“The story that’s happening right now is we are in a struggle to be more human.”
– Barbara Earl Thomas
For more than a year, SAM visitors were mesmerized by the intricate and detailed cut-paper artwork of Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas in The Geography of Innocence. On the final few days of the installation, SAM sat down with Thomas to discuss how her breathtaking installation came together.
Watch this video to learn about the importance Barbara placed on bringing light into her work, her experiences working with children as models, the story behind the catechism in the installation, and the lessons she hopes her portraits impart.
“Cunningham’s headstrong nature would come to define her long career as a fine arts photographer: She never hesitated to experiment, even if it meant sailing against the wind as a female photographer in a male-dominated industry.”
“I want everybody to be a little bit off their rocker, a little bit shocked, a little bit dazzled, a little bit held. That’s what I get to do.” – Barbara Earl Thomas
“Why they give.” In the spirit of holiday giving, 425 Business checks in with local philanthropists about their charity practice. The Banks family is featured; Dr. Cherry A. Banks is a SAM trustee.
For Thanksgiving, Crosscut once again highlights the bounty of Native art on view in the area, including Duane Linklater: mymothersside at the Frye Art Museum, new public art at Climate Pledge Arena, film screenings, holiday markets, and much more.
“You think you’re looking at something that’s very blasé and very familiar and comforting and then it’s something that really jolts you once you actually understand what you’re looking at,” said Lane Eagles, associate curator at the museum. “I think the idea is to sort of lull you into this sense of comfort so that you’re sort of disarmed and that that’s when the reality that every single plate is a dead person hits you.”
“As music by Dionne Warwick, Prince and Anita Baker plays overhead, a rotating lantern in the heart of the gallery casts cut-paper images across the room’s bare, white walls. The technique recalls the earlier magic-lantern work of artists Auguste Edouart and Kara Walker. But here, there are no silhouetted people, only abstracted monochrome shapes of cut fabric patterns (Adams) and stained-glass-like cutouts of an Afro pick and a cinderella shoe surrounded by roses (Thomas).”
“Slowly we were able to see the edges of ‘Virginia Summer,’” Mr. Masson said. “After numerous discussions with the owners, we started to go further and we realized that there was oil paint covering the whole canvas. It’s the first time we realized it’s not a sketch, it’s more.”
“I heard ‘Psalm’ first,” he says, “and I was blown away, because I knew it was rare, that he never played it in public, except in France. But then when I turned the tape over and realized here’s Joe Brazil doing his matinee set, then it ends, then the next thing is the opening fanfare [of “Acknowledgment”], and — Oh my God, I realized the whole suite is here!”
“They remain relevant, and become increasingly more so as time passes,” [Rebecca] Romney said. “One of the cards depicts a scientist interacting with microbes; another shows something very akin to a Zoom session…Looking at these cards is a bit like catching up with a friend you haven’t seen since high school—that contraction of time in which it feels as if you experience two time periods at once, thinking of all that was different in the past, and how much has changed now.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“‘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.’”
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.
“Cuts through the chaos”: Go into the studio of Barbara Earl Thomas with Crosscut’s video series, The New Normal. Video producer Aileen Imperial and team captured the thoughts of the artist as she worked on her series of cut-paper portraits of Black children, which will debut at SAM later in November in her solo exhibition, The Geography of Innocence.
It’s tough to focus on a book these days, right? Well, let this list of “11 Localish Books to Read This Autumn” collected by Seattle Met’s Stefan Milne provide some inspiration (or guilt, whatever works).
Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger declares time meaningless; switches up “Currently Hanging” to “Previously Hanging” to talk about Susan Dory’s Containment series. The artist’s show at Winston Wächter closed in June but is now back “on view” again via their website.
“We are a questioning people; questions will be asked. To wit: Is the name simply settled history, a historical bridge too far to even discuss? Is it a tad troublesome, but not enough to skip lunch over? Or is it a betrayal, wholly unjustified, a historical wrong deserving of righting?”
“One aspect of this ‘Americanness’ involved the image of the lone male — tall, taciturn, remote, just like Hopper — bravely forging his own path. This was precisely the image of himself that Hopper helped to propagate; even after his death, it went on to shape the story, now revealed to be a myth, of the miraculous early oils that Hopper is supposed to have come up with on his own.”
“Its intent is to bring us into contact with the destabilizing forces of our perceptions and biases that disrupt our innocence. It is to make us conscious of our interdependency and marvel at how individual actions can lead to changes that are transformative or disruptive. It is to situate us in a moment of grace.”
Priya Frank, SAM’s Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, is interviewed for Visit Seattle’s SEAforSHE series, which celebrates women leaders in Seattle.
“‘I’m really excited,’ Russian says, as cyclists speed by. ‘The University Bridge is a drawbridge, so it’s very dynamic, tons of people walk and run across the bridge every day, plus all the boats going by underneath —’ then a boat’s air horn interrupts them.”
The American Alliance of Museums’ blog talks about children’s museology and the COVID-19 crisis, sharing how museums across the country are working to prioritize young people’s learning. SAM’s Teen Arts Group (TAG) is mentioned.
“It’s a society in which racism often determines presumption of guilt; in which imprisonment — human disempowerment and erasure — is chosen over righting the inequities that lead to prison. It’s a society in which caging people is big corporate business, with connections reaching everywhere, including the art world.”
Barbara Earl Thomas—whose solo show at SAM, The Geography of Innocence, opens later this year—has been commissioned to create a set of windows for a residential college at Yale University; her design will “confront and contextualize the history of the residential college’s name, which originally honored 19th-century statesman and notorious slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.”
“As images on screens, many look like they’ve been rendered by the algorithm alone—a view of the mind of the machine, intricate and sterile. But in person these are big canvases, emphatically textured with oil paint. The colors look different. The intricate lines wobble humanly. The paintings exist in a hierarchy. And—sadly for our moment when quarantines may come in waves—you need to see them in person to grasp the final step.”
An intriguing poll from Artnet of over 2,000 of their readers finds that this art-loving group doesn’t plan to change their art-going behavior once venues reopen. Also among the findings: they are most excited about getting back to museums specifically, and their top reasons for wanting to return are a desire for inspiration, to learn, and to support the arts.
“‘The picture plane is the site of every action,’ Mr. Marshall said. He seemed to be speaking not only about the painting process but also how he conducts his whole life — after all, this is a man who captured a live crow to get to know it better. ‘How things occupy that space,’ he added, ‘matters more than anything.’”
Beyoncé’s “Black Is King”: Six New York Times critics say, let’s discuss.
– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations
Installation view Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, Seattle Art Museum, 2018, photo: Stephanie Fink.
In anticipation of Barbara Earl Thomas’s exhibition opening in November, Barbara Earl Thomas: The Geography of Innocence, this talented artist describes the development of a new body of work amidst the turmoil and crises of the past year and within the context of broader American history. The conversation follows Thomas’s exploration of grace, storytelling, perception, and process in her art making. Watch this interview with SAM’s Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, Catharina Manchanda and get excited to experience these artworks in person this fall.
Defining herself as a storyteller, Thomas notes, “It is the chaos of living and the grief of our time that compels me, philosophically, emotionally, and artistically. I am a witness and a chronicler: I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in midst of the chaos.” In this exhibition, the artist will create an immersive environment of light and shadow—inhabited by large-scale narrative works in cut paper and glass—that addresses our preconceived ideas of innocence and guilt, sin and redemption, and the ways in which these notions are assigned and distorted along cultural and racial lines.