BY LIZA STROUT - Barbara Elliott has two hometowns, Boca Grande and Burnsville, N.C. though she was born in Chicago. The artist, who came to Englewood with her family when she was 16, had attended 14 different schools by the time she graduated.
“We moved around a lot when I was growing up,” she said, but her parents and all of her four sisters have settled in the area at least part time. Barbara married, and her nomadic lifestyle continued, this time with her husband’s career. They eventually settled in Atlanta, where she had her only child, a daughter named Stacy. She and her husband came to visit a friend who lived on the island, and noticed that the bakery building on Fourth St. was for sale.
“We bought it and started renovating it from our home in Atlanta. We kept having problems with the renovation, and realized that we needed to be there to oversee the process,” she laughed.
So the small family packed up and moved back to Florida. Stacy is still on the island.
“This is her home, where she grew up. She loves it here,” Barbara explained.
Barbara’s mother, a homemaker, started teaching her how to draw when she was five years old.
“She loved to draw glamorous women, and I asked her to show me how to draw them, especially the profile.”
Her urge to draw soon got her into trouble, though.
“We had just gotten a new porch built on to the house where we were living. There was this huge wall, freshly painted. I went and got my box of crayons and started drawing. When my parents found my work, I didn’t understand why they were mad.”
She continued, “They explained that I had to draw on paper, not the walls. Well, we had just gotten a new set of encyclopedias, and the front few pages of each one were blank. After I drew in them, my mom decided to get me my own pad of paper.”
Barbara realized that she was going to be an artist when she was in fourth grade. Her teacher took the class outside to draw the trees that were changing color in the Wisconsin fall.
“All I saw was color, so that’s what I drew. I may have used every one of the 64 crayons in that box,” Barbara said. “My teacher put my picture on the bulletin board in front of the class. That was when I realized that I had the ability to do something really special. It was all thanks to Mrs. Donner.”
Barbara’s travels didn’t end when she was an adult. If anything, the scope of her explorations expanded.
“I’ve been to Turkey, Thailand, England, Spain, Portugal, Brazil. I’ve travelled all over. While it hasn’t directly affected my art, as far as technique, it opened my mind and heart to get out of the box. It has helped me to explore my art and be more adventurous in spirit.”
Barbara studied yoga, and as an extension of that, she took classes on massage.
“I wanted to learn what the body was doing when people were in the postures of yoga. I ended up with a massage therapist’s license,” she said.
It was a time of change in her life, and that change extended to her artwork.
“My work took on a more spiritual aspect. I went from painting whimsical beach scenes to more insightful meditative pieces. My medium didn’t change then, but the subject matter did,” Barbara explained.
Her medium did not shift to fabric arts until three years ago.
“I’ve always been a painter at heart. Before I worked in acrylics and oil pastels. I decided that I needed to change how I expressed that part of myself. Fortunately, around that time I got a catalogue from the John Campbell Folk Art School in Iowa.”
It was there that she took her first courses in silk painting. She was attracted to the ancient Japanese art of shibori, where fabric is twisted, clamped, tied, wrapped and sewed, sometimes all at once, to create patterns with dye. Tie-dye, popular in the West, is one type of shibori technique. She also took classes in the chemistry of dyes at the Penland School of Crafts.
“Knowing the chemistry of dyes is important. Red dye molecules are small, yellow are medium, and blue dye molecules are large. You have to know that blue dye doesn’t grab the fabric as readily as red dye, so you have to leave the cloth in the vat longer for blue dyes. Even knowing the science, you can never be sure what you are going to pull out of a vat. It is a huge lesson in just letting go,” she said.
“I did two tunics this last year, one silk, one cotton. I used the same dye on both, and got entirely different results. The dye was gray. The silk tunic came out gray with areas of an almost rust shade,” she explained.
“The cotton came out green. It all depends on which pigments in the dye stick to the fabric, the temperature, how long you let it sit, and what fabric you are working with.”
Barbara’s studio is in North Carolina. She ended up in the state after she and a sister bought property to visit when Florida got too hot in the summer.
“We moved to a place called Little Switzerland. It’s a little town up in the Blue Ridge MountainsWe bought a few acres of land that had three cabins, one for her, one for me, and one for anyone who came to visit,” she said. “A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to be there year round, so I bought a real house with Bob Stafford, my partner. It is six acres of Paradise, with vegetable and flower gardens. My studio is in a building there that isn’t winter-worthy, so I can only use it about eight months out of the year.”
The rest of the time, she travels. One stop she has made every year is the Boca Grande Art Alliance’s Five Woman Art show. She joined the annual show six years ago, when she became the third woman.
“Cecilia Jonsson-Bisset and Ester Jensen asked me to be part of the show. This was when I was still doing paintings. I was honored to join them,” she said. “Then I took a year off to explore my new medium. I was so grateful that they were willing to hold my spot for me while I studied fabric dying. Every year, I bring everything I have made to this show. The people of the island have supported my art for years, I think it’s only fair that they should have the first opportunity to see my work,” she explained. “The last two years, I’ve sold everything that I’ve brought to the island, so it has been my only show.”
Talking about the women that make up the Five Woman Art show and the women of the island in general, Barbara said, “It is pretty awesome to work with so many women who know what they want. Not only do they know what they want, they know what they need, and they have the experience to go out and find whatever that is.”
It is only logical that Barbara makes Boca Grande a priority in her artistic life. Not only is she a founder of the Boca Grande Art Alliance, it actually took form in her living room.
“We organized the first show, and we were stunned by the response,” she said. “After that first show, we got together and we talked about what we all wanted. There was no ego, we just all supported each other,” she said. “We wanted a building, a place that was ours. A place to teach and share what we did. A gallery to show our work. Now, the Art Alliance has all of that. To see our vision so well supported and shared twenty-five years later is a dream come true,” she exclaimed. “Art is important and should be supported. It should be nurtured into existence.”
She will be showing in the 25th anniversary show March 16, 17, and 18. In fact, art from all 14 of the founding members will be shown. “We had to raid a few houses here on the island in order to make sure all of us were represented,” Barbara laughed.
Shibori is an ancient art, but Barbara has kept up with technology.
“Galleries don’t want you to bring your work in any more. They want a website, somewhere they can see high quality pictures. And of course, if you want to get word out about a show, you have to have email,” she said.
Barbara’s website is http://www.barbaraelliott-art.com. You can see examples of her work, learn a little about her philosophy and of course, contact her.
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