Artist Barbara Earl Thomas On Creation, Contemplation and Bringing People Together

“The Illuminated Body,” the first traveling exhibition of Thomas' intricate cut-paper portraits suffused with color and light, is on view now at Penn's Arthur Ross Gallery.

A colorful rendering of a woman lying prone with flowers
“Girl with Flowers II” (2022), paper cut with hand-printed color. Photo by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios

Born in Seattle, artist Barbara Earl Thomas represents the first generation of her family to be born outside of the South—a relocation primarily influenced by her father’s military service. “At that time in the 60s and 70s, Black neighborhoods were pretty cohesive because you had to all live together,” she tells Observer. “And it was good.”

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Reflecting on her childhood, Thomas emphasized the importance of human touch in creation. “I wasn’t from an art-making family,” she explains. “I’m from a making family.” Anything you needed, you made, whether that was curtains, a dress, a slipcover or anything else. You made it because there was a need and because you wanted things to be beautiful. “I’m very much from the tradition of the hand and the story and the making.”

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On view at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery, “The Illuminated Body” is the first traveling exhibition of Thomas’ work—primarily of her intricate cut-paper portraits that are suffused with color and glow like stained glass windows.

Nowhere, perhaps, is that “hand,” which Thomas calls vital to her creative process, more evident. She doesn’t work alone; she might have up to ten people in her studio all working together. But “everything has the hand in it,” Thomas says. “Regardless of the amazing things are that can be manufactured, I think having a hand in a thing is discernible.”

A colorful rendering of a man playing the cello before an audience of flowers
“A Joyful Noise” (2022), paper cut with hand-printed color. Photo by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios

Her family’s commitment to the tradition of making things with their own hands would be a large part of what drew her to art. Thomas started drawing and painting in childhood, but when she enrolled at the University of Washington, she initially told friends and family that she was there to study to become a physical therapist. In retrospect, she’s not sure if that was ever her intention. “I never took a physical therapy class,” she explains. “And after being in the art school for two years, I said, I think I better stop telling people I’m going to be a physical therapist.”

She was able to take classes with notable painters Jacob Lawrence and Michael Spafford. She felt a particular kinship with Spafford, whom she describes as irreverent and gregarious. He “just walked in and said anything, and I was like that too. I felt very much like it was simpatico between us.”

After completing her undergraduate studies, Thomas selected Lawrence and Spafford to be on her graduate committee—perhaps anticipating the impact they’d have on her practice: “Michael, on one hand, kind of getting me to be bold, and Jacob worked with me to think about my visual iconography and how to tell a story in an image.” Eventually, she’d grow to count both artists among her friends.

Themes related to communal ties and relationships, as well as bringing people together, are recurrent within her body of work. “I have an image of, say, August Wilson and Charles Johnson,” she says, referring to the American playwright and the acclaimed writer. “I knew August, of course, but they were friends. Here’s an opportunity for me to bring two friends together again, symbolically, even if they can’t be together here on this planet because August died too soon.”

A colorful rendering of a man in a suit holding a book
“Two Trains” (2022), paper cut with hand-printed color. Photo by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios

A similar impulse shaped “The Illuminated Body.” She hopes when people step into her hand-cut, site-specific installation, The Transformation Room, they experience something dazzling. “I hope that if they’re standing next to someone they don’t know, they share that experience and that relationship.”

The show is Thomas’s first exhibition in Philadelphia, and the significance of this is not lost on her, as she reflects on the city’s rich history and cultural significance. “It’s a big deal for me because, number one, I get to show up in this really beautiful space, and number two, it’s in a city that has so much history and just everything, all the strife, all the beauty of a history, all those things together.”

Emily Zimmerman, the Arthur Ross Gallery’s Interim Director of Programs and Exhibitions, expands on this idea: “Philadelphia is an incredibly strong music town, and it has a rich history of jazz. Tying into that inner woven creative fabric that has been such a core part of Philadelphia’s identity as an arts community was really important in the show.”

Crucial in Thomas’s work is the idea of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary while also making the extraordinary accessible. It’s important to her that all the figures in her portraits are portrayed in a way that highlights what they’re most known for.

GRAMMY-nominated cellist Seth Parker Woods is the subject of one of Thomas’s portraits for this show. (Woods will also be doing a live performance of “Difficult Grace” in tandem with the exhibition on April 11 at the Zellerbach Theatre). She originally did a portrait of Woods—whom she met because Seth wanted to do a concert that incorporated some ideas about Jacob Lawrence—in 2021 for a show called “Packaged Black” at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. However, she wasn’t quite sure she got it right the first time, so she decided to try it again, weaving worlds together, as she does. “He didn’t know Jacob, but there’s Jacob bigger than life behind him.”

Another of the portraits in the show is of August Wilson, Thomas’s long-time friend. “In the portrait of August, I have ‘Two Trains,’” she explains. “People who know his work will know ‘Two Trains Running,’ the seventh play in Wilson’s ten-part series, ‘The Pittsburgh Cycle.’” But if they don’t, they’ll still see a “lovely gentleman” dressed in this fabulous outfit, “and they will go ‘God, that’s a magnificent person.’”

Thomas views her work almost as an act of contemplation. It might not, she says, feed anyone or stop homeless or keep even one person safe, but what it does do is put ideas into the world.

One idea Thomas toys with in her work is the perception of Blackness—something too often associated with struggle, pain and calamity. She rejects that framing. “When I’m not talking to people about all of the struggles, I’m just living and I’m having a good time,” she says. “And I don’t think about being Black every minute because why? I just like to normalize that there is a full array of experiences and feelings and ways of being in the world that are not just the suffering.”

Even though “The Illuminated Body” has been traveling for over a year—first to the Chrysler Museum of Art and then to the Wichita Art Museum, it remains incredibly fresh. Thomas has brought something new to each exhibition, and one thing that sets this show apart is its use of sound: specifically, two cuts from Seth Parker Woods’ “Difficult Grace.” The fact that it’s the music of someone she rendered for the show is “this beautiful sort of circular thing,” she says.

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body” is on view at Arthur Ross Gallery through May 21.

Artist Barbara Earl Thomas On Creation, Contemplation and Bringing People Together