Open Air: A Conversation with Badass “Arts Strategist” Chelle Barbour

I was blessed to experience the art of Chelle Barbour twice this week. The first was Tuesday, April 13th with curator Dexter Wimberly. The second was Thursday, April 15th during ArtBreak with the Levine Center of the Arts. Their theme is “Female Empowerment.” And boy, did I feel empowered after attending both of these events. Ms. Barbour’s work is currently being featured at the Harvey B. Gantt Center’s exhibition, “Vision & Spirit: African American Art | Works From The Bank Of America Collection.

Full disclosure, Chelle Barbour is a dear friend of mine. We met at a Western Arts Alliance conference and were both scholarship winners. When I tell you how I was schooled about this woman this week, I am not lying. Kudos to Dexter Wimberly for asking great questions. We learned how Chelle was introduced to art by way of her milliner mother. No wonder Chelle has great taste in hats! Yes, she was wearing one when I met her. As her mother would make and design hats, Chelle was her model. It brought back memories of how I used to like helping my mother with her work. My mother was a teacher and I would love to help her set up her classroom at the beginning of the year and tear it down at the end.

Chelle shared how her mother showed her how to draw seascapes. I learned that she had two passions: art and theater. She even wanted to become a stand-up comedian!!! Her mother basically let her know that she should not pursue being an artist as mothers tend to do. But we find out that it wasn’t until Chelle had her own “me too” moment during a film audition that led her to walk away from acting. Also really interesting since April is Sexual Assault Awareness (and Prevention) Month (SAAM). She said she heard her mother’s voice, “All you have is your integrity. Don’t lose it to anyone.”

Chelle felt she could call herself a real bonafide artist when she sold her first piece. Mr. Wimberly stated that it seemed like Chelle had been an artist much longer than that which Ms. Barbour confirmed. We understood how mothers’ and fathers’ “well meaning discouragement” isn’t necessarily what’s best for us. Chelle agreed and revealed that it wasn’t until her mother passed that she felt free to pursue being an artist.

It’s funny, my mother was the same way as I desired to go to a school like FAME. That didn’t happen. But it wasn’t until I was on a cruise with my parents as a young adult and won a talent contest singing the Pointer Sisters, I’m So Excited that my mother was like, “Maybe this is what you should do.” I can relate to the “well meaning discouragements” all too well.

It seems that Chelle Barbour has done it all: graphic design, script writing, public speaking, curating, photography, painting, collage, filmmaking, and digital video. This is not an exhaustive list. But she’s also smart as a whip. This is not even touching her business savvy. One thing’s for certain, this woman is a story teller and will tell the story by any means necessary.

A recurring theme of Ms. Barbour’s work is regeneration and renewal. This is symbolized by reptiles and butterflies. There is also the signature styling of the eyes in her pieces. Black women’s empowerment is the dominant overarching theme of her work. I think the Gantt Center says it best ,

Chelle Barbour uses her considerable talent to give voice to radicalized Black women.

A rare Black female surrealist, Barbour offers a unique perspective into this corner of the art world.

The venerable queen herself, Ms. Angela Bassett, loved Barbour’s art so much that she curated a show just for her!

In Chelle’s artist statement on her website, she states that she works through the lens of Afro-Futurism and Surrealism. This is evidenced in each one of her collages.

After yet another week of Black Lives Not seeming to matter much (#GeorgeFloyd, #DaunteWright, #CaronNazario), it’s nice to know that I am not invisible by looking at myself through Chelle Barbour’s satisfyingly creative artistic lens.

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