artists and artists of color to feel at home, and at the same time, making sure that we keep everything open for everyone, so it becomes an all-inclusive gallery,” she continues. “We want to celebrate all cultures here, but we just need to make sure that we are indeed celebrating all cultures.”
Sabrina notes how many underrepresented artists start out in High Point, and how crucial it is that they have the chance to create and connect with other local artists.
“The more opportunities we give our creatives, the less likely they’ll be to leave,” Sabrina explains. She notes how many artists that they have “pulled out of the cracks” who are sitting at home with incredible work going unseen.
“We have one young artist that said he was on the waiting list at different galleries, but in the meantime, what does he do?” Sabrina wonders. That’s where she sees her gallery stepping in to mentor and encourage young artists through professional seminars, workshops, networking, and more.
On top of finding and showcasing new artists, Sabrina was also inspired by the idea of mentoring and supporting young artists like she once was. As a graduate of High Point Central, she is personally familiar with what it’s like to be a student artist growing up in High Point.
“I feel like a lot of kids who are like me don’t get the attention that they possibly deserve,” she says. “It was really important for me to be here, to give that back to my home first. There’s a lot of talent here, and there are a lot of kids who really need art and creativity.”
Sabrina, who now also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree, plans to provide classes for youth and students interested in art.
“Plus, we plan to hopefully get some scholarships in place,” Sabrina explains. “We aren’t just offering art classes for people who can afford it, but we’re also offering art classes that we can take to the community to give underprivileged youth an outlet.”
Because the Gallery on Main isn’t just hoping to impact the local artist community in High Point – they want to change the entire art culture of our city.
“I didn’t want to call my space a ‘gallery’ at first, because I didn’t want it to feel like white walls where you can’t touch anything, and there is no music playing,” Sabrina laughs. “I want more of a cool place where music is playing all the time. I want it to be a place where you can come and sit back, relax, have a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, and just enjoy art.”
The gallery, which will incorporate a café space and seating area, will offer High Pointers and visitors the chance to work remotely, gather with friends, and simply be inspired.
“We want you to have a personal connection and a different perspective of art,” she adds. “We’re trying to provide something different.”
Sabrina and her team have studied other city’s artist communities and their activities – like street festivals, artist showcases, live music, live art demonstrations, and more.
As Maya and Sabrina have collaborated on how to cultivate a flourishing visual artists’ community in High Point, the main question they have asked is, “why not?” With our creative furniture and design foundation, our twice-annual global guest list, and our growing downtown, why not use this opportunity to spark even more creativity in High Point?
“Why can’t we do those things here – the innovative things that other cities do on a regular basis to showcase the local talent?” Sabrina asks. She concludes that she could have made art her full-time career anywhere in the world, but only in High Point would her art have truly found its home.
“Just the thought of being back home in High Point with an art gallery and being able to capitalize on furniture market was a big deal for me,” she adds. “I think I could have my gallery anywhere, but it just felt right to start here.”
“Maybe it would be easier for me to sell my art in a city like Charlotte or Atlanta. But why not bring that here?” Sabrina concludes. “Why not find a way to make that happen in High Point?”
Discover our High Points,
The HPD Team
Head out to the Gallery on Main this week, as the Art Market exhibit will only be open through June 30! The exhibits in the lower level of the gallery will rotate out every month or so, which means you have to keep an eye out to make sure you don’t miss any of the amazing artists showing in HP’s newest gallery!
Where: 100 S. Main St. (Off of High Avenue, between The Pit and High Point Station)
When: Open Wednesdays – Sundays (12 PM – 6 PM)
Photography by Anna Danielle Photography
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