Muse/News: SAM Director Reflects, Portraits of Isolation, and Augusta Savage’s Crafted Life

SAM News

Amada Cruz, SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, was interviewed by Megan Burbank of the Seattle Times for a Sunday feature on “how Seattle-area museums are weathering the pandemic.” Read her insights—and those from her colleagues—on the challenges and opportunities that arose.

“Pivoting to their own permanent collections is something museums may do more and more as they emerge from the pandemic with smaller operating budgets. ‘I think it’ll be really fun for viewers, and also for us, by the way. We on the staff will learn what we have in storage as well,’ said Cruz.”

A Jacob Lawrence work was featured in the Monday “Gallery” from Harper’s Magazine. And here’s Seattle University professor Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud, reviewing Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle for Hyperallergic.

“Angled figures and cutting diagonal lines — as blood, guns, and swords — iterate across panels as do themes of battle, war, migration, labor, land theft, and peace.”

Don’t miss Emily Zimmerman’s interview with Barbara Earl Thomas for BOMB Magazine. Her exhibition at SAM has been extended and will now close January 2, 2022.

“This idea of disarming my viewer is key to my process. In order to really see, one’s expectations need to be interrupted. I situate my vision in the big arc of time and human spirit, not the present journalistic moment.”

Local News

“How a Seattle game of ‘telephone’ became a worldwide art event”: Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel on a Seattle art project gone global.

Gemma Alexander for the Seattle Times on MOHAI’s new exhibition, Stand Up Seattle: The Democracy Project.

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig reviews (Don’t Be Absurd) Alice in Parts, now on view at the Frye Art Museum through April 25.

“While the work is specific to the physical and mental pain Black women deal with every day (‘Alice has always been in her own personal pandemic,’ says Anastacia-Reneé), Don’t Be Absurd captures a portrait of isolation that urgently reflects the world we’re emerging out of.”

Inter/National News

Via Artforum: The African American Historic Places Project is a new initiative from the Getty Conservation Institute and the city of LA, whose goal is “identifying and preserving Black heritage landmarks throughout Los Angeles.”

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art will undergo an expansion overseen by Safdie Architects,  to increase its footprint by 50 percent, reports Artnet.

“The Black Woman Artist Who Crafted a Life She Was Told She Couldn’t Have”: The New York Times’ Concepción de León on the sculptor Augusta Savage.

“Savage was an important artist held back not by talent but by financial limitations and sociocultural barriers. Most of Savage’s work has been lost or destroyed but today, a century after she arrived in New York City at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, her work, and her plight, still resonate.”

And Finally

Learn now to pronounce people’s names.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Muse/News: Witnessing America, Asian Restos Go Digital, and Calder Maquettes

SAM News

The Seattle Art Museum is open, with limited capacity and timed tickets released online every Thursday. Chamidae Ford reviews Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle for South Seattle Emerald, noting that the exhibition “takes us on a journey through American history, reframing the narratives we have heard for centuries.”

And Seattle Met’s Stefan Milne reviews American Struggle as well as the solo show, Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, exploring how they both “witness America.”

“As different as can be, the two shows are rooted in a truth: How we see our past and our present are inextricable from how we see our future. That is, we’re still filling in frames, and might, with some attention, fill them in more honestly.”

SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park is recommended by The Architect’s Newspaper as one of 11 “outdoor art spaces and museum grounds worth checking out this spring.” Take some allergy meds, mask up, and get out there!

Local News

Seattle Times columnist Naomi Ishisaka asks Karen Maeda Allman of Elliott Bay Books to recommend “15 books to read to learn more about Asian American history and experiences.”

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis is back with her weekly ArtSEA; this time, she visits Seattle’s new newsstand, previews the ByDesign festival, and some musical events.

Seattle Met’s Erin Wong with the story of how adult children of owners of Chinatown-International District restaurants are bringing their digital literacy to help the businesses during the pandemic crisis.

“Now, it’s the younger generations who are circling back to help their parents navigate the internet age. ‘This is just one thing I can do for my tribe, you know?’ [Carol] Xie says, ‘If that’s all it takes, I’m more than happy to do it.’”

Inter/National News

Hyperallergic says, Listen to the Sounds of an 18,000-year-old Conch.” Muse/News says, OK.

Catching up with gallerist Mariane Ibrahim, a Seattleite for a short and lucky-for-us time: in addition to her Chicago space, she is now expanding to Paris.

“The secret stunt doubles of the art world”: Peter Libbey for the New York Times on the seven maquettes—or models—of works by Alexander Calder made for MoMA’s new exhibition, Modern From the Start.

“Calder’s mobiles, whose orbits are eccentric, are particularly hard to anticipate. ‘I’ve never encountered a museum before that makes large, full scale cutouts for the actual gallery where the sculptures are going to go into,’ [Alexander S.C.] Rower said. ‘I think that’s amazing.’”

And Finally

A mural for the Storm.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Installation view of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle at Seattle Art Museum, 2021, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Muse/News: SAM Reopens, a Thoughtful Leader Departs, and Lost Art Found

SAM News

The Seattle Art Museum is back! We’ve reopened our doors just in time for the opening of  Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle and Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence.

The Seattle Times featured the Struggle series in their Friday edition, with a preview by Megan Burbank and a look at youth art featured in the exhibition by Gemma Alexander. The front page of their Saturday edition featured a photo from the opening by Alan Berner.

“Rather than choose between abstraction or realism, Lawrence deftly navigated between the two. ‘He found narrative to be very important. That act of storytelling and reviving history and really thinking about events of the past and how you communicate those in a very modern way—it was really central to his practice and his process as an artist,’ [curator Theresa Papanikolas] said.”

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis talked up the reopening in her ArtSEA letter; she also celebrated SAM’s recent gift of art from the Lang Collection. The Seattle Times’ editorial board lauded the generous gift, as did Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger; the whole community will be able to see the artworks later this fall.

“The Langs were intentional in collecting art, he said, listening to friends and dealers but ultimately making independent decisions about what they liked. They lived with these paintings and sculptures; everything they owned was up on the wall or on display. And in a similar spirit, this donation is intended for the public good—these babies need to be seen.”

Local News

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig also has an update on the public art blooming along the AIDS Memorial Pathway.

Seattle Met has some great recommendations for what to do in Seattle over the coming week.

Lisa Edge speaks with Marcellus Turner, the outgoing chief librarian of the Seattle Public Library, about the legacy he’ll leave behind.

“‘It was amazing how many people recognized me the first couple of years I was here,” said Turner. “While walking down the street, I would often get asked the question was I the chief librarian.’ That appreciation was a pleasant and welcome surprise, but it didn’t put more pressure on Turner. Rather, it increased his awareness that it was more than just library staff and the board of directors keeping tabs on his performance. The Seattle community would also be a vocal stakeholder.”

Inter/National News

For International Women’s Day, Artnet asks art-world women to share about the women who have inspired them.

ARTnews reports that Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor, which originally graced the cover of Vanity Fair, has been jointly acquired by two museums.

Hilarie Sheets of the New York Times announced the discovery of yet another missing panel from Lawrence’s series. There are still three panels out there!

“[Curator Lydia] Gordon is pinning her hopes on the huge community of Lawrence’s former students and supportive gallerists and curators in Seattle, where the painter lived for the last three decades of his life after leaving New York. ‘Oh, we’re totally going to find them!’ she said firmly.”

And Finally

Curating is an act of generosity.”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Installation view of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle at Seattle Art Museum, 2021, photo: Natali Wiseman.

Muse/News: A Gift to SAM, Tariqa Waters at BAM, and the Frick’s New Rental

SAM News

Last week, the Seattle Times announced some major news for SAM: The museum received a gift of 19 artworks and dedicated funds for their care and conservation from the Friday Foundation, which celebrates the legacy of two exceptional, art-loving philanthropists. The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Collection at SAM features significant examples of Abstract Expressionist and post-war European art and will be on view later this fall.

In addition to the Seattle Times, the good news was shared by the Art Newspaper, ARTNews, Artnet, Artdaily, ARTFIXdaily, Puget Sound Business Journal, KOMO TV, Seattle PI, The Spokesman-Review, and more.

Also, the downtown museum reopens to the public on this Friday, just in time for the opening of the special exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, as well as the long-anticipated solo show, Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence. The Seattle Medium has this preview of the beloved artist’s “illuminating” show

Local News

Deems Tsutakawa, beloved Seattle jazz pianist, died last week at the age of 69. Listen to an original piano piece written by Deems inspired by a work at SAM’s Asian Art Museum.

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis touches on the effort to save the Weyerhaeuser campus from development and other cultural news in her weekly ArtsSea letter.

KING 5’s Evening Magazine heads to Pioneer Square to visit Tariqa Waters and her gallery, Martyr Sauce. Waters talks about her pop-inspired work, which is also on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum.

“‘I take things that often marginalize me as a black woman and I reshape those things. The point is to not qualify my art as Black art, it’s American art,’ said Waters.”

Inter/National News

Artnet’s Sarah Cascone on the mysterious arrival in a Portland park of a bust of York, an enslaved Black man who was part of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Salamishah Tillet for Harper’s Bazaar on “how the Studio Museum in Harlem transformed the art world forever,” which is presented with fabulous portraits of artists linked to the pioneering institution.

The New York Times tracks the Frick Collection’s two-year sublet of the Breuer building, where their critic Jason Farago finds “European art history distilled.”

“Now the Bellini has been isolated in a room of its own, in a gallery bare as a monastic cell. Light falls, from the same angle as in the painting, through a small Breuer window that the Whitney and Met often obscured. As I sat in that empty room, the cold February sun streaming in, it felt like a space worth a pilgrimage.”

And Finally

A museum that is mapping Black legacy foodways.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: Night Watch, 1960, Lee Krasner, American, 1908–1984, oil on canvas, 70 x 99 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Friday Foundation in honor of Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, 2020.14.4 © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Photo: Spike Mafford / Zocalo Studios. Courtesy of the Friday Foundation.

Muse/News: SAM Prepares to Reopen, Local Jazz Struggles, and New Museum’s New Show

SAM News

The downtown Seattle Art Museum reopens to the general public on March 5, just in time for the opening of the special exhibition, Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle. The Seattle Medium shares the news

Crosscut’s Margo Vansynghel previews five shows to see now that museums are reopening, including Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, the beloved artist’s first solo exhibition at SAM. And in her ArtSea weekly newsletter, Brangien Davis spotlights The American Struggle and Lawrence’s “fiery, vigorous and engrossing paintings.”

More SAM stories: Alison Sutcliffe of Red Tricycle shares “13 Places to Learn About Black History in Seattle,” including SAM; Interior Design Magazine posts about Barbara Earl Thomas’s show at SAM; and Gemma Alexander of the Seattle Times highlights “kid-friendly venues” reopening, including SAM (and the always-open outdoor spaces of the Olympic Sculpture Park). 

Remember the snow days? (All two of ‘em?) The Stranger’s Charles Mudede had the wonderful idea to spend it with John Akomfrah’s The Last Angel of History, which is streaming on the Criterson Channel as part of its Afrofuturism collection.

ICYMI: On February 11, SAM hosted a virtual event with artist Saya Woolfalk and SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art Pam McClusky on the SAM installation Lessons from the Institute of Empathy. Victor Simoes of UW’s The Daily shares a recap of the conversation.

Local News

The executive director of the nonprofit writers organization Hugo House has resigned, reports the Seattle Times, amid calls for change and racial equity. 

“Tariqa Waters and Anthony White Win the 2020 Neddy Awards,” reports Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger. You’ll be able to see their work, along with the runners-up, in a Neddy exhibition opening in March at the University of Washington’s Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

Glenn Nelson with an opinion piece for the South Seattle Emerald on “why local jazz must survive.”

“The pandemic has laid bare and amplified the issues that have eaten away at jazz far before the novel coronavirus’ first sour note. Those challenges include a daunting and shifting economic model, widespread lack of understanding among Americans about one of their few truly indigenous art forms, and underlying causes steeped, unsurprisingly, in race.”

Inter/National News

The New York Times reports that the president of Newfields, home to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has resigned, after the organization posted a job posting for a new director that would  attract a more diverse audience while maintaining its “traditional, core, white art audience.”

Artsy interviews Bryan Stevenson about the Equal Justice Initiative and its National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery.

Artnet’s Brian Boucher on the New Museum’s new exhibition, Grief and Grievance: Art and Mourning in America, one of the final projects of curator Okwui Enwezor. A high-profile group of artists, curators, and scholars came together to achieve his vision.

“‘Okwui’s framing of the project takes the idea of a political crime and transfers it to the register of psychological impact,’ said curator Naomi Beckwith, who worked on the show, in a Zoom conversation with Artnet News. ‘The show’s title alludes not to a historic event, but rather to a state of being.’”

And Finally

“With Tears in my Eyes, I’m Asking You to Act.”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: . . . is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775, Panel 1, 1955, Jacob Lawrence, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56, Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross, ©️ 2019 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Muse/News: Two-Way Mirrors, Poetic Catharsis, and a New Cultural Deal

SAM News

All SAM locations are currently closed until further notice, but we’re working behind the scenes for when we can reopen the downtown museum (again!). For now, revisit this interview between SAM curator Catharina Manchanda and artist Barbara Earl Thomas about SAM show The Geography of Innocence, which Thomas calls her “two-way mirror” onto the world.

Local News

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig brings her “How to Look At” series to the recent Vogue cover of the Vice President, which received critiques about how it captured the historical occasion.

The Seattle Times’ book beat is working hard, with two great recent features: an in-depth look at the community-centered Estelita’s Library, and the opening of Oh Hello Again, a new bookstore organized by emotions.

Crosscut’s Brangien Davis reflects on the culture-shifting moment of the inaugural poem performance by Amanda Gorman and what can happen when the arts take center stage in our civic life.

“In six minutes, at a formal federal ceremony, the young woman demonstrated how art can crystallize the heft and hope of a historic moment with a few brilliant strokes.”

Inter/National News

Artnet bundles up all the best art world takes on the meme that overtook the world last week.

Hyperallergic invites you to explore the first photograph taken at a US presidential inauguration.

Jason Farago of the New York Times opens up a crucial conversation about the importance of arts and culture to American society, offering ambitious ideas for how the government can support the arts and all of its workers.

“But a soul-sick nation is not likely to recover if it loses fundamental parts of its humanity. Without actors and dancers and musicians and artists, a society will indeed have lost something necessary — for these citizens, these workers, are the technicians of a social catharsis that cannot come soon enough.”

And Finally

Here’s even more about Amanda Gorman.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Installation view of Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence at Seattle Art Museum, 2020, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Spike Mafford

Muse/News: SAM Reviews, Neddy Finalists, and a Latinx artists Showcase

SAM News

All SAM locations are currently closed until further notice. That means you can’t see City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped A New Seattle right now, but you can read The Daily of UW’s article by Andy Chia about the exhibition’s celebration of collector Jinny Wright.

“‘Jinny was always a self-effacing person, but she had a love for art and humanity. She never wanted to say we’re done with art,’ [Catharina] Manchanda said. ‘She would want us to press forward into the future with the curiosity and hope that she had.’”

And while the opening of Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence may be delayed, you can check out the artist’s interviews with Marcie Sillman of KUOW and Aaron Allen of the Seattle Medium.

“‘My thoughts are [for everyone to] be a good citizen,’ says Thomas. ‘If SAM is closed down that means all of the exhibits cannot be seen. This is not personal to me and so we all have to deal, we all have to do our part. I’m lucky because my show will be up at least for a year, so if all things go well people will be able to see my show within four to six weeks.’”

Local News

Mark Van Streefkerk of South Seattle Emerald previewed the virtual edition of Legendary Children, which was presented on Saturday. Celebrating its fifth anniversary, the event highlights the talents of queer and trans Black and POC creatives and is co-presented by SAM and the Seattle Public Library.

“A welcome reprieve from isolation, a hub of safe extroversion”: The Daily’s Austen Van Der Veen on the wonders of Volunteer Park. SAM’s reimagined Asian Art Museum, which reopened in February of this year only to close again in March, is mentioned; the museum looks forward to yet another reopening in the future.

Cornish College of the Arts has announced the eight finalists for the annual Neddy Artist Awards, The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig reports. Priya Frank, SAM’s Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, served as one of the jurors for the awards, which will grant $30,000 each to the two winners.

“‘I feel so excited and proud for the choices we made when selecting the eight finalists,’ said Frank in a statement. ‘All exceeded the criteria, and I was touched by the ways they express their talents in such profound and inspiring ways that allow us to see the beauty and humanity in art as a reflection of life.’”

Inter/National News

This weekend, LACMA unveiled a new outdoor sculptural installation by Alex Prager. Titled Farewell, Work Holiday Parties, the piece features “15 eerily realistic, life-size sculpted figures enjoying (enjoying?) an insurance company holiday party in full swing.”

Four activists were acquitted after taking a ceremonial spear from Marseille’s Museum of African, Oceanic, and Amerindian Arts; they successfully defended the action as free speech.

Artnet’s Brian Boucher explores the Museum of Fine Arts Houston’s soon-to-debut $385 million expansion. It will feature their dramatically expanded holdings of modern and contemporary art, particularly of works by Latin American and Latinx artists.

“Fully one-quarter of the art on show in the new galleries is by Latin American and Latinx artists. Among the prizes are works by Lygia Clark, Gego (aka Gertrud Goldschmidt), Hélio Oiticica, Mira Schendel, and Joaquín Torres-García.”

And Finally

The saga of the Pig Couch.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Installation view of Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence at Seattle Art Museum, 2020, © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Spike Mafford.

Muse/News: Seattle-Centric SAM, Spooky Art, and “I voted” Stickers

SAM News

“Seattle, Go See Some Art This November.” Well said, Seattle Met! In this round-up of shows to see this fall, Stefan Milne recommends SAM’s two “Seattle-centric” shows. City of Tomorrow celebrates the legacy of collector Jinny Wright and is now on view, and The Geography of Innocence, Barbara Earl Thomas’s solo exhibition, opens in November. 

Speaking of Barbara Earl Thomas: the artist was featured in the New York Times’ special arts section about her new work created for the SAM show; the article also discusses a major show for Bisa Butler, who along with Thomas is represented by Claire Oliver Gallery in New York. 

Local News

The Seattle Times’ Megan Burbank reviews Wa Na Wari’s new exhibition, Story Porch, which features installations by Virginia-based artist and historical strategist Free Egunfemi Bangura.

For her weekly editor’s letter, Crosscut’s Brangien Davis leans into Halloween, highlighting some spooky art to experience.

“Start peeking into your elderly neighbors’ living rooms—who knows what you might find.” The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig reflects on the recent exciting discovery of a missing Jacob Lawrence panel. Part of the artist’s Struggle series, the panel will be on view next spring at SAM

“I particularly love the mess of hands and feet on both sides of the work; the rebel farmers’ messy hair and their big, blocky hands; the bright red blood against the scene’s muted tones. Like with a lot of Lawrence’s work, you benefit from a long, good look.”

Inter/National News

Hyperallergic on why New York Magazine commissioned 48 artists to design “I voted” stickers, including Amy Sherald, David Hammons, Barbara Kruger, Hank Willis Thomas, and more.

The New York Times has recommendations for staycations in six American cities; a walk in SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park is included in the tips for Seattle.

Artnet’s Sarah Cascone reports on the ongoing controversy around the Baltimore Museum of Arts’ planned sale of artworks from its collection; last week, the museum pulled the works from auction just hours prior to the sale and after the Association of Art Museum Directors offered clarification on their guidelines.

“‘I recognize that many of our institutions have long-term needs—or ambitious goals—that could be supported, in part, by taking advantage of these resolutions to sell art,’ [AAMD board of trustees president Brent Benjamin] wrote. ‘But however serious those long-term needs or meritorious those goals, the current position of AAMD is that the funds for those must not come from the sale of deaccessioned art.’”

And Finally

The most sacred right

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: Installation view of City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped a New Seattle at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo: Natali Wiseman.

Two-Way Mirror: An Interview with Barbara Earl Thomas

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, which will be on view for a year at SAM, centers Black youth in a series of all-new artworks at once delicate and resilient. This Seattle-based artist uses cut-paper and glass portraits and transforms an entire gallery into a luminaria. A place for reflection, the works cut to the core of the fundamental values we assign to light and dark. The disarming expressions of children in Thomas’ portraits ask us to consider how we see each other and how we internalize and project innocence and guilt. Drawn from a community of family and friends, The Geography of Innocence celebrates young lives and their futures in full consciousness of the pervasive violence against Black children. SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda interview this important artist in anticipation of the upcoming exhibition. Tickets to visit the galleries will be available starting November 1!

Catharina Manchanda: Biblical narratives form the backdrop of many of your works, and you bring the symbolism of light and shadow to bear on the political situation in this country. What narratives do you explore in The Geography of Innocence?

Barbara Earl Thomas: It’s the two-way mirror through which I see the world. It’s narrated to me in my grandmother Phoebe’s voice with whom I often spent the weekends and summers; where at each exit to the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom, she’d say, “I’ll be right back, God willing.” This set a tone for the temporality of each moment of this life as she moved through her day. Her God ruled every moment and was the reason for everything good. The devil, his dark wily opposite, was the root of all evil. She loved and admonished us in those terms. Everything was literal. When I misbehaved, the devil had gotten into me. This meant I was not quite responsible for my misdeeds, but in some moment of inattention, I’d let down my guard, and admitted the demon who caused me to climb that tree and fall out, or say some bad words to my cousins who were also full of devils. She reminded me that hell was paved with hot stones, filled with fire, and it came out of your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth. I saw this, clear as day. My grandfather admonished her because he knew by nightfall, I’d be so crazed with this idea of the devil, that instead of sleeping on the couch, I might have to sleep with them. These were some of my first stories heard, sung, and repeated. They formed the backdrop of beauty and mystery of my world.  

As a young person I was drawn to the oratorical language of the sermon and its talk of miracles and prophecy—none of which I’d seen. It was the music I listened to, the silences from the adults as I entered the room, and the ladies who prayed over me when I was sick. The ritual and the shape of sanctuary no matter the denomination—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran and Evangelical—was all the same to me. I’d wander into Holy Names Cathedral just off Union Street, or accompany a friend to one of the many Pentecostal churches often set up in temporary store fronts, fleeting in their residence. During these services accompanied by full bands, there were people who sang as each member became possessed by a holy spirit. There were the Jewish people walking to synagogue on Saturday. All these places in my small world were little fires of community where deep emotion and imagination converged. There were stories, food, songs, candles, holy water, and scenes of strange happenings from some mythical past about some next world. 

I was intrigued by the language and cultural references around how we describe victims when we think and speak about the violence so prevalent in our country. There is something of heaven and hell to this: violence spirals down from police shootings of young Black men, to nightclub massacres, to random sniper killings of the oldest and then to the youngest among us, our children. I thought, this is where it will stop, with the children. Certainly every adult will draw the line when it comes to the wholesale slaughter of children. Sadly, that was not the case, but what emerged for me from the myriad mass shootings—with Sandy Hook most notably—was the language around sympathy, guilt, and innocence. In thinking about why we as adults couldn’t put children first, I was drawn to studies that demonstrated how we, as a culture, see our children. Here young Black children are seen as less innocent and, therefore, less worthy of public grief than white children.

My ideas for this exhibit surfaced after several readings of Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and a subsequent re-reading of a mid-1980’s James Hillman essay, Notes on White Supremacy. Prescient in its content, Hillman explores the deep-seated world of mythology around the concepts of light and dark, black and white. As I’d read the essay so long ago, I’d forgotten Hillman’s reference to Tanizaki’s book. It was a happy connection. Both the book and essay deal with how deeply imprinted our associations with language and its usage of the words and concepts are associated with darkness and light. From guilt to innocence they hold a deep well of our associated fears of the unclean and besmirched. Conversely, we associate light and white with all that is pure, clear, clean, and, therefore, innocent and unblemished.

Light and dark. Light and shadow. What is seen and unseen. What is clear and what is mystery—these kinds of experiences are part of my story in addition to my formal education. This is the base that provided the vocabulary and shaped my narrative of the world. As a Black person, I can’t help but see myself in the landscape and imagine how others might experience me based on how I appear to them. I search myself to see how I react to and employ my thoughts and opinions, because aside from being Black I’m also human and subject to the world’s influences.

In this new body of work, I use multiple images of Black children: bold, frontal, and almost life size, so that their faces engage the viewer. In my cuts, I explore youth and its innocence imprinted in and on the subjects’ expressions. I purposefully insist on this particular view and stance because it’s not the one most given to us often in the media or popular culture. The backgrounds may hold contrasting stories that compete with the figures and their stance—the push and pull of the opposites; the yin and yang.

CM: Elsewhere you noted: “I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of chaos.” This statement is acutely felt right now—can you talk about it in relationship to the work that will be on view at SAM?

BET: As a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, now as then, there was much ado and action around issues of inequity. The utopian movements that sprang up were numerous. Like formal religion, these communities and/or cults were created as foils to the many disasters life holds. We are afraid and terrified; there is nothing new in that. We construct magic circles and ritual movements to distract and protect ourselves from floods, storms, fires, famines, diseases and yes, now plagues. It is my observations and my experiences that interest me, so like a good witness I note, record, and echo back to my viewer my literal experience of the world through visual stories.

CM: You call yourself “artist, writer, thinker.” We also know that you are an engaged reader. How does your reading and writing practice inform your visual work?

BET: Reading is life. As an active reader I’ve always used literature and all of my reading to inform my world.  I read and write to get at truth and to clarify my own thought process. It’s easy for me to talk about my thoughts and correct or rephrase as I go. There is something about being in a room and engaging in a conversation that can make even confused thought processes sound plausible. But when I write I am forced to create clear sentences and connect thoughts and see if they hold water. When I read, I’m looking for the rigor and willingness in the author to think things all the way through. Writers like James Baldwin, August Wilson, and John Edgar Widman are American writers who do that for me. Poets like Pablo Neruda and Rilke capture truth in a nonlinear image condensed. Most recently, I’ve been reading Colin Thurbron’s travel writing, Pico Iyer, and rereading Robert D. Kaplan. I love good travel writing as it is a way to see the world through others’ eyes and be in other parts of this world without traveling. What all these authors share is clear thinking and hard truth telling, which is something I demand of myself in my own work.

CM: You are making a lot of new work for the exhibition, which include different kinds of processes. Would you tell us about the use of the negative space in your paper cuts (you say you draw with the knife!) compared to the wall hangings?

BET: The negative space allows the light to shine in contrast. It heightens the experience. When paired with the positive it creates shadows and mystery. The concept demonstrates that both are needed to create the particular magic that is this story. Both positive and negative space are needed to create a world that exists as sculpture in the round—one that is not flat or one-dimensional. Both are needed to create the emotional response that I seek. When people are surrounded, they are forced to surrender their senses for a moment. 

CM: You are pairing your cut paper works with illuminated glass panels for the installation at SAM, what prompted you to pair these in the two adjacent galleries?

BET: I think of this exhibition as one installation made up of several parts. Each separate element has its role in the installation of the paper-cut portraits. Most of the figures are inspired by children of friends and neighbors, some are random portraits I’ve found. All are chosen because there is a way for me to show the part that I think is missing in many of our depictions of the innocence that lives in and marks the dark face of a child. I’m creating a space that holds the viewer in light and shadow to demonstrate something about illusion and how our imagination creates the monsters in the shadows even when there is nothing there. In this case I’m cutting the beautiful from the darkness and placing viewers in the shadows to make them a part of the world they observe. The portraits are cast as precious objects, surrounded by what feels like sacred objects—my candelabras.  The hand-cut wallpaper is designed to create fountains of movement as the viewer is invited to the suspended centerpiece, Bodies in the Matrix.

Images: Siblings, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford. Color Wheel, 2020, Barbara Earl Thomas, American, cut paper and hand-printed color backing, 40 x 26 in., Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, photo: Spike Mafford.