Art in motion

People The Arts

October 31, 2022

Charlotte artist Barbara Ellis finds her creative sweet spot with abstract art.

by Sharon Smith

It’s easy to imagine Barbara Ellis adding to one of her large-scale abstract paintings with big gestures and movement. Her works have sweeping strokes and wide swaths of color that demonstrate the artist’s motion — stretching, bending, reaching and actively engaging with the canvas in her creative process.

That, Ellis says, is why abstract art-making is her creative sweet spot. She considers it her job to turn randomness into some semblance of order and balance. A collection of her works, Mutable Spirit: Respecting the Flow, will be on exhibit through November at the Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Gallery inside the Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) Center, a collective art space that opened in uptown last year.

Her piece entitled “Lavender Dance” captures the spontaneity and emotion that defines Ellis’ approach to abstract expressionism. “I begin with music, typically jazz, that supports my mood and the idea I want to download,” Ellis says. She often loosens up by marking the canvas with a drawing tool, allowing random marks to find a space. Then she adds paint using active body gestures. “I repeat this process layer by layer (sometimes incorporating collage) until a pleasing composition emerges. I then fine tune until my spirit says to stop,” Ellis says. 

Ellis has the self-assurance of a seasoned artist, with a clear method for embracing her artistic freedom and expression. Her CV includes previous exhibits at Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art and GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art in Greensboro. She was also named to ArtPop Street Gallery’s class of 2016. 

It’s a second career for Ellis, who retired to Charlotte after finishing a corporate career in her hometown of New York City. “Straddling corporate and art-making didn’t work for me. The job and the three-hour NYC commute consumed most of my energy,” Ellis says. Soon after settling in the Queen City, Ellis started connecting with the local arts community and eventually acquired studio space. She says it was an easy decision to pursue a creative career.

The foundation was always there. Born in Harlem, she came of age during the 1950s and ‘60s in a family where a love of the arts, especially jazz, was fed and flourished. Even in her corporate life, Ellis dabbled in art and continued to take classes intermittently. 

It wasn’t until 2017, when Ellis attended an abstract art exhibit at Mint Museum Uptown that she had a life-changing a-ha moment about the direction her art would take. “I was already making abstract paintings, but those beautiful abstract works painted by women blew my mind,” she says. “I just knew that abstract action (gestural) painting was my opportunity to transform repressed energy into form.” Soon after, Ellis participated in an art residency that focused on action painting. She’s never looked back. 

Ellis says her best work comes out of an emotional response to an idea — “spiritual, socio-political, ancestral … whatever shows up.” The source could be a photo, experience or a memory. Each piece is so individual to her, she cannot name a favorite — nor does she have any preconceived expectation about what the viewer may take from it.  SP

Mutable Spirit: Respecting the Flow opens at Nine Eighteen Nine Studio Gallery at 700 N. Tryon St. on Nov. 5 with an opening reception from 6-9 p.m. It runs through Nov. 26. For more information visit

Featured photograph Divisive Season courtesy Barbara Ellis

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