It’s not often one can appreciate the work of an artist in a museum and also get to ask them questions face-to-face as well. That’s been the case for lucky visitors to Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA). More than 60 pieces of artwork created by Barbara Earl Thomas are currently on display at an exhibition called “Heaven on Fire.”
Thomas will often stop by to interact with visitors and has even done an impromptu tour.
“I like to go and I like to see what people are thinking. I don’t have museum shows that often, so I like to see who comes, and I like to hear what they think. Sometimes I don’t tell them it’s me except for they put my picture up there,” Thomas said with a laugh.
“Heaven on Fire” showcases an extensive collection: three decades of work across multiple mediums including egg tempera, papercuts, blown glass and linocut. Each piece is intricate and can’t be consumed with a quick glance. Her work demands a long gaze. After stepping away and coming back, visitors likely will see something new. Many of the pieces show bodies intertwined, which Thomas referred to as a “soul sharing position.” Fire, snakes, chickens and people fishing are also present in several pieces. It’s a reflection of her life — the daughter of parents from Louisiana and Texas who fished quite often.
Perhaps the most powerful piece in her show is “The Illuminated Story,” a white papercut installation displayed against salmon-colored walls. The room is ethereal with rose patterns draping the entryways like curtains. The papercuts are stationary but seemingly flow as if caught in a summer breeze. It’s a room that invokes introspection — an intentional act by Thomas.
“People would enter this beautiful space and in this beautiful space they would have some hard things to think about,” Thomas said. “Some things that were very personal but also general enough they could enter into it any way they wanted.”
The hard things she’s referring to are three vignettes she’s written titled, “A Catechism,” “White Noise” and “If They Were All Like You, I’d Like Them.” In each piece, Thomas, a Black woman, details her confrontations with racism.
In “A Catechism,” she recounts microaggressions and outright racist comments that people have said to her. One line reads, “You are so smart, it must be terrible to be Black.”
Thomas said this happened not too long ago while she was in Chicago. There are nine statements listed including her response to each one. They span her lifetime, but when put together it creates a disconcerting narrative. Thomas has watched the vignettes have a profound effect on her audience.
“Watching large grown men start to sob, which was not my goal or my point. Always when you do something like that, what’s interesting to me are the things that happen that I could not have imagined,” Thomas said. “Hopefully they see more about themselves than they do about me. They remember things about themselves or feel things about their own beliefs that are triggered by something that I’ve said.”
In the “Bloodletting” papercut series, bright red blood stands out against the bodies cut from white Tyvek synthetic paper on a black background.
“One of the methods for healing you was they’d take your vein, cut it, then let out part of your blood. This was a way they thought of balancing your humors. Balancing your levels so that it allowed new blood to be produced so that the bad blood was out and the new blood was in,” said Thomas. “In fact you were weakening your patient.”
She compared the former practice of bloodletting for one’s health to the proliferation of guns in America — what she called a specious idea that they are crucial to safety, protection and power.
“I took that idea thinking that, wow, we do so many things that we think are for good and we think are gonna help us and save us,” Thomas said. “But naturally our limited amount of knowledge doesn’t allow us to know we’re doing the opposite.”
Thomas said she’s flummoxed by the amount of violence happening today.
Thomas’ work is reaching an audience on Bainbridge Island who might not otherwise come across her work.
“It’s interesting because a lot of the people that end up at that museum, aside from the people who live there and people who intentionally see the show, are tourists,” Thomas said. “They want to ride the ferry. That’s part of a Seattle experience. I have been serendipitously the recipient of that kind of urge to get on the ferry. So I’ve ended up meeting so many people from so many places all around the world.”
It’s an aspect of the show Thomas didn’t anticipate. She’s received emails from visitors expressing positive feedback and questions about her work.
“People become confessional in a certain kind of way. They become emotional because I’m emotional,” Thomas said. “My work is emotional so it usually invokes some kind of response, and I always want to meet that with whatever kind of clarity or truth I have in that moment.”
Thomas is a Seattle native who grew up in the Central District, graduated from the University of Washington with a Master of Arts in 1977 and lived in Europe for two years. She has a long list of accolades, participated in dozens of exhibitions and is well respected in the community. She’s completed large-scale sculpture projects for Sound Transit Authority and Evergreen State College. Her work has also been featured in Indiana and Oregon. A showing in post-Katrina Shreveport, Louisiana, her mother’s hometown, holds special meaning. Thomas said it gave her an opportunity to connect with her ancestors.
Thomas’ art studio is in Columbia City where her neighbor’s cat, Caprica, often keeps her company. The cat lets herself into the studio by opening the screen door with her grey paws and nestles in the paper drawer. When Thomas isn’t creating art, she becomes a consumer of it. She loves to read and go to the theater.
A smile brightens up her face as she talked about supporting the work of other artists in Seattle.
“I’m in a community of people making work and it’s not me being at the head of it. I’m with all of them. That’s the story I tell,” Thomas said. “We’re all good in our own ways at what we do and we’re all singing in choir.” Because in a chorus the individuality of sopranos, altos, tenors and basses come together to create a harmonious sound.
“Heaven on Fire” runs until Oct. 2.
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