Sibilla Dengs ’98 has found her niche in Williamsburg. Customers have responded well to her blend of the culinary and visual arts at ArtCafé 26, located in Newtown, which is part art gallery and part European cafe.
“One Saturday I had so many people walking around looking at the artwork that I had to call them back to say we served them their food,” Dengs said.
Dengs, originally from Aachen, Germany, earned a B.A. in Art History from the College of William and Mary. During that time, she found her passion in “Art of India,” a class taught by Professor Joseph Dye ’67.
The following year she headed to the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and earned her Masters degree in Eastern Asian Art.
After earning her degree, she worked with art galleries throughout Germany in Essen, Dusseldorf and Cologne. Her connection to the College drew her back to the United States.
“The College is very important to me,” she said. “We all have the tendency to realize how much we take with us, but only once we leave. What I missed most here was being able to create something for myself.”
Dengs orginially thought to open an art gallery in Williamsburg, but was hindered by a lack of local connections. However, her idea grew with help from friends and colleagues.
Despite these setbacks, the ArtCafe finally opened in 2006.
“I really want this place to be an escape, a place that’s different from chain restaurants,” Dengs said. “I bring over a different chef every year, it helps to vary the cuisine.”
While customers love the cuisine and warm atmosphere, often the first draw to the cafe is the artwork. Chad Hummel ’09, a resident of Newtown last year, originally wandered in curious about the name of the restaurant.
“Both my roommate and I painted and do 2-D media,” Hummel said. However, he soon became a regular customer.
“Sabilla is awesome. She knew us by name and showed us love every time we came in,” Hummel said. “They have exquisite coffee, it was by far my favorite breakfast place.”
The cafe presents five exhibits per year, one artist from the United States and four international artists. The current exhibit, which can be seen till April 14, is called “Pastoral Life.” It is a series of paintings by Susan Brabeau. Five paintings from the show have already been sold.
When choosing the artists to feature at the cafe, Dengs said she considers the current mood.
“You have an inert feeling about what people want to see,” she said. “People need to buy what speaks to them.”
One of her most successful shows, “Egg-o-centric,” featured a series of photographs by French artist Christolph Avril, who combined images of traditional French breakfasts with scenes from Parisian street life.
The paintings of German artist Franz Lauter were also popular with incoming customers and art collectors.
“His paintings predominantly create a very happy summer feeling, traditional but abstract at the same time,” Dengs said.
Dengs said she is keen to see more arts in the community, specifically the arts district proposed by the Williamsburg City Council.
“Here, we do not have an arts community, but we do have a lot of collectors,” Dengs said. “It’s important to have access to discover the arts. We need to move forward to the 21st century.”
Dengs herself plans to keep moving forward, particularly in the area of community service. She will hold a fundraiser on April 15 in order to help Beyond Boobs, a breast cancer awareness organization.
“I’m a great believer in helping where you live,” Dengs said. “I would love to see students come.”
She is also planning on hosting a black tie event in April as homage to the composer Frédéric Chopin to celebrate his 200th birthday.
“We’ll have live music and it’ll be a cultural expression of music and art,” Dengs said.
“One dream is to have a French breakfast pajama party maybe from 7 to 11 p.m. at night, just for [William and Mary] students,” she said. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Dengs’ said her goal is to expose the local community to artwork and the art community at large — not necessarily to make money off of the art.
“You don’t need to buy art, you just need to experience it,” she said. “Everyone can learn to read a paining. That is what makes any place successful, if it makes you comfortable.”