Chellis Baird found a kindred spirit in the great iconoclastic sculptor Louise Nevelson.
by Chellis Baird | March 9, 2020
Louise Nevelson’s monumental perseverance as an artist has created an empowering foundation for future female artists to flourish. I have always been inspired by Nevelson’s strength and incredible relationship with monochromatic materials. After being selected for a solo exhibition at Saint Peter’s Church, home of Nevelson’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd, I quickly wanted to know more about her and the Chapel. I found Laurie Wilson’s biography: Louise Nevelson to be fascinating, as well as a book on Saint Peter’s Church: Religion and Art in the Heart of Modern Manhattan.
The Chapel was created by Nevelson in 1977, and is a sacred space of harmony much like an artists’ studio. While I created the work in my Long Island City studio, I reflected on several qualities shared with Nevelson: monochrome, material transformations, light & shadow, New York City, dance, rebirth, and fashion. This process of studying, creating, and reflecting led me to title the exhibition Meditative Motions.
Included in the exhibition are “Caress, Collide, Crescendo, Cambre, Chasse, Connect, Cloud and Coupe,” a series of eight white-on-white monochromatic works that pay respect to Nevelson’s use of white in the Chapel. The works explore how contrasting gestures intertwine or dissolve within themselves or together to offered moments of tethered relationship. I contemplated the nine sculptural works for the Chapel and learned Nevelson created each one independently to stand on their own while also working together as a sculptural environment. In creating this series I strived to bring some of the Chapel’s reflective nature into the public space by displaying the eight works above the stairs.
Another work I presented in a monochromatic palette titled Impression weaves both wood and fabric into a sculptural painting. The wood elements extend outside the rectangular canvas to use every element of a painting as a brushstroke. I embrace my use of textiles, which has previously been perceived as a feminine material. Nevelson was known for transforming found wood through her work. It has been speculated that she felt the need to use a more masculine material like wood to stand amongst her male peers. It is because of artist’s like her that we may create freely without gender associations today.
Nevelson is known as the architect of shadow and takes light which is fleeting and gives it solid substance through her sculptural work. I love to create highly textured work in order to use shadows are their own color. In the sculpture, Quake I emphasize two contrasting themes of texture: the organic and the geometric. I aimed push the boundaries of these themes by creating a free standing sculptural that incorporates both. I was thrilled to reveal another layer of shadow and light through the negative space formed inside the textures.
Nevelson created her reflections of New York City by appropriating fragments and motifs from the real world she collected. Also working in New York City, I collect my inspiration from the vast, colorful landscape which is the city of New York. I see New York like a quilt or puzzle stitched and pressed together through time. One of the first mixed media works I made was at the Art Students League in Deborah Winiarski’s class titled Quilt. Nevelson also studied at the Art Students League in the 1930s and experimented with found objects and puzzle like sculptures.
I am also inspired by a life-long love of dancing. The work titled Extend celebrates the moments that dancers suspend their bodies and spirits in space. Nevelson was an active modern dancer and 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 been dancing since I was five and still frequently take ballet classes. I feel the act of moving through discipline frees my mind to explore new paths in my art practice. During the reception of Meditative Motions dancers filled the room wearing costumes I painted. Partnering with Saint Peter’s choreographer Roberto Lara to create an interactive dance with the artwork on display.
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 found freedom in creating my own visual language through sculpture. Sometimes I think the root like textures are reminiscent of handwriting or braille scribed through gesture.
The Nevelson dresser was formed when she decided that being different meant looking different. 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 adding the final line.
CHELLIS BAIRD blurs the intersection of painting, sculpture and textiles. Baird explores the elements of painting by reconstructing handwoven canvases from a unique perspective. She received her BFA in textiles from Rhode Island School of Design and studied studio art at the Art Students League in New York City. Born in Spartanburg, SC, Baird now lives and works in New York City.