Genius Awards 2016
Catastrophe and beauty.
Egg tempera paintings, linocut prints, cut papers, poem-stories, very funny conversation.
At all men driving backhoes in parks department trucks, because that was her father's job.
"You just have to be brave," Barbara Earl Thomas told herself one day two years ago. "Get the knife and cut."
She didn't draw first. Not even a sketch. She picked up the X-Acto and started slicing at the white paper on her desk. If she made a mistake, she started over.
In no time, the painter and printmaker, now 67, had a new medium. You see it in mural-sized works and an entire illuminated chapel at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, where Earl Thomas's scenes of disaster are embraced in the minor salvations of her fluid lines. For 35 years, her work has put a little fragile light between us and the worst things. It's as simple, and remarkable, as that.
Big deal, she would say.
"Let's put it this way: My family, we are makers," Earl Thomas told me, describing her grandfather, who made all his own clothes plus his cuff links and tie clips from melted-down coins.
Earl Thomas descends from people cut off from wealth—slaves and sharecroppers—but she's quick to point out that they didn't make things entirely out of need.
As a girl, she made clothes, embroidery, and decorations for the house. She loved to draw copies of other pictures. One day when her mother came home from work, she handed her a drawing. Her mother was so thrilled that Earl Thomas started doing it every day.
"So my initial way of thinking about art was that it was a gift—it was a gift that you gave to someone and it made them happy," she said.
"Happy" is too small a word for the effect Earl Thomas's adult works have on people, though it is something to do with joy.
She makes catastrophe and beauty keep company—the way they actually, unthinkably, do. Through a combination of abstraction, figuration, and irresistible palettes that blend the hot South and the cool Northwest, Earl Thomas keeps the eye moving endlessly. She's also an accomplished, visceral poet-writer, in her latest exhibition wailing with grief over so many killings of so many Black men. ("Paint brush, pen with blade in hand, silvery glint sparks, I cut to the bone—there is something to know about our history cleaved in bondage.") In her pictures, people huddle together, unable to do anything except hold each other in the midst of a conflagration of waves or flames. There are biographical traces here: Thomas's parents died in a fishing accident in 1988 when their rowboat capsized in a storm.
Earl Thomas was a student of celebrated artist Jacob Lawrence, who taught at the University of Washington, where she also studied with Norman Lundin and Michael Spafford. Because Earl Thomas had a full-time job all the way through grad school, she couldn't make it to the student meetings for the final thesis exhibition, so she was excluded. The year was 1977.
From age 17, she always had a full-time job outside her studio. Again, it was just what her people did. Before semi-retiring five years ago, Earl Thomas had her most prominent position, as leader of the Northwest African American Museum. She headed it from 2008 to 2013—its very first years. (She still raises money for it and says with a giggle that she has no idea why she's able to persuade people to part with money.) As a result, the works of art in her studio had to develop slowly. But she never thought of herself as a part-time artist. Her work flows from her like breath.
"I don't consider myself to have a career: I have a life," she declared. "Art is part of it. I'm really clear. I would do this anyway, you know? I would do this anyway."