The story of the storm, by Barbara Earl Thomas.
The story of the storm, by Barbara Earl Thomas. Images JG

"Is it me or is there a Black arts explosion in the midst of this death cycle?"

C. Davida Ingram sent me that question recently.

If you are exhausted and numb from the news, but still care deeply and don't want to drop out of this cultural moment of tangling with race in America, you should spend time looking at what these artists have made.

Days before Ingram's message, I'd seen Inye Wokoma's incantatory photographs, verses, and video installation at the Frye, on the heels of the landmark exhibition of paintings and films by Noah Davis and Kahlil Joseph (curated by Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes). (Ingram's own soaring new photographs and sculptures (involving a giant pink antique British war parachute and a raccoon penis bone) are at Bridge Productions in Georgetown.)

Days before that, I spent the morning at a Senga Nengudi exhibition at the Henry and the afternoon at a 65-work survey of Barbara Earl Thomas's paintings, prints, and cut-paper installations at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.

On the ferry to Bainbridge, I asked Earl Thomas what she thought of Nengudi's work, some of which is made of pantyhose. Earl Thomas speculated that since Nengudi, like her, was born in 1940s America, they probably both had to contend with the iniquitous pre-pantyhose history of stockings, with their punishing straps and belts and madness. Nengudi became a performance artist devoted to the experiences of bodily (and psychological) freedom and tension. Earl Thomas became a painter of swirling stories about water and fire, about catastrophe coexisting with beauty. And now, she has become an artist who spends hours and weeks telling those stories of the greatest tragedies and wonders in pieces of delicate cut paper that could fly away in the slightest breeze.

This is a detail of one of Barbara Earl Thomass new works, a large paper cut piece mounted on the wall, from the exhibition Heaven on Fire, at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art.
This is a detail of one of Barbara Earl Thomas's new works, a large paper cut piece mounted on the wall, from the exhibition Heaven on Fire, at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. Images JG

It's a little funny that you have to travel to a largely white island in order to see the work of Earl Thomas, an artist who studied with Jacob Lawrence (the first African American artist whose greatness was celebrated nationwide during his lifetime), grew up in Seattle's Central District as a direct descendant of the Great Migration, and steered the Northwest African American Museum into existence—having to slow down her own art in order to lead the birth of that fundamental institution.

There are also benefits to the show's location. Given the water themes Earl Thomas has worked with steadily since her parents both died in a fishing accident years ago, it's correct to have to ride a boat across a formidable body of water. Given that Earl Thomas depicts allegories taking place on another plane from the rushing everyday—her sweeping lines depicting people huddling in storms as she and her sister and mother did whenever there was lightning in Seattle, or rushing to escape fires while other people nearby sit quietly having dinner inside cozy homes—you need to enter island time to look at them.

The museum is just up from the dock, so the trip to the exhibition is one constant, swift motion up into the galleries to the paintings, prints, sculptures, paper cuts, and a room-sized installation richly representing the last 30 years of Earl Thomas's conjurings. This is the place to find out for yourself why Earl Thomas is one of this year's nominees for the Stranger Genius Award in Art.

When museum director and curator Greg Robinson invited Earl Thomas to do the survey, she consented on one condition: that there be significant space for new work.

"My shit ain't over," Earl Thomas told me.

A detail of Barbara Earl Thomass 1988 painting The Boat.
A detail of Barbara Earl Thomas's 1988 painting The Boat. JG

It is a mighty pleasure to see the older works all in one place. Earl Thomas's use of color and egg tempera achieves a sort of exuberant control. She's a hell of a painter. Here's another way to put it—a very dry way, but this is none other than a review of Earl Thomas's work by the late Jacob Lawrence himself:

Her technical skills as an artist in terms of abstract elements of color, line, texture, shape, and value are inventive, dynamic, and exciting to view. In formalistic terms her works have scope and dimension. She continues to express with deep conviction and passion her perception of life.

Look at her older work in those terms. You will find stories as unabashedly odd and unresolved as her compositions are geometric and fixed. At first glance it seems like her shapes contain her colors, in a Lawrence-like manner, and that each shape is clearly depicting one thing: a table, a sky, a mountain, a bird, a turtle, a chicken, two figures embracing. But you will also discover such surprising fluidity and abstraction.

In Case of Fire, 2014 linocut.
In Case of Fire, 2014 linocut. Courtesy of the artist

But let's talk about the very new works.

The most recent are three large cut-paper pieces. They're white and red paper cut with those same languorous Earl Thomas lines. Each one is mounted on a black wall.

The aftermath of a shooting has become a major theme in artists' works. Kahlil Joseph, the filmmaker who recently showed work at the Frye, created Until the Quiet Comes, a dream sequence in which a man, shot, gets back up and rewinds himself away from the events of that night.

Earl Thomas's shooting scene is three men. One is down. Blood pours from his head and pools into a beautiful bowl. A second man, rising behind the first on the ground, is resting on the victim and looking straight out of the picture, wearing an expression of mourning—not anger or sorrow but something deeper and more distantly inside him.

A third man sneaks away in the far corner of the paper from the other two. He's dropped his gun, but there are two more guns on a platter on the ground. Three men, three guns.

In titling the piece Bloodletting, Earl Thomas references acts that promise to save, to cure, to solve, but can drain the life right out of you.

The painter and paper cutter is also a writer. For Heaven on Fire, she wrote a short piece called Grief and Lamentation, which hangs next to Bloodletting. It ends:

For this act I am, simultaneously, in the audience and on stage. 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. There is always bondage somewhere, but this chokehold in time is mine. The violence told in the life of that kid shot on his way to school, No — on his way home, No — on his way to a friend's house, No — on his way to the party, No — on his way to the football game, No — on his way to his next class, No — on his way to the mall, No, he was shot in the mall, No he was the shooter who then shot himself when his father, mother, sister, brother and neighbors all say, "I, we are so sorry. We could not have foreseen this." The blood on my hands and yours connects us in this tale, unraveled.

Between grief and lamentation is the joy of life's sweet briefness — Keep your blood in sacrifice's opposite — for no humors will be balanced, nor bountiful harvest enhanced, nor wombs made more fertile, nor freedom won — what is given up — is our shared beauty, lost.

The apocalypse is always happening somewhere in Earl Thomas's world and work. No sacrifice can be made to stop it. So "keep your blood in sacrifice's opposite," she urges.

To help, she provides a fragile chapel made entirely of cut white paper, the patterned strips and cuts illuminated and coming down like rain. Gentle white noise is piped in to separate the area and create calm.

If you can, visit the museum in the late afternoon or early evening when the sun is beginning to go down and the light shifts in the chapel. That's the best way to see clearly how Earl Thomas's work puts a little fragile light between us and all of the worst things.

The chapel, not really photographable, is in the back corner there.
The chapel, not really photographable, is in the back corner there. JG