Barbara Earl Thomas: “Heaven on Fire”

at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

“Night Crawlers & Earthworms,” 1987, Barbara Earl Thomas, Egg tempera on paper, 11″ x 14 3⁄4″
Photo: courtesy Bainbridge Island Museum of Art

Following recent displays of the artist’s work in Indiana, Illinois and Louisiana, “Barbara Earl Thomas: Heaven on Fire” was a 30-year survey of over 60 artworks that combined the best of the Seattle artist’s prints, paintings and paper cut-outs with glasswork done at Pilchuck Glass School and Museum of Glass, Tacoma. The relatively new Bainbridge Island Museum of Art focuses on, among other things, artists’ books and book illustration in their permanent collection and programming. This proved to be the perfect setting for Thomas, whose artworks are frequently compared to literary narratives, not least because of her own explanatory writings that accompany each exhibit. Member of an African-American family from Louisiana that migrated to Seattle during WWII, Thomas’s imagery covers family lore, real and imaginary historical events, and personal triumphs and setbacks. For example, the earliest work on view, Night Crawlers & Earthworms (1987) is an egg-tempera painting of preparations for fishing expeditions with her father. The Holy Family series (2006) details her nuclear family, destroyed by a boating accident that claimed both parents. Working symbolically and metaphorically, Thomas distances her experiences through complicated compositions and interlocking figurative elements-hugging, embracing, consoling-that accentuate the ties between family members as well as the African-American community. This follows from her early study with African-American artist Jacob Lawrence at the University of Washington, including the abbreviated, foreshortened figures.

The Storm Watch (1988), a painting and eponymous title of a 1998 monograph, with an introductory essay by Vicki Halper, alludes to her parents’ death obliquely. (Typically, Thomas’s essay was longer than Halper’s.) All the same, many of the works stand on their own without the extended wall texts by the artist. However, for those who enjoy the interplay between image and word, Thomas’s art presents great possibilities. For others, the themes of the natural environment, relations between animals and people, subjective folklore and the centrality of reading and books are continuously developed visually in a wide variety of genres. Most significantly, her 2015 glass sculptures may better express the circularity of tale-telling, wrapping stories around each clear and etched vessel as they do, blurring beginning, middle and end. Etching and engraving are unusual in American glass and Thomas’s contribution here may become more important than her two-dimensional work. Writhing red, yellow and orange “flames” emerge from the top of each vase and tight scenes of interlocking people and places wrap around each vessel.