American Purgatorio

Heaven on Fire, the Barbara Earl Thomas Retrospective

Jim Demetre

Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas occupies a singular place in contemporary American art. Exploring themes of African American history, her evocative, image-rich tableaus link the latent mysticism of Northwest art with drama of scripture and violent memories of slavery and the Jim Crow South. After a career spanning nearly four decades, Thomas is the subject of a retrospective at the Barbara Earl ThomasBainbridge Island Museum of Art (June 25 - October 9, 2016). Heaven on Fire includes numerous early paintings, scores of recent prints, and—most significantly—a series of new etched glass vessels and a large, chapel-like installation of cut paper. While the title of the exhibition suggests the existence of a Dantean Paradiso (Heaven) that serves simultaneously as an Inferno (Hell), Thomas' works reveals a state more akin to the Italian poet’s Purgatorio; a place where one must pass through various levels of suffering and spiritual growth to reach salvation.

The great artist Jacob Lawrence, who spent the latter part of his life as a professor at the University of Washington School of Art in Seattle, established a Modernist visual narrative vocabulary with his epic masterpiece series, "The Migration of the Negro," in the early 1940s. Thomas, who studied under Lawrence and became friends with the painter and his wife Gwendolyn Knight, adapted much of this vocabulary to forge her own expressive style.

 Man Looking at his Fish, 1988, egg tempera on paper,  28 x 21 in.Incorporating Lawrence's use of active human figures in the compositional frame, she tells stories that conflate time and compress space in a style more akin to Magical realism or the fire and smoke Romanticism of William Blake than Lawrence’s more straightforward photojournalistic exposition. Rather than focusing on a history of African American progress, she dwells upon capricious forces, both cultural and natural, that have, and continue to, endanger it.

Young Barbara and her parents Grady Wright and Lula Mae Wright. Photo collection of the artist The migration of Thomas’ own family was not to the cities of the industrial north but out west to the then-remote city of Seattle. Her grandparents moved to Seattle from Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1940s to pursue work in the growing maritime industry and the prospect of a better life. In 1988, her parents drowned in a sudden storm when their boat capsized while fishing. While her work may not explicitly address this personal history, it clearly informs her use of symbols and imagery. Although Thomas was born here, her work retells the old stories that migrated with her family, just as similar stories migrated with other black families who left the South for new opportunities after WWII. The reason, of course—as recent events have clearly demonstrated—is that such tragic events did not cease to occur in America’s past, nor are they today confined within any geographical region of the United States.  

In addition to Lawrence, Thomas’ work also shows the influence of two prominent, idiosyncratic Northwest painters, both of whom created paintings that straddled the realms of abstraction and representation: Guy Anderson, one of the four “Northwest Mystics” profiled in the famous 1953 issue of LIFE Magazine, and Michael Spafford, one of the original and long-serving faculty at the University of Washington School of Art. (Lawrence, Anderson, Spafford and Thomas were all represented for many years by gallerist Francine Seders.) Throughout the show, we see elements of Anderson’s volatile, spirit-inhabited landscapes, with their Native American and Far Eastern modes of conveying meaning, and the use of myth and fable we find in the stark, black and white forms of Spafford’s Greek heroes and iconic animals.  

In My Fathers House There Are Many Roomers, 1986, tempera on paperThomas’ egg tempera paintings possess a misty, water-infused light that suggests the Pacific Northwest landscape. The light green hues of the earth and roiling gray of the skies remind us of the region’s estuaries and floodplains. But the setting could be the Mississippi Delta as easily as the Skagit Valley or Genesee Park near Thomas’ South Seattle studio. The dream-like scenes unfolding at their center, like stories from the Old Testament, are often transactional exchanges loaded with mysterious portents and a deeply entrenched resistance to hardship.

Chicken Gone, 1989, egg tempera on paper 19 x 22 in.In early works such as In My Father’s House There are Many Roomers (1986), Chicken Gone (1989), Talking Back (1989), and The Boat (1988) there are negotiations underway with history and nature. The roomers who float around the periphery of the huddled family in In My Father’s House could be boarders brought in for income or dependent friends and relations. But they also are manifestations of the spirits of their ancestors, who both haunt and guide them. In Chicken Gone, a seated figure, held up by four smaller human figures, embraces a chicken while another figure, possibly fleeing, is seen carrying another in the corner of the frame. The bird may represent a fragile subsistence economy cultivated over generations. The pale figure departing the scene could be a thieving neighbor or perhaps death itself depriving a family of its livelihood. It could also represent a system that deprives them of their means of survival. The genius of Thomas’ work lies in her ability to fuse these various layers of meaning together in a single image.

The Conversation, Talking Back, 1989, egg tempera on paperTalking Back reveals a seated figure staring down a defiant chicken perched atop a cloud or wave as her hands cover a fish and frog on the table in front of her. Behind her, a sleeping figure takes up the interior of a small house. The crowing cock appears to be less a threat than an omen and the interaction takes on an aspect of divination, a The Boat, 1988, egg tempera on papertheme that recurs frequently in Thomas’ work. In The Boat, a fearful couple embrace within the confines of a small dinghy that proceeds cautiously down a river. For Thomas, the iconic image is a constant presence. Such vessels, whether occupied or empty, are symbols of both economic sustenance and tenuous salvation, easily upset and overturned.

In Case of Fire, 2014, linocut, 24 x 36 in.Compared with her more serene paintings, Thomas’ prints, such as In Case of Fire (2014) or Fire Wall (2015) can feel explosive, with figures clutching each other while engulfed by cataclysmic fires and floods. The intricate white lines cut through the black background, lit from behind with high-temperature gradients of yellow and orange. In Fire Wall, 2015, glass plate print, hand coloredthese maelstroms, we see homes swept away by waves or ravaged by flames. Serpents, fish, and birds jostle alongside books, boats, branches, and human extremities. It is as if all the omens laid out in her paintings are coming true at once. Other works, such as Fish Eater (2006) and Dream Delivered (2008), highlight moments of repose and satisfaction, even as danger lurks nearby.

Heaven On Fire (story vessel) 2015, blown, solid-worked and sand blasted, 21 x 8 in.Included in the show are ten blown, solid-worked, and sandblasted glass sculptures, most in vivid, monochromatic hues that the artist created in 2015. While the medium is a new one for Thomas, they are very much three-dimensional variations on her prints with her signature scenes and imagery are cut into their orbicular, transparent or translucent surfaces.

Heaven On Fire detailThe eternal nature of their stories are enhanced by the physical overlapping of images and their circular continuity. In Heaven on Fire, the vessel which shares its title with that of the exhibition, the cut edges on the clear exterior cast shadows upon the frosted, white background of the interior, giving the drama an added depth and volatility.

 Story Vessel 1, 2015, blown, solid-worked and sand blastedStory Vessel 11 Fire Breather, blown, solid-worked and sand blastedOthers glass works, such as Story Vessel I, II (Fire Breather), and III, have inserted center segments with rippling protrusions that resemble flames. Their presence adds yet another dimension to the narrative and a heightened sense of upward, swirling motion.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is Thomas’ extraordinary site-specific installation, The Illuminated Room. The chapel-like space is constructed of numerous white, cut paper sheets carefully lit against a warm, orange-pink background. Floral and abstract decorative patterns have been carved into the layers that hang against the walls or The Illuminated Room installation view around the doorways, while floating segments resembling flames or angles’ wings hover from the ceiling overhead. There are three altars inside, entitled A Catechism, White Noise, and If They Were All Like You, I’d Like Them, each with its own cut paper diorama and a passage written by Thomas.

If They Were All Like You altarThomas has long been known as a gifted writer, but only recently has her prose been conjoined with her studio work in this way. Eloquent and provocatively direct, each altar’s text offers viewers a candid, poetic account of being black in America.

Within the space, the viewer feels as if they have entered inside one of Thomas’ prints or glass sculptures. While one might expect a feeling of anxiety, the immersion yields an unusual sense of calm. We have, in fact, found the place where the soul finds its fortitude; where the human spirit rises up to prevail against adversity and fear.

Also included in the show are three wall-sized, stark white cut paper installations set against impossibly black backgrounds that address the grim realities of being black in America today. In Bloodcatcher, Bloodletting I and Bloodletting II, we see red pools of blood draining from the bodies of dying young men into vase-like receptacles. In Bloodletting 1, 2016, paper cut wall installation 49 x 54 in.Bloodletting I, a tray holding several handguns rests near the reclining figure as he is held in the arms of another. Will their sacrifice and our public tragedy ultimately lead to social change? The question, sadly, remains unanswered.

Blood Catcher, 2016, paper cut wall installation 87 x 120 in.To the degree that they address contemporary events, they are something of a departure for Thomas. But in their subject matter, sacred tone, and invocation of black history, they are very much in keeping with the work she has been creating since the beginning of her career. The world she has sought to reveal all these years has suddenly become the topic of our national conversation.

Thomas' coda to these scenes is a maquette for a Sound Transit public art commission rendered in cut paper entitled A Walk in the Neighborhood. It depicts the strange pastoral landscape that exists today within urban Seattle. On one side, a well-dressed human figure walks among calm waves, clouds, and flowers in a place populated with birds, turtles, and snakes. It is wild, but harmonious and enduring. On the other side, a pair of floating hands appear around an open book. It might be seen as a self-portrait of an artist who, like Dante, sees the redemptive power in the creation and experience of art.

A Walk in the Neighborhood, 2016, paper cut installationAs the United States collectively and belatedly addresses issues of race, power, and economic disparity that can be traced to its founders’ system of slavery, we could learn much from Thomas’ empathy, historical perspective, her careful measure of forces beyond our control, and— most significantly— her deeply held faith in the possibility of a better world.

Jim Demetre is a writer and art critic who lives in Seattle.

Heaven on Fire Text Panels 

Text panels for the altars in the Illuminated Room included "If They Were All Like You, I'd Like Them" and  "A Catechism."   The childhood photo of Barbara Earl Thomas (below) was not included in the text panel.

If They Were All Like You, I'd Like Them

“If  they were all like you, I would like them.” It’s 1970. The campus is on fire and Seattle, like cities all across the country, are circling their wagons and bracing themselves for riots and civil disobedience.  I’m an average student, in an average work-study job, talking to a very average white woman.  She can see me, but she can’t believe that I am not extraordinary because I don’t fit the bad idea that she has about the group of  people I come from. I say “Sharon my dear, I don’t think that is a compliment.”  Her face fades and I am 5 years old in High Point, a Seattle housing development for military families. 

Young Barbara Wright (Thomas). Photo collection of the artistThere is a little blonde girl who stands with me in front of  my house — that is identical to hers, my family like hers has one mother with two children and one father who is just home from Korea — who is about to tell me that her mother says “I can’t play with you because you are not like me.” I puzzle.  “You are colored,” she said. I’m supposed to understand this.  But I am 5 years old and I am confused.  I don’t recall hurt feelings.  But there is something like a hole where I put this.  And, more than a half-century on, I remember. 

My mother reminds me years later that one day without ceremony, I announced, “All children are white. It’s only when you grow-up that you become colored.”  “How so” she says?  I can’t explain this to her.  It’s just something I know.   At the little school house where I go all the children are white and from inside my body I can’t see my difference but at home I know the people in my house are tall, dark and a world apart.  

The world is all about long straight hair, bright clear eyes, perfect teeth and a rosy hue.  My third grade teacher Mrs. Tillish stands in front of  the black board.  Each day she welcomes us.  This large manatee-like creature is softly wrinkled all over.  The white-pink cloud of her body is covered in a blousy pleated dress of  some impossibly soft fabric.  It catches her up in bunches of  folds and tiny bits of  lace. A row of  imitation pearl buttons runs down her front.  An invisible cincture divides her in half.  We think it holds up the heavy pillows of  her bosom that threaten to gush out, if  the dam breaks.  Daily she stands before us, arms raised, skin swinging lightly from bone.  Hands bent back from the wrist, she presents fore finger and thumb and chants let’s all pinch our cheeks and smile.  We want to start each day with bright pink cheeks and a smile.  This is my first failure of the day. 

The weeks pass and I can’t perform this trick no matter how hard I try.  

A Catechism text panel Determined, I go home, take a washcloth, soap my cheeks and scrub until they flame bright.  I am thrilled.  Pray the pink light lasts until the morrow when it is time once again for pink cheeks.  I will show up first in line, bright, pink and ready to go! I touch each cheek amazed, feel the heat that emanates.  Under my hands the glow turns from hot to burn, then comes pain.  Anxious, head over sink I flush with cold water.  My mother thinks I have a fever.  Take an aspirin she says. “You look funny. You okay?”  Tight-faced, I can’t eat dinner, nor put my head on the pillow.  There is no way to explain what I’ve done.  By morning my once rosy cheeks are covered in a raspy skim, too sore to touch.  This is how I start my day.

I am lighter-skinned than the darkest and darker-skinned than the lightest. This is the luck of  the draw.  By the time I am nine years old I know my place. I am a buoy between boats that endlessly bob, bounce and butt against one another. From this point on, there will be no day that I wake where I will not declare upon seeing my arm before my eyes—yep, that is a brown arm.  That means the rest of  me is like that too. It’s not a sentence that I think; I imagine it’s more like the experience of  one who lacks a limb.  No matter how much he would like to just jump out of  bed and start his day, that prosthetic leg must be considered before he can righteously get himself  moving.  Like the one-legged man, I can get it all done but the price for the work around will be extracted based each day on what my life requires.  —Barbara Earl Thomas, 2014

Lula, Lula, Lula Mae is a Lullaby

Catechism altar detailThe sound of your name — inscribed there on the disintegrating pages of the family Bible. I keep it in the dresser drawer locked up — with all the unsaid words that still hang in the air, caught in the lilt of your eyebrow. You crochet doilies in mad waves of netted string, that undulate under lamps, over tabletops, across chair backs all the way to the couch. For my high wire act they catch me up and cover every surface.

When I fall, you tell me, as if speaking to yourself, “You are the smartest, bravest and most beautiful little girl in the world.” I live in a forest in the light of your fiction and believe.

From the IRAAA Archives

The art of Barbara Earl Thomas first came to the attention of the IRAAA staff 20 years ago when an exhibition of her work was presented at Seattle's Francine Seders Gallery.  While not a review, the following article stemmed from that 1996 show and was published in the print IRAAA journal (vol. 14, no. 2, 1997).

Before/During/After the Flood/Middle Massage/Conflagration

Fishers of Men, 1995, egg tempera/paper, 11 1/2 x 30 in.Like a timeless allegory, Barbara Thomas' elegiac masterpiece, Fishers of Men, evokes a subtle memory of a pre-Adamic world extracted from the collective unconscious. Part of a series of paintings in her 1996 exhibit, The Book of Telling: A Prayer for the Turn of the Century, at Francine Seders Gallery in Seattle, Thomas' works activate links in our individual chains of myth and memory.

Fishers of Men (detail)Thomas orchestrates a primal landscape where mythic, androgynous beings heroically levitate, fly and swim in deforested panoramas, where majestic gray ravens congregate (the enigma the viewer must resolve is whether they are spirit guides or predators). The numinous inhabitants move in elegant rhythms through a world where the elements morph as effortlessly as a computer graphic. Contributing to the visual sensation of perpetual motion are the artist's fluid transitions which encompass swirling colors, wind-tossed waves and the paradoxically languorous, yet energetic beings.

While Fishers of Men presents a tableau of solicitous care and devotion to the eye, it insistently demands the mind's metaphoric interpretation. Who are these beings? Angels harvesting the souls of those lost in the Middle Passage as the small slave cabins appear to suggest? Or is this the crew of "The Old Ship of Zion" restoring innocence to a profane world and commandeering the spiritual rescue of Eve's errant descendants from the ravages of contemporary life?

Night Fire, 1995, egg tempera/paper, 17 x 35 3/4 in.Fnding inspiration in the words of Jacob Lawrence and Giotto, and employing the unforgiving medium of egg temper which allows for no error, the artist gives gleanings of the soul's burdens — death, despair, the loss of faith — while celebrating communion.

Night Fire (detail)Thomas writes, "Like a dying man, we are praying all the time to live in a way that matters and for a future in which we will not not exist."

She received the MFA from the University of Washington (Seattle) and also studied in France at the University of Grenoble. Widely exhibited in Washington state, her works are are held in private, corporate and public collections.

Leatha S. Mitchell

Leatha S.Mitchell was a devoted, volunteer contributing writer for the IRAAA who transitioned in 2012.  She also wrote about Barbara Earl Thomas' work in the IRAAA "Grief Recycled" article (vol. 15, no. 2, 1998).


It is Written, Illuminated Stories II, egg tempera, 30 x 42 in.For more about Barbara Earl Thomas' work in multiple mediums, visit the artist's website.