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 United States. 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 3 Thomas describes her creative process; working with new methods, materials, and other artists; and her views on art as storytelling and a reflection of life.
"Artifacts of Thinking"
I am excited about my work, but I'm also realizing, too, that I have a place that I will have to cede to the people who come after me. So how do I make that transition and allow myself to still unfold however I'm unfolding, but knowing that I'm not 30? I ain't gonna see 30 again and I'm not gonna see 40 again. But how do I, kind of, bring along all the people that are right here to that next step, in some small way? And that's interesting.
What my paintings are ... I think of them as artifacts of thinking. So I go in my head and I think and I come back. It's like a little trip and you make sketches of what you saw on your trip, and then you try very hard to capture whatever that thought is in a visual form, and it's a product of a thought process that you're trying to hold together with some sort of continuity. One thought to another. You're revealing that to yourself as much as you're revealing it to someone else. I may start with an idea and paint, paint, paint and I go, "Ay Chihuahua! I thought I knew what it was about, but this is what it's really about." Because now that I've seen enough, the reason I keep painting is because I want to see what the next thing is going to be! If I already knew, I wouldn't do it. It wouldn’t be interesting.
JK: Some of your Reading Room prints are print versions of some earlier paintings ...
BET: They started that way and, again, everything kind of ... God, I was working at the museum and it was such a hard job. I said, "God, I don't know if I can paint right now, but I need to be able to make something. Maybe if I just had a tool, I could start doing something." So I had these tools that I'd had for a while. I said, "I'm going to go in there and see if I can do something where I just cut things." I had a friend, Daniel Minter, actually, who -- he's just an amazing crafts person, thought person -- and he said, "Let me just come over and show you how." And he just came over and gave me a couple of little pointers and I said, "I think I can do that."
What I wanted was something that, when I got here, was very direct. It didn't let me go off on all these color tangents, and it had to be very immediate. That was 2006 because the museum was opening in 2008 and I was hot in the middle of trying to raise, you know, $10 million or whatever the heck it was with my partners in crime up there. I thought, "I can just come here every day and I can make these things." I thought, "Well, what should I do first? First, I'm gonna take some images that I already know. Since I'm already challenged by this new medium, I'm going to take some images that I really like and redo them and see how that comes out." That's how those started to be the first ones.
After the third one, I knew how to print, so I just went on from there. When I quit at the museum in 2013 -- that was when I had the show [at Paper Hammer], to celebrate the whole moving through that time. And I wanted to see what the prints looked like all together because I hadn't really seen what they all looked like together; I just was in here doing them. And then they started to get bigger. I had a visitor -- Sandra Jackson-Dumont came over and she says, "I can see these things so much bigger. Have you ever thought of just making them bigger?"
And I thought, "You know, yeah, I'm trying to."
And she says, "Well, you need to."
So I just started making them bigger. They're on their way to being something bigger.
JK: What were those photographs that were just at the Seattle Art Museum by ...
BET: Ruby LaToya Frazier. Yeah! She was one of the Lawrence Prize winners. Amazing. I don't use that word that often.
Steel and Stone
JK: You also did a public sculpture.
BET: Many. I've done many. I decided I ... it must've been 2000, I got a commission to do a water-meter cover for the city. I wanted to work in another material that would allow me to work really big, and in order to work really big, I needed to have a budget and a reason that would allow me to make these things, and they needed to have a place to go. So I applied for a few of these things and I ended up getting one commission for Sound Transit and one for Evergreen State College, and some other ones for some small parks.
I ended up being able to work in steel and sandblasted stone. Those were just other challenges that were like, "What material am I going to use that makes sense for this that is not going to change my work, so I can still have the imagery I use, but just in a different medium." I had to really learn how -- again, from the people whose expertise is steel or their expertise is printmaking. I learned what I could do in printmaking best. Rather than what I could do in painting, what could I do in printmaking? What could I do with things that had a fluidity and big bolder shapes, but still have people say when they see it, "Yeah, that's Barbara Thomas's work."
That was my challenge, and it also allowed me to do something I hadn't done, and that was collaborate. If you're going to do this and you're not a blacksmith -- and I'm not a blacksmith -- you have to go and find these people who are blacksmiths and then learn a little bit of the language, figure out how to draw for them so that they can translate what you have there, listen to them say, "This is what can be done," but also push them and say, "Well, did you think ... can this be done?" so that it's not just a routine thing. And then, finally, to make sure that it is operating under the client's requirements -- it's not too tall, people aren't going to be able to impale themselves on it unless they really, really, really, really try. Those things are annoying, but that was part of it.
I can't say that I consider myself to be some fabulous public artist -- I'm not -- but I think that the pieces that I made were true and honest to who I am and represent my work in that other format. It's honorable. So I'm happy with that.
I don't really want to be a designer, and a lot of it really requires that you be more of a designer since I'm not actually fabricating the work myself. But, you know, I like working with other people and I like working with the architects and manufacturers. That was very interesting, to see how things came out. And it was big, so I could do things that were 33 feet and 20 feet and that's nice.
JK: There's this interesting theme of translating ...
BET: It's alchemy.
JK: I like that word. Translating culture into mediums and translating messages across mediums ...
BET: And then adding words. In the writing, I'm always trying to do that, there's always a little story that has just a little thing I'm interested in, where when you get to the end, it's always sort of like you're with the character when they a learn a thing that they didn't know before -- they just didn't know that then and they know it now. Some small piece of maturation.
That's what's amazing about human beings: one day your kid can roll over and the next day or two weeks later, they can stand up. It couldn't do that two weeks ago. Then it can walk across the floor, and you can chart that. The day before they couldn't, and now they can do that! No matter how many times it happens, it's just amazing. That's why when you read these books and watch these movies and these themes keep coming up. Well, yeah, it's a primal theme, and there's only so many things you're going to come up with. The way you use them, that's your inventiveness.
The thing that people discover is usually the same thing that people discover over and over. People discover, as they mature, that life is not infinite. Those are those coming-of-age stories. People discover that human relationships are the most important thing about being alive. At the time people discover it, they think they personally discovered that. And people discover that everything is fleeting. As trite as it sounds, it's amazing for each person who discovers that, and it's amazing for groups of people -- whether you're going through your class in junior high or high school, it's amazing for people as they come to those points. No matter how much people may have told them about it before, how much somebody warned you about not falling into that hole, some people have to fall into the hole. That's the way they learn.
Some people are very, "I have to put it in my mouth to learn about it." Did your parents ever tell you, "Just because everyone else is jumping off the cliff, does that mean you have to jump off the cliff?" Well, some people have to jump off the cliff. Some people can be told about the cliff and go like, "Well, I can see the allure of jumping off the cliff, but I'm not going to jump off the cliff. I can dance around the edge of the cliff." Those are the things I still talk about in my work.
I know that there's part of art and the art world where you're supposed to be an iconoclast and some people are doing things -- I like to call it "misusing your art materials" -- you're doing something that's really "amazing" that changes how people perceive of that medium. That's not what I do. I just tell stories. At this point, I have to say that's what I do. I might do something else, but chances aren't really that big anymore. Probably never were. You come to terms, you come to grips, and I'm now trying to do the things I do really well the most. What I want to predominate my daily life are the things I do well. You know, you spend the first half or third of your life working on your holes. "I'm not really good at that; I should try that." Then, at a certain point, you say, "I'm really good at this. I'm gonna work on this."
And the other things that I'm not good at -- they're probably always going to be around the fringe and I have to be careful. But I'm not going to spend a lot of my day trying to shore myself up. Someone says, "Well, you don't particularly like heights. Don't you think you should challenge yourself?" No. I don't want to climb the mountain because once I do, I'm terrified. I say there are plenty of things on the ground that are terrifying, if it's being terrified that I need.
Against some people's better judgment or maybe even my own, I do a lot of things because a lot of things interest me. I speak French because I like to speak French. I'm not going to be a translator, but I like to communicate. I worked really hard on Spanish. I do pretty well. I wanted to do Russian and Japanese, and I didn't make it in this life, but if I can do those two I'll be pretty happy.
I do words, I do images, and I think my work is about -- my life is about -- ideas and people and interactions. Real interactions, the way I think about them. Risking a little bit in an interaction, so you go beyond the cordialities that can define people's days. I think that having a sense of humor is one the most important things a person can have because life is ridiculous. I mean, you do all this and then you die. You have hard times and things are not fair and things are uneven. As you know, one boob is always bigger than the other.
JK: Not fair.
BET: Not fair! So what do you do? You just gotta have a good laugh about it. I just think that's really important, I do. I'm always finding things that are totally funny, and I'm happy that I can still find that are totally amusing in life. So that's what I do.
Art Reflecting Life
JK: I was hoping there was one piece you maybe wanted to spend five minutes or a couple minutes on. I feel like we don't hear enough about specific pieces from artists.
BET: Sure. Well, let's talk about the most recent one. I can tell you about it. I don't know how these pieces have come up, but I'm always -- and I think this goes back to the whole thing about my family, having the world be so mysterious because, you know, the world is mysterious, and so this idea of weather and biblical apparitions -- I was raised with all this stuff, so I think those motifs continue. I have this one piece, In Case of Fire and In Case of Flood. It's so funny, whenever I do these motifs and people say, "It's just like New Orleans, isn't it? Yeah, it's like New Orleans when we had the big hurricane." I guess it is. And I just did these and was over in Tieton and people were saying, "It's just like the fires in the Methow." You know, I guess it is.
Someplace on the planet, these things are always happening, because they're always happening in my head. When you're looking at my work and the houses are tipping over and the chairs are falling in the center and the people are falling on top of them and then the cock is crowing and the wind is blowing and the things are floating -- to me, that's kind of how I see the world and it's all happening at the same time as you're sitting there calmly, quietly, looking serene. Things are swirling.
JK: You mean in different parts of the world or ...
BET: Just around. You just walk out and you hear someone's playing their stereo at the highest decibel, someone's running down the street shouting. I was downtown earlier this week dropping off a rental car. I walked out of the place at 3rd and Stewart and I stepped out onto the sidewalk and just as I stepped out, there was a guy standing on an upside-down box with a megaphone going "GOD IS COMING, CHRIST IS COMING, ARE YOU READY?" And this lady was going, "Mhmm, I hope you're ready, I hope you're ready."
And then a guy across the street was playing a bagpipe, so the bagpipe's going and this guy's going "ARE YOU READY," and she's walking up and down the street and she's signifying. She doesn't exactly look like she goes with this scene, but she just stepped into it, so she became his chorus. So I'm walking down the street and here someone comes and they intersect my day and there's this guy, this white kid with dreads and looking like he's been through hell and he's got one leg that is so huge, it looks like it has gangrene on it and it's about ready to burst. And then there are these kids sitting on the ground on the corner and they have this sign that says "ANYTHING YOU GIVE ME WILL BE AMAZING."
So I'm standing there right in the middle of the street and I start writing all about them and it's all around me. I get down to the other corner, and there's another guy on the other corner! He goes on about John 10:27 and I'm like, "Okay, he's got this corner, the other guy's got the other corner, bagpipe guy's got the other corner ..." So when I look at my paintings, they just look normal. Normal. And someone's begging, and I'm standing in the middle of the block, and this is all happening. In just one moment. So when people say about my paintings, "There's so much happening!" I say, "Have you been downtown? Have you been to 3rd on Stewart?"