From Paris with Love - a look into the work of Sabrina Wilson

Melanie Pinto @thefreedomfactory 06/26/2020

It reads like a romantic Indie movie; the beautiful French woman courageously leaves home to pursue love in a foreign country, only to discover her truest self in the journey.   Sabrina Wilson, Saby, is lighting up the Toronto arts community with her intimate peak into the life of a black female artist.  Her work is inspired and bold, yet infused with her gentle spirit.

Saby's premier solo exhibition, "Let Us Be", was scheduled for this month at The Freedom Factory. The  pandemic has caused the postponement, but we eagerly anticipate the day that we can curate and celebrate her talent and grace.  In the mean time, We invite you to get to know her as she shares her challenges and triumphs in her artistic journey in this weeks Interview.

You showed up in our gallery just a few years ago like a refreshing spring breeze, although I think it was freezing when we first met.  You've been making a name for yourself in the Toronto art gallery scene ever since.  You mentioned that it was this connection with the Toronto artists that inspired you to start painting.  Can you tell us in more detail about what you saw and felt that would cause you to pick up a brush and start creating?  

I have always been attracted to art. I remember in Middle School, I used to skip English class to go to Art class. I used to scribble but I was not good at it and my parents never pushed me in this direction, so at 13 years old I completely stopped until the summer 2016 in Toronto.

I was visiting an old friend, and I saw her painting at her place. It seemed so easy and relaxing. In France, art can be very traditional and conservative. They will not take you seriously if you haven’t been to school for art, and it is better to be a man pretending to be a painter.

Every year, I love to challenge myself and learn something new. My next challenge will be yoga (laugh). Painting attracted me but it also scared me at the same time. I started painting in July 2016, with a self-portrait and an African woman.

After three pieces, I thought that I was done with this challenge. Until I met with Moses, one of my three mentors.

Indeed, I had the opportunity to meet three artists from Toronto that I admire a lot and took as mentors: Moses, Ren Thomas, and Kofi. After meeting them, it was just impossible for me to stop. They motivated me, inspired me and pushed me to continue.

Your work shows a beautiful understanding of proportion, shading and mastering fine details necessary to capture the authenticity of your subjects and your message in your portraiture work.  Have you always drawn and painting was a new expression of your talents?  How did this evolve in such a short time?  

Honestly, I do not feel comfortable at all when drawing. From time to time I like to redo painting that I have done years ago. It helps me to actually see an improvement with my skills.

I can surely say that it evolved in a short amount of time. For example, “We Can Do It” is a piece that I recreated, and it is actually this piece that inspired me for my Solo Show “Let Us Be” that you are curating.

I did paint a lot in 2017, and I completely stopped in 2018. I lost my motivation; my inspiration and I had the wrong goals. I was focusing more on selling and pleasing a certain public than enjoying my artistic journey. It took me a year to set up my own goals, to practice and to get better at what I love.

Now that my mindset is different, I do not seek approval from a certain type of crowd, I paint exactly what I feel and love and the right audience finds me. Every day I fall in love this journey and learning.

Many movies and books are inspired by the romantic image of a young artist, overflowing with creative desires, leaving everything behind to fulfill a quest to escape to France.  The days would begin by filling the front basket of a bicycle with wine, a baguette and their paints and a rustic leather scroll containing brushes and paints.  Many artists dream of living this fantasy and riding that bicycle across cobblestone streets to paint poppies in the fields where Monet once sat or capturing the casual exchange of women on a bistro patio as Renoir might have so many years ago.  Yet you left France and came to Canada, where you started your painting.  Does your French background inspire your work here and how so?  Do you have romantic visions of returning to France to paint and will you take your Canadian influence with you?  

As I mentioned before, when I left almost 6 years ago, the artistic scene in France was very conservative. I know that being a Woman, who was also Black, with no experience from art school, my art would have not been possible in Paris or at least very difficult.

Here, in Toronto, everything seems achievable. If you have a passion and you want to turn it into a side or main business (step by step), it is doable. The entrepreneurship spirit is different. For example, what you call “motivated” in Canada, in France we call it “arrogant and opportunist”.

It is sad because there are a lot of great talented contemporary artists in France, inspired by Van Gogh, Matisse, Delaunay or Banksy. I would love to return to France and showcase my artwork, this is one of my personal projects, however I know that it will not be easy.

It seems that once you decided to create art that you went all in.  You show up for other artists; you network in spite of not being particularly extroverted; you promote your work and when you decided it was time to exhibit in a solo exhibition you asked for the help that you needed and got it.  You had a plan and executed it perfectly.  Can you share the process of what it means to you and how you accomplish these remarkable results? 

I am very shy; I would not be here without my friends, my mentors and my followers. The first time that I showcased my art was the day of my birthday, June 11 of 2017. One of my friends is a leader of Ô’Fem. It is a non lucrative association for francophone women in Toronto. She promotes small business own by women and organized cultural excursions in Toronto. She invited me to be part of one of her events. This is how I started officially my artistic journey.

It is amazing to see my growth, since then I have participated in a few shows in Toronto over the past years. I challenged myself to showcase in the US. I keep gaining confidence more and more; without comparing myself with other artists. I learned to connect with people and keep in touch with them. My followers motivate everyday, they encourage me to embrace my passion further.

I was reluctant to ask for help but some of them offered so I decided to involve my followers in this new adventure. I opened a GoFundMe and they helped me to reach my goal within a week. It is fantastic to have so many people supporting me and my dream. Having my own solo show will be a huge achievement for me.

Covid 19 hit just as you had booked your first solo show with us.  How did you and are you coping with the pause that this has created in your goals?  What advice can you offer to other creatives that may be facing the same feelings?

Well, as an introvert, Covid-19 did not change my routine, aside from getting art supplies obviously. This and being far from my family, are the hardest thing.

I kept creating, I connected even more with my friends and supportive followers. I love to see all my fellow artists being so creative and turning this situation into something so productive, doing virtual art shows, virtual classes, created together through Zoom or other platforms.

I do my best to not stress about things that I can not control in life, and I encourage creatives to do the same. I was quite frustrated with different posts and articles that I have read: “If you do not own your own business, or if you do not learn something new by the end of this quarantine… you are a loser”. I think this situation is scary and we react in different ways.

Reconnect with yourself, take time for you, your lover, your family, just relax, all of those little activities are perfectly fine. And if you do not feel like painting, drawing, singing, do not feel guilty of just taking care of yourself with a cup of tea or glass of wine with a book or Netflix.

Women are a predominant feature of your work.  They are depicted with so many qualities such as sexual, sensual, strong, colourful, serene, fun, flirty and so much more.  How important is it to you to tell a story of women in their full potential?   Does much of your work depict how you feel about yourself or is it womanhood as a whole to which you wish to speak?


Women are for sure my main subject. Women is the theme of my Solo Show. I want to represent us with our differences. I take my inspiration from women around me, but also from myself. Maybe because I am a Gemini, I have different personalities, I promise I am not crazy (joke). I recognized myself in each painting, the strong one, the mysterious one, the flirty one… I think that we cannot fit in one box, and we shouldn’t have to.

I remember one of my first paintings “Curls and Curves”, people found it beautiful but some women couldn’t identify themselves in it. When I asked why, some answers upset me. In response to the comments that I get, I painted “Volupté” and “Pineapple”. My message was that “you can actually be curvy AND sexy, classy, confident and have a seductive attitude”.

Some women could not relate to “Curls and Curve” because she represents a fit woman, and women we do not come in one shade, one size, one hairstyle. I regret that my painting shamed women, they felt self-conscious in a negative way. I want my art to do the opposite. I find it funny now because my friends don’t hesitate to send me pictures to paint them and they feel so proud and confident. I love that!

You mentioned that you are surrounded by strong women?  Can you share a little bit about how those women you and how it has affected your creativity?  

I will try to keep it short (laugh). Pineapple and Curls and Curves are two friends of mine. Two different profiles but two very strong personalities. They both have this entrepreneurship spirit. They are the type of person that you can call when you need serious support and ideas for a business (the juridical part, financial, creative, innovative) they have all the answers.

The piece “Haiti Cheri” is inspired by a photograph taken of two friends of mine. The lady in the picture is the most genuine person that I know, she will cheer you up without any expectations at all. Haiti is also an Island with a very rich and important History. It was very important to me to make a Tribute.

It is not only the physical part that attracted me, is also the personality. I painted a portrait of an old friend. It is not an easy thing to leave what you know to move to another county. This woman left her friends and family to live in the US, and start all over again in Canada. Despite the negative feedback that she heard, the years of a long process with the immigration, she fought and stayed strong. Today she works and she lives her passion of being a professional dancer.

I have other paintings of bossy and independent women that I have not been posting. One in particular, she is so devoted to doing everything that pleases her without restriction. She works hard for what she has, she can seem arrogant (see, French influence) from outside but she owns everything that she has. She plays hard and she works even harder.

And also, you, it is fantastic to own your own Yoga and Art Gallery in Toronto. You are giving us, artists, a space where we feel valued and appreciated. This is the type of strong, independent, smart, supportive women that I am talking about and that inspired me every day.

I tried to keep it short but I have so many more Muses.

How do you stay creative?  How important is it for you to inspire young women to stay creative in their own way?

I am also a French teacher in Middle School. I've seen some young ladies who love to scribble and they are very talented at their own age. I always encourage them to pursue and go bigger. Use bigger support (scrapbook, canvas). I even bought a few for some of them.

Go bigger, I feel you can get more creative and have more freedom when your support is bigger. You are getting confident. Trying different materials, mixing the media. Innovate, experiment and create.

For myself, I educated myself and found new sources of inspiration. In February, when we used to be free, I travelled in Mexico and learned more about Frida Kahlo.

In Toronto, I quite often visit AGO and the MOCCA. Every December, when I visit France for Christmas, I always stop at Le Louvre and my favorite one: The Museum of Orsay.

I also try my best to support artists by attending most of their art shows. I paint according to my feelings, my mood and the more I paint, the more I stay creative. I will start a painting and work on different projects at the same time (except when I do commission).

There is a beautiful connection to African heritage in many of your pieces.  Is it important for you to connect to that through your work?  Can you share with us how it affects you while you are creating or just in elevating you towards your dreams and goals?

My mother is from Reunion Island and my father is from Togo. This may be why I have an obsession for palm trees (laugh). Jokes aside, I find it very interesting to incorporate my roots in my paintings. The colors that I use, the subjects that I paint, the shapes that I represent. My first landscape was an African Lake that I idealize.

I also painted two African Masks that used to terrorize me while I was young. I did not understand the richness behind it. I just had some female figures to reappropriate those Masks. I called them Anlo-Ewe, tribute for a large community of this name in Togo and Benin. The vibrant colors that I used are a huge part of my heritage.

It is also important for me to paint women to whom I can relate. In one of my last trips to Paris, I realized that in Canada Black women we have the freedom to express our roots thanks to our hair, freely, which is not really the case. Things are starting to change but there is still a long way.

For example, my “Honeycomb” collection represents different women with various hairstyles (headwrap that my father brought me from Lomé, Togo). I have heard some stories from back home. Here, it is more open. We are not judged for going to work or out for a drink while wearing a headwrap, an afro, or simply box braids. Through my “Honeycomb” piece, I wanted to showcase the fun, modern and fashionable aspect of something cultural.

You have an upcoming Solo Exhibition with The Freedom Factory.  What inspired your theme of Let Us Be?  What can our readers look forward to seeing?  

This idea came from Women’s Day when I was excited to showcase the “We Can Do It” piece. I wrote a quote that together we are stronger. And I wanted to go deeper, further. We are literally living in a men’s society. This show “Let Us Be” is the result of my entire artwork journey since I started painting.

I want to paint different icons like Frida and probably a self-portrait of the “Saby” that I became in 2020. I had a long journey since I arrived in Canada, heartbreaks, I lost friends and family, struggled and stressed finding work as a teacher. Since 2014, when I arrived, I became stronger and audacious. I encourage everyone to follow their dream, it takes time but it is worth it.

I was in a toxic relationship when I started to paint and it painting gave me my freedom. I found out that I am way stronger than I thought I was. Art has been healing and liberating for me. This collection “Let Us Be” is the realization of all of my experiences, people that I have met and bond a friendship with, it is the proof of my improvement as an artist (technical skill) and as a person.

What is the greatest gift that you feel you have received from expressing yourself through art?  

Honestly, every day is a gift. Every day I have people reaching out just to encourage me and compliment my art. I love when artists get inspired by my perseverance and decide to create again (drawing, singing, writing, photos). I am dedicated to what I do (teaching and painting) and I love to share with others.

I love when customers contact me for commissions and ask me to add my touch in their project. It is extremely tricky in art to find your own style as an artist, and when your audience recognizes your style it is a very pleasant feeling.

Unfortunately due to Covid 19 we have closed down our Dovercourt gallery location ... but we are so excited to curate and host Saby's solo exhibition in a new location when things are back to normal!

Please show Saby some love and support by following her at @saby974 and as always, purchase your art locally. 


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