For New York–based artist Chellis Baird, a blank canvas is an invitation to defy constraints. Through her sculptural paintings—woven structures created with fabric that’s painted, dyed and twisted into what she calls “dimensional brushstrokes”—Baird moves her work beyond the boundaries of the canvas, creating a sense of movement and possibility.
Baird’s love of textiles began early. A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina—linked to the textile boom in the 19th century—she remembers playing on the grounds of the fabric mills and learning to sew from a local seamstress. That passion led Baird to the Rhode Island School of Design to study textiles. “The beauty of the program is that you’re exposed to many end-uses—interiors, fashion, industrial and fine art,” she says. “And I loved that it was very much about the tactility of creating with your hands.”
After years working in high-end fashion, which gave her an up-close look at some of the world’s finest textile manufacturing mills, Baird transitioned to making art full-time six years ago and continues today in her Long Island City, Queens studio. Her process begins with crafting her own canvas. “Early on, I began to reexamine the ingredients of a painting,” she says. “Instead of buying a canvas that was already woven, I asked, ‘Why not make my own?’”
But first, Baird, whose work is represented by Monica King Projects, plays with color: mixing, experimenting and refining. She blends dry pigment with beeswax and then dyes the fabrics, each chosen for its unique properties. “Silk gives me this gorgeous light, airy, ethereal quality, where a heavier silk crepe gives me something deep and saturated.” Cotton, another preferred medium, drapes in ways reminiscent of the carved limestone or marble “fabric” on ancient Greek statues. The wax enables the fabric to hold its shape as Baird molds, twists and ties it.
The movement inherent in Baird’s work is influenced too by her ballet practice, which has spanned nearly her whole life. “The habit of moving and navigating space through choreography makes me more grounded,” she says, “and I’m able to apply those forms to my work.” Dance helps her create compositional shapes and informs the theatrics of her pieces as well.
Ultimately, Baird aims to remind the viewer of our shared humanity. “We live in such an all-encompassing era with this web of technology to the extreme,” she says. “In my work, you can see evidence of the human hand and spirit. It’s important to me to maintain that connection.”