Black Arts Legacies: Barbara Earl Thomas cuts her own path

​​“There’s a way you’re made tough when you’re in a place like this,” Barbara Earl Thomas says of Seattle. The longtime local artist — who grew up in the Central District — is perhaps best known for her intricate cut paper and Tyvek work. Often these layered works are portraits of the community of people she has surrounded herself with or large-scale, mural-like scenes that are stenciled and painstakingly cut by hand.

The technique she uses in much of her work involves a skillful manipulation of absence to create presence — as she cuts out paper, linoleum block prints and steel, the faces become recognizable, the landscapes palpable.

Working as a Black artist in the predominantly white Northwest, Thomas has learned a lot about finding strength in the unseen. “I went into shows where you just step in the room and in a way you felt invisible, really invisible,” she recalls from when she was starting out. “And so I tried to figure out: What can you do with invisibility?”

Thomas was born in Seattle in 1948. Her grandfather was the first family member to migrate to Seattle — from Louisiana in the 1940s, in the middle of The Great Migration. That’s when millions of African Americans left the South in search of jobs and opportunities — and in the hope that their children would survive and thrive. Thomas is certainly the fulfillment of that dream.

It took me a long time to actually understand that I was seen and that I was not invisible.

Barbara Earl Thomas

She was the first person in her family to attend college, receiving her BA and MFA from the University of Washington, where legendary painter Jacob Lawrence served as a mentor. She has become an accomplished and award-winning visual artist who exhibits nationwide and who had an especially productive 2021-2022 in Seattle, with major exhibitions at the Henry Art Gallery and Seattle Art Museum. In 2023, her work — in the form of glass and metal windscreens along train platforms — will adorn the Judkins Park light rail station, the first and only one in the city’s historically black Central District.

Recent mainstream attention aside, Thomas says Seattle has been slow to recognize and respect the diverse contributions of its Black residents. “For so long, people expected nothing. Nothing,” she explains. “So if I could tie my shoe: ‘[She] tied her shoe! Whoa!’ ”

Her comments speak to her experiences growing up in a majority white city that largely interfaced with its Black residents as blue-collar laborers. Black people had fewer opportunities to be recognized for their impact on the cultural fabric of the city. “And so when I show up and I have done something that is really big, like what happened at SAM, people don’t always say it, but they’re really surprised because they didn’t expect it,” she says.

The people who were not surprised by Thomas’ achievements had long been folded into her tight-knit community, which is partly rooted in her studio practice. A rotating cast of collaborators helps make the thousands of precise cuts into the stencils Thomas crafts in her Columbia City studio. It is slow, focused, meticulous work that Thomas prefers to do with and among other people. “I decided that if I was going to do anything bigger than myself and more interesting than myself, then I needed to expand how I did it and how I invited people in to do it with me,” she says.

Thomas’ strategy of inviting people into her practice emerged from the experiences — and challenges — of running an arts organization. She learned firsthand in a lifetime spent working at cultural institutions, including the Seattle Arts Commission, Bumbershoot, Elliott Bay Book Company and the Northwest African American Museum, where she served as executive director from 2008 to 2012. Her time spent working in arts administration has deeply informed her approach to artwork as a place of work, but also a place where more radical conceptions of community knowledge can be incubated.

“What I learned about myself is that it’s not about the institution,” she says. “It’s about the people I work with. … I’m committed to this group of people.” Thomas expresses this commitment in the images she creates of Black family, friends and neighbors. Her 2021-2022 SAM exhibition, The Geography of Innocence, features a suite of lush portraits of Black people. Glowing underneath the black cut-out paper are yellow, orange and green hues that give the appearance of stained glass.

In a 2020 Crosscut series, Barbara Earl Thomas talks about how her work shifted during the pandemic. (Aileen Imperial)

Upcoming exhibitions and projects are giving Thomas more opportunities to train her eye on Black people, which is making her reflect on her own relationship to feeling unseen. “It was surprising to me when I realized at a certain point that I wasn’t invisible because I had been around, and I had done this [work],” she says. “It took me a long time to actually understand that I was seen and that I was not invisible.”

Thomas has not completely shed the weight of invisibility — but now it feels to her like inspiration to keep working. “You can’t have the opportunity if you’re not on hand and ready when the opportunity arises. And so that’s what I try to do: I try to make work all the time so that when the opportunity arises, then I am able to step into it.”

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