Where Barbara Earl Thomas's people are from, worms are called night crawlers. Night Crawlers and Earthworms is her etching of three people lying on the pages of an open book. A wall of serpentine grass rises behind them as they focus on their work, intently plucking wriggling night crawlers from the thicket of pages. Their tools are their fingers, pointed at the tips as if adaptively shaped for picking. In contrast, bare feet are soft and slack and curvy, as languorous as the occupation that runs back through Thomas's Southern family: fishing. Waiting, sometimes days, for a bite. "We fish deep," she wrote of her family of fisherpeople, which came to Seattle in the 1940s. She's the first generation out of the South, and resultantly, her images are frozen storms of opposites. They're borderline visions that she says straddle North/South, warm/cool, black/white, emotional/stoic.
Thomas has such a good life story, and is such a good storyteller, that her art can be overlooked. It's punishment for excelling in multiple formats. In addition to making egg tempera paintings and linocuts and woodblock prints, she writes stories, poetry, and essays that are published in books, and she gives inspiring talks near and far. She hasn't been private about the characters in her family and their influence on her, or the drowning deaths of her parents in a fishing accident in 1988. In addition to her down-home appeal, she has up-high cred: She was director of the Northwest African American Museum starting in 2008, when it opened, and stepped aside only recently to focus on her own art. (The board appointed an interim director and is starting the search for a permanent hire.)
Work outside the studio—especially nurturing the infant NAAM—has sidelined Thomas's artmaking and exhibition career. But she's back this month at Paper Hammer, with a display of 14 prints as large as 20 by 30 inches, in her first solo show since 2005. The prints represent two series, The Reading Room and The Book of Fishing.
It's hard to believe this writerly artist didn't work in the medium of lines—printmaking—until 2006. Her prints are filthy with lines. Lines that maybe could break into words given one more twist. Yet the tapestries of symbols that they form are anything but linear, rolling and flowing under the control of forces of wind, water, dreaming, wanting. She's written: "Carved, etched, or engraved, the line unravels into the shape of a water-filled bucket, a mouse in the bookshelf, a gunshot in the eye, a tree, an apple and that same God damned snake in the grass waiting to do it all over again." In an interview, she describes her version of realism—that nice things and terrible things and calm and dramatic things happen all at once across the sea of people. The outside world is the reading room that appears to be quiet, and her Reading Room is all the mess underneath.