By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Seattle has always produced hidden gems and Barbara Earl Thomas is one of them. A native of Seattle, Thomas is an artist extraordinaire.
Now that businesses have been given the green light to open their doors, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) is showcasing the work of Thomas and if I had to conjure up one word to describe Thomas’ work it would be illuminating.
What Thomas does to project light, a sense of illumination by designing images and color through intricate paper cuts, is extraordinary. She uses light in a way that provides each paper cut their own individual spot light, each shape shining its radius and playing its role in the bigger picture while it encompassed the gallery, enclosing the viewer in cathedral of light.
Vivian Phillips, an artist, art advocate and long-time friend of Thomas, expresses the genius of Thomas in her work.
“Barbara Earl Thomas is one of Seattle’s most treasured artist,” says Phillips. “She has functioned in way that has been a little bit quiet in this community, but there are some many communities outside of Seattle that recognize and embrace the significance of her art and I always, always want to encourage people to embrace these artists that are right here in Seattle and Barbara Earl Thomas is one of our biggest and greatest treasures.”
Due to COVID restrictions, fans had to wait to see her exhibition. But now that the restrictions have been lifted, Thomas’ works will be on full display at SAM until Nov. 14.
Thomas graduated from Garfield High School during the height of the Civil Rights era. After high school she went on to receive her undergraduate degree from the University of Washington in Art and Art History and her Masters in Art Design.
During her tenure at the University, she began working for the City of Seattle in human resources but continued to hone and sharpen her skills as an artist. Later in her career, Thomas began working with the Seattle Arts Commission and Bumbershoot giving her the opportunity to be involved in art in any way she could.
Thomas’ love for art stems from the Black families’ creative nature. When and if you needed something you just made it, created it and this is where Thomas’ creativity was nourished.
“Because I’m from a family where I don’t think it was that unusual for working class families like mine, where in your house if you needed something you just made it,” says Thomas. “There was no Target if you wanted to have a dress you just made it.”
In her artistic beginnings, Thomas joined the Frances Suter Gallery along with art professors and the great Jacob Lawrence and began to see her work as way to showcase and possibly make a living doing what she loved.
“Well, you know as soon as I decided to showcase my work I joined a gallery,” says Thomas. “I just followed what I saw people doing. I joined the Frances Suter Gallery [because] that was the gallery where most of the university professors and my professors were, so I joined that gallery. Jacob Lawrence was there and that is when I started to begin selling my work.”
What gives Thomas’s work life is the detail. The acute attention to detail is astounding, let alone some of her work is large in measurement. One piece encompasses the whole of the room in the gallery blanketing each wall, the light shining brightly through each individual design and I mean hundreds if not thousands of sliced shapes into a canvas, each providing a slither of light. The mental discipline and patience to see it through is prevalent.
Thomas’ work is storytelling. She uses white contrasted against colors and black to accentuate and bring out the details in the characters of her stories. Mosaic designs and profile portraits, her work gives you the sense that the light around and behind the subject is like a never-ending sunset in her stories.
“Barbara is an incredible storyteller,” says long time friend and fellow artisan Elisheba Johnson, Co-founder of Wa Na Wari Black Arts Center. “She really is still always working with representational images to tell stories about the good in humanity and the possibility of hope for the future.”
Phillips has always been astounded at how Thomas balances what she calls, “the left hand, right brain theories” and how it applies to Thomas’ work.
“Watching Barbara’s growth in her art is almost like looking inside her brain,” says Phillips. “She is a left-hand, right brainer and I see so much depth of thought in her art. It is not just what she does with her hands, it is how it comes from her head to her hands, it is absolutely intriguing.”