Whitehot Magazine

Interview: Jenna Ferrey and Chellis Baird

Installation image. Courtesy of artist.

Chellis Baird: Meditative Motions

Galleries at Saint Peter's Church

November 21, 2019 - February 27, 2020 

By WM, November 2019

Chellis Baird’s enigmatic artworks straddle the boundaries of painting and sculpture. She weaves fabric on canvases and wooden angles she builds into her frames creating works that play with line, structure, movement and shadow. In Saint Peter’s Church, Baird has created a full wall of white on white works that pay homage to Louise Nevelson’s work.  These impressive works are stacked two pieces high on a large high wall that leads to down a staircase to the lower “Living Room Gallery.” In the lower level Baird has hung a wider variety of her works in a linear fashion. Looking at these smaller scale pieces gives the viewer a broader sense of Baird’s practice and each is an impressive piece in its own right. The tighter hang and the larger quantity of work in the Living Room Gallery contribute to the social energetic atmosphere of this space. In the upper gallery the works have more space to breathe creating a tranquil, meditative effect. Baird’s exhibition and the contemporary art program at Saint Peter’s Church are well worth the visit and provides some respite in the busy neighborhood of midtown Manhattan. 

Below is an interview between Jenna Ferrey and Chellis Baird.

DUET. Courtesy of artist.

Jenna Ferrey: Saint Peter’s Church with the Louise Nevelson Chapel seems to me to be a perfect location to show your work. Can you comment on the relationship between your works, which “blend the intersection of painting, sculpture, and textiles,” and Nevelson’s monochromatic sculptures, which also hang on the wall? 

Chellis Baird: The Nevelson Chapel is a sacred space of harmony much like an artists’ studio. While I created the work for this exhibition in my sacred studio space, I reflected on several qualities Nevelson and I share: material transformations, light & shadow, New York City, dance, rebirth, and fashion.

Nevelson was known for transforming found wood through her work which led to many works in various series. I also transform my chosen medium of fabric through weaving. My accumulation of materials much like Nevelson, creates emotive forms through repetition. There is a certain comfort in seeing repetitive patterns that helps the viewer digest the process and propel further into the depths of the work.  

The Architect of Shadow, Nevelson, takes light which is fleeting and gives it solid substance for the viewer to embrace. Much like Nevelson, I use shadows as color within the work. I often build the understructure of the canvas to use the shadow as way of making a color more saturated. For example, in Echo and Split, the stretcher bars are used as a way to harness the woven brushstrokes creating a subtle shadow that makes the black appear more black. 

Nevelson created her real reflections of the city of New York by appropriating fragments and motifs from the real world she collected. I appropriate my reflections of the city by collecting inspiration from the vast, colorful landscape which is the city of New York. I believe New York is like a quilt stitched together through time. 

An active modern dancer, Nevelson believed the act of dancing was imperative to her practice as a sculptor. She studied with Martha Graham who said “The dancer’s goal is freedom through discipline.” I have danced since I was five years old. I frequently take ballet classes and believe the act of moving through discipline frees my mind to explore new paths in my art practice.  

I am reminded of a quote by Nevelson, “I have made my world and it is a much better world than I ever saw outside.” 

She created her own environments amongst a personally imperfect world. Her personal disappointments with the external world provided a rebirth of self through her creation. This is something we can all relate to, desire, and dream. I believe the act of creation is at times a cathartic process. Often frustrated with my dyslexia I have created my own visual language through sculpture. One could argue that the root like textures are like hand writing or braille scribed through gesture.

Nevelson was what she called an “atmospheric dresser.” There was a real art in her way of presentation and being glamorous. I previously worked as fashion designer in New York sculpting the human body in fabric. The art of dressing has always been a part of my process and practice in artful conversation. I know when a piece is finished much like an outfit feels complete. “Sometimes you have to take one thing off before finishing a look or add the final line.” 

Installation image. Courtesy of artist.

JF: Can you speak a bit about the role of color in your work, and specifically the role of light and shadow?

CB: Color is a uniquely human trait that often conjures varying emotions. I use color as a catalyst to begin each piece. By mixing paints, dyes, and varying materials to then decide the clearest way to express my statement. I am a fan of natural light and my studio faces South reflecting a pool of light perfect around 3:00pm. This is my favorite moment of the day when I can feel the work come to life through this dramatic shadow. I prefer to work during the daylight to take these shadows into effect while developing the piece. Our lives are multi-dimensional and we live on a moving sphere, therefore I believe the best way for me to capture my statement is through texture and shadow. 

JF: The title of this show is Meditative Motions, can you explain this title? 

CB: I was deeply inspired by the sacred space Louise Nevelson created for the Chapel at Saint Peter’s Church. The sculptural environment encourages meditation and reflection through a white monochromatic palate; welcoming the viewer to imaginatively paint their own colors.   

In the context of this exhibition, I transform materials to celebrate the transition from the mundane to the sacred, using shadow and light to sculpt a visual language. I want the repetitive patterns in my work to ground and invite the viewer into physical spaces, asking them to uncover their eyes, bodies, and souls by honoring the sacred spaces around us. 

In the digital age we are so addicted to slick screens and I desire to engage the viewer in dramatically contrasting texture and the evidence of human hand. 

JF: Your work Echo has two intersecting lines, that for me are evocative of the cross. Was that something when you were making the work, or when you decided to included it in this show?

CB: Echo was inspired by a sound that was echoed to me through several plains. It caused this dramatic dizzying and spiraling effect like a ghost with a piercing undertone. I wanted to convey this vortex like gesture through bias cut, diagonal stretch bars that layered around in a circular form. It took me several weeks to construct the frame and many trips to lumber yard to figure out the best angles to cut. This piece is part of a 4 part series and it took me 5 months to create. 

It just so happens that at times crosses form, but it was not my intention to formulate a cross. Arguably every painting on a canvas is a series of mini crosses. The structure of the woven fabric is a pain weave of equal vertical and horizontal lines forming intersection of crosses.  

JF: Your work Split reminded me of a Barnett Newman zip, can you speak to some of your artists influences, or what inspires you to make this work?

CB: I absolutely love Barnett Newman and am so glad you made this connection. One of my favorite works by him is Vir Heroicus Sublimis at MOMA . He intended for the viewer to stand very close to this work and he related the viewer to meeting the painting almost as an equal encounter. I have not yet seen the new MoMA so I hope it is still there and that they have hung it in a hall forcing people to experience it up close and not just across the gallery.  

The first time I discovered Newman was for a project while working as a Fashion Designer. I was asked to go see his work and was drawn to Onement I. It hit me like lighting and made me rethink everything I was creating at the time.

I also love seeing Newman’s work with Judd because they both extend past the typical depth of a painting. Judd’s Soho studio was previously a textile factory and often see loom and thread like shadows in his stacks. It makes me wonder if the shadows of his studio submerged within the shadows of his work. I think of shadows sometimes as a reference of the past or underneath peeking of what may be behind. 

The metal cross on the front of Saint Peter’s was a donated gift in honor of some of the congregation from Newman’s wife.  

JF: You mentioned that you had several members of the public approach you when you were hanging the wall labels for the work, and the program at Saint Peter’s works to bring contemporary artists into regular conversation with the general public. What has that meant to you? 

CB: I have been thrilled to hear the work is captivating such a range of ages within the community. The seniors have events their Monday-Friday and many have asked me about my process and shared their favorites. Pink Twist, Illuminate, and Pulse are popular in the downstairs gallery. There is also a strong outreach for the homeless who may not have the opportunity to visit museums and in a way, they get to live with the work for a period of time. I have also been asked if I was really the artist because I appear too petite to make such large work. This made laugh because I think the work is small. The opportunity to have a running dialogue with so many people inspires new work.  

RECLAIM. Courtesy of artist.

JF Your work is hanging in two spaces at Saint Peter’s, the Narthex Gallery, and the Living Room Gallery this has allowed you to play with Scale in an interesting way. Your larger works are in the upstairs Narthex Gallery and smaller works in the downstairs Living Room Gallery. Can you speak a bit about scale in your work?  

CB: I love working large, similar to Newman’s connection to encountering the work almost like a human. I find the vertical relationship that can wrap around your peripheral vision as well as head on is more arresting. I want to invite the eye to follow and meander through the details of the work much like a conversation. The small works I love experimenting with color or material between larger pieces. Sometimes during a larger work a discovery happens and I will make a small piece as a reminder for a future work. 

JF: Your white on white works pay tribute to Nevelson’s use of white in the Nevelson chapel. Like Nevelson’s work, yours is not rooted in iconographic literalness or representation. The titles of your work, however, are evocative of a concept or feeling. Do you know what your works are going to evoke as you set out to make them, or do the works reveal themselves during your process?

CB: I set out to convey a feeling, gesture, or mood and experiment with materials and titles throughout the process. This series started out with Collide which led me to make Crescendo and then Caress. The C words were working and with it being a series I thought it would help complete the presentation with C’s. C is also in the word curve which I feel best describes these gestures which some are directly related to dance steps: Chasse Cambre and Coupe. Nevelson made more angular works and was an active modern dancer. I think of ballet as being more circular and modern dance sharp. Perhaps there is some underlining connection there. 

JF: You note that you feel the physicality of your work seeks to disconnect the viewer from digital space and bring them in into the physical world. Why is this important to you? Is art uniquely useful for fostering this digital disconnection?

Digital tools are powerful and I believe it is important to remember that they are only tools. Similar to keys or pencils we need to put them away. Like anything else in life, it is always about maintaining balance. I feel the digital tools have a way of creating imbalance when misused but also goes deeper in that we are always wearing this new digital lens. Human connection and relationship is still best served in real time. We all seek community and especially within the context of the Church I wanted to celebrate this real-time physicality. 

JF: What is next for you?

CB: I am partnering with a choreographer this March for a big presentation at Baruch College while also presenting a selection of work by a curator for the Spring Break Art fair. I have two solos shows for 2020 one in the UES this April and another in MO this June. I am also speaking with a Museum in SC about a potential exhibit for September 2020. 

Meditative Motions by Chellis Baird is on view through February 27, 2020. Galleries at Saint Peter’s Church is open to the public and located at 619 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 10002. WM



Whitehot writes about the best art in the world - founded by artist Noah Becker in 2005. 


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