Barbara Earl Thomas Oral History, Part 2 -- Transformation, Responsibility, Choice

  • Posted 12/07/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10984

Barbara Earl Thomas (b. 1948) is a Seattle artist whose work has been exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Whatcom County Museum, and in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. She is also an author, an in-demand speaker, and the deputy director and major-gifts officer of the Northwest African American Museum, where she has served since 2008. Thomas sat down with HistoryLink.org intern Jen Kagan for an oral-history interview on August 12, 2014. The interview is presented here in three parts, slightly edited for length and clarity. In Part 2, Thomas discusses why feelings are not enough and the need for personal transformation, personal responsibility, and wise choices.

Action and Transformation

JK: You're talking about connecting with people and contributing to community and building community. Can you talk about an interaction or a person or something that happened in any of those communities that inspired you or is reflected in your work or a time where you felt like someone saw your work and you were getting through?

BET: I have lots of those stories because, again, that's what I'm looking for. I was at the Northwest African American Museum and we had this little resource room and a woman came in with her friends and she says, "Oh my god, I've been studying race relationships at the university and I'm here and I'm just so, so upset about how bad things have been and how bad we've been to each other," and she was going on and on and she started to cry. I just remember looking at her -- and her friends were looking a little distressed -- and I said, "So you're here to apologize?"

And she said, "Well, I don't know ..." 

And I said, "Do you feel bad?"

And she said, "I feel just awful."

And I said, "Well, what if I told you that your just feeling bad isn't enough? What if I didn’t need you to feel bad? What would that do? You can feel bad if that's going to help you. But what would help me is if you could figure out something you want to do here. Do you want to volunteer? Do you want to give money? I mean, what do you want to do that we can help you do here at this institution? We're totally open to whatever you want to do, but crying is not one of those things, so you can think about that." And she just looked at me. I said, "I'm only talking about myself. Maybe there are other people here that need that." She said, "Oh." I said, "Yeah."

One of the things that's really distressing to me is someone will do a thing and they'll think that's it and they'll go home and they're the same person. They haven't been transformed. To be transformed means that the change that happens is with you all the time.

JK: It's less of a point and more of a trajectory.

BET: Yeah, that will change you forever from this moment. Not just, "I had a good cry at the museum and now I've done my thing. I'm done for the day, at least. Maybe I'm not done for my whole life." I say, "No, we do that too much as a culture." And it's not just a white thing; it's an American thing.

My friend and I [went to her house once] and she was saying, "We're all going to sit down and we're going to hold hands and we're going to pray for peace." And I was so distressed. I was like, "Well, are we going to do anything else?" She says, "Oh, we're going to pray." So we lay around on the floor. And I thought: what a copout. What a copout. Either we need go volunteer someplace or we need to, I don't know what, get on a plane. But just praying is not enough.

Art and the Observer

JK: It seems like that was indirectly related to your work as an artist and, at the same time, it seems like you have a broad definition of what art is -- that it's something that moves people to action and helps people connect.

BET: Well, again, with my work, I like to say that artwork isn't going to save anybody. It's not going to save one child's life, it's not going to feed anybody, literally. But I feel like I've been successful if I can stop someone, just in their movement, and get them to look for a moment and to get them to resonate with what they're feeling about whatever they're seeing. I obviously can have an intent and I can have a goal with the series, but it's not necessarily to make somebody who looks at it think the same thing I think It's just to have them have a feeling. And maybe that feeling is, "Oh yeah, that reminds me of..." and then they go on with their story. For me, my work isn't complete unless I can have that.

Since I'm not a portrait painter who's documenting famous people -- like the guys from the Renaissance who were painting particular people for their client, so that was their way of documenting the time -- but since I'm not doing that, what am doing? I'm taking -- and I do the same thing in my writing -- I'm trying to find some something that looks inconsequential, but inside of it something is happening that is monumental.

Personal Responsibility

With my pieces Redwing Black Birds & Shooting Stars -- those pieces have to do with my being aware all the time that we're in a war zone, but it's an undeclared war zone. I was just reading on some blog that since Sandy Hook, there were a huge number ... so when you can just think of that, just the numbers of murders that happen on school grounds, and there isn't a declared war? And people get up and live their lives in a way that they don't need to be mentally prepared for their kid to not come home? And not to say that that's how you want to send your kid out of the door, but if you're not thinking about that somewhere in the back of your head, then you're just not plugged into the wall.

I'm thinking about young black kids, especially the young men in our culture, where either we're watching the police who interact with them in this negative way or we're watching other black kids interact with each other in this negative way. The result is the same thing! Little dead black boys on the street. And everyone's like, "Oh, I don't know what we can do!"

So I just thought: let me just tell a little story and let me make it beautiful, so that in the middle of this beautiful-looking thing, you start to find these bodies. And you go, yeah, that's what it's like: on the most beautiful day of your life, you could find something really horrible like that. And how do you process that and how do you think about it? And how do you come to grips with it?

Even you as one small person has a possibility of responsibility, has a possibility to do something that would make a small change. Everybody doesn't have to be Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy or Mahatma Gandhi. You can just be your small self and do one small thing. I really believe in the power of the small, multiplied, and that as an artist, my job is to not be provocative without being responsible at the same time. I mean, if I'm going to tell you about something, I don't want to cause that thing through the telling. I don't even want to have a moral judgment about it. I just want to show you, and then you can be the judge of whether or not this is affecting you one way or the other. And I let that be my job. I know that I've been successful if I feel something when I'm looking at it.

Positive Choices

I once had a show where everybody walked in and it ended up we were all crying because I'd written this piece and I'd done these paintings. It's the same thing that runs through all my work. I think about human sacrifice, and how we end up deciding to sacrifice, and who we're sacrificing because I think we're still pretty low on the evolutionary ladder and there's, you know, bloodletting. This isn't my idea. It's something I see and people write about, so I'm not an original idea-maker here.

But I think that you can choose. I think as a human being, our job is to figure out how to overcome the worst of our base instincts. We have been given, of all of the creatures, the possibility of overcoming our baser instincts. My baser instinct is to rip your face because you've done something to make me mad. I have the capacity to re-process that and to not do that. I have a choice. A cougar may not have a choice in the same way that I have a choice. Some kind of other big cat may not have a choice, but I have a choice. So how do I do that?

That's what a lot of Shakespeare's things were all about: people's baser choices and whether or not the father's jealous of the son or the mother's jealous of the daughter. That whole struggle. You have a choice as to whether you hold your children down or you launch them and make them better than you because every, or many, people are distressed that their progeny will do better than them. That's a natural feeling. A mother may look at her daughter and think, "Look at you, you're so beautiful, you're young. I'm no longer there." It's real.

So how do you make a choice to say, "Okay, I've had my moment and now it's hers." And she may be more beautiful than me -- and I think all the kids around are so smart, I just can't figure out how they got so smart. And I think I'm not that smart, and I'm just amazed. So that's something I'm always thinking about.

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