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 1, Thomas tells of her Southern roots and how those have affected her life and art; her creative process and artistic goals; and the importance of community involvement and human relationships.
JK: Your grandparents migrated here from Louisiana...
BET: Yes, Louisiana and Texas in the mid-40's and, as I always tell, the story is that they came because of World War II because they could get jobs here. Actually, it was my grandfather. Usually, it was the fellows because they were coming here to see if they could get jobs, and then they would send for people. So in that way, it really was like new immigrants coming to a new country, coming to the Northwest, coming from a place that was really very different from where they had come from, where the weather, food, culture, landscape -- everything was different. And I think World War II was a catalytic occurrence that caused lots of new movement in the culture. You know, women were in the workforce all of a sudden. Things were just more fluid. So that's how I got here.
My dad was at Fort Lewis. He was in World War II. He and my mom came because my grandfather sent for my mother when he was at Fort Lewis. There were all the men and all the women and you put them together and then you have children. And so that's how I ended up being born in the Northwest. You'll find that there are lots of African Americans and many other people who were introduced to the Northwest in that way. I've never lived in the South. I've visited, but I've never lived in the South. So I'm Norwegian. Just kidding.
Northwest Stories, Southern Echoes
JK: You primarily grew up in Seattle's Central Area and I've read that a lot of your work is "bringing Southern roots and culture into a Northwestern landscape."
BET: Well, you know, I think it wasn't an intent. It's like you do your work and you look at it and it mostly has to do with the fact of being a storyteller and telling so many stories. I think that's where I started. And then I looked at the work I said, "Oh!" And it wasn't that I was talking about Southern stories; I was talking about Northwest stories. It was just that there were all these Southern people. They were just doing what they did, but doing it here.
When I would tell the stories, people would say, "Oh, that really reminds me of this and that." Well, of course it would, because they were just doing what they did in Louisiana and Texas and Alabama and wherever they were from, but they were doing it here. They were going fishing, they were eating large amounts of food and feeding you large amounts of food, certain kinds of food, and you know food is a very cultural thing. So you would get the stories through the food and through that kind of behavior.
I just talk about those things in my work, and when I say "talk about them," I mean I picture them. People eating fish, people sitting around being all together in a big family clump. Which, you know, has its drawbacks. But it's simple.
When I'm doing my work, I'm always trying to figure out how to show, visually, what it feels like to be in a culture with cultural references that I didn't have firsthand. So it's very much a part of who I am, but I can't say -- you know, I didn't grow up working in the fields and on the farms and all that, but of course I have those stories in my life, so those things end up popping up.
But as someone said, I'm a recorder. I wasn't there firsthand, so those things I didn't see. But I think it's interesting because people tell you the same stories so often, you think that that's your story, and it's not. It's just something you've heard over and over and over. And it's interesting how you reshape that and incorporate it into your own life.
Northwest Climate, Southern Food
JK: But fishing was a big part of your life here, wasn't it?
BET: Of course, but we didn't fish for trout and steelhead and whatever those other kind of more tasteful fish were. We were fishing for catfish and crappy and perch, which were the same fish that they caught [in the South], as close as they could find that matched what they knew. And they fished in the same way that they fish in the South.
You could be standing next to three fishermen and the kind of fish you catch depends on what your bait is, depends on how deep you fish, depends on whether you're doing flies or you're doing weights and bobbers. So you can be standing next to someone and you're both catching totally different things because you're fishing for different things. So I think that was interesting, that was how I learned about things. If you were to go to a Southern place, you would find those people talking about the same things they would talk about in my house, because that's what we were doing.
And the things that were in the garden were -- the things that they were able to grow that flourished in a much warmer climate -- but they were still able to grow collard greens and mustard greens and all kinds of things. So it wasn't like they had to change everything. It's like a lot of people come here and they're Hispanic and they're trying to find the foods that match the foods that they're used to ....
JK: It's not a completely clean overlay ...
BET: No, you've got to substitute. You've got to figure out how to do what you do in the way that this landscape requires you to do it. So that's what they did.
JK: I read or maybe heard you say in an interview about how, since you work in so many different media, you try to pick the one that works with what you're trying to convey.
BET: You want to pick a medium that shows the qualities of that medium best. Now, I wouldn't want to try to do something in oil and try to get a watercolor effect. I mean, that's crazy. I don't paint in oils, but if I did I'd be trying to figure out -- well, what do oils do best? And how can I showcase what oils do best given what I'm trying to do and if that's the medium that speaks? But I tend to do water mediums, so I'm trying to find out -- what are the shining qualities of that and how can I make them work for me in my piece?
You know, you're doing words. If there was something you were doing better, if it was for singing, you'd be doing singing or you'd be dancing or you'd be doing something that matches. That's that whole Ben Shahn thing, when he talks about the shape of content. He said, "What is the shape of your content and how can you match that content up with the delivery system in a way that really makes the delivery and the content one?" So it's not like, "What's she trying to do here?"
I think, sometimes, people are pushing the edge in art forms and sometimes they'll try to make things happen in words that maybe used to happen in song or maybe used to happen in dance and they're trying to do that with words. And, you know, sometimes it's successful and sometimes you just scratch your head. If they wanted to sing, why didn't they just sing? Why are they doing that? But that's the experimental phase.
It's people trying to make visual things move, and I know now I'm at a point in my life where I really want my work to come off the wall. I'm really tired of flat things on the wall. I mean, I'm still doing flat things on the wall, but I'm really trying to figure out, okay, what's the next step here? That I can add something or do something that's really natural to the piece -- not that I can cut it in half if it doesn't want itself to be cut in half. But, you know, something will happen because I keep getting that feeling.
Necessity and Discovery
JK: To be able to use any medium successfully, you have to have some foundation in it. Can you talk about where you learned how to work with egg tempera and then moved toward also working in words, and making prints and sculptures. Could talk about that trajectory a little bit.
BET: A lot of things just come from an environmental issue. Or you live in a small place so you do very small things. For me, I've always worked in very tight areas until I got here and I expanded my studio. But I used to live in these little tiny places and I would want to make paintings and there was no way I was going to have turpentine and rags and all this stuff in the room with me. In a way, that decided for me what I was going to paint with, so I was kind of pushed towards doing things with water medium.
But I loved the fatness of oils and all those kinds of paints. So I said, well, which of the water mediums is rich and fat and thick--and egg tempera happened to be the one. Because your making mayonnaise. You take an egg yolk and you take out the inside of the egg yolk and you get a little bit of linseed oil or whatever the recipe says. Then, you whip it in there, and then you put a little water and a little vinegar. Mayonnaise! And then you paint. The vinegar is to break down the fat in the egg yolk and give you an emulsion that can be mixed with your pigment.
I read a lot about it, and it used to be the underpainting process during the Renaissance, when they would do these murals on the walls, these frescoes, and they would come back on top of it with oils. So that seemed like, well, that's a possibility. But before I got there, I also used gouache and I used casein. I just sort of went through all of the water mediums until I found the one that resonated and seemed to give me the best outcome.
JK: And was this when you were at the University of Washington?
BET: No, after. No, I mean, I just did my thing and went through my studies at the university, but when I got out I had to decide, well, who am I and what am I gonna do? It took years for me to sort through and figure out what my imagery was going to be and what was going to be the grammar of my paintings and my artwork.
Art, Community, Communication
It's all been a process, it's still evolving. Part of what has always been part of my daily life is that I've never not had some other thing I'm doing. I am not Picasso. I've always worked in some capacity. You know, art or community work. Now, I'm doing very little of that, but before I was. So I was kind of holding both of those things. And, really -- I mean, only time will tell whether I was successful in doing that -- but doing something that had meaning, with other people involved, in the community.
And when I say "community," I use that in a very broad sense because there's all this "cultural code" stuff. Usually, when black people say "community" they mean "black people." But I mean "community" as being the world I live in, my field, and whoever happens to be in my locus at that point.
I've worked with kids, I've worked with artists, I've worked with the Northwest African American Museum, and that's a different kind of community, too. All those things. I just like to see how many people I can actually communicate with. I think that to break through, touch, and get that feeling of recognition is something I'm always going for in my work.
I'm not interested in casual relationships in any way. So if, in fact, I'm interacting with someone, I'm trying to figure out how to get to that point where you're really saying something that's putting a little bit on the line. Myself, and obviously the other person a little bit, but myself. I have to be doing my own thing. I can't make anybody else do something, but I can offer the tenor. You throw down your card and you see if someone else is going to throw down their card. And if they're light and airy and they're kind of floating around, I normally just leave because it's not interesting.
I guess it's not interesting because I think, with each encounter, there's an opportunity for human breakthrough -- where you leave the other person having worked a little bit, but you're refreshed because they've learned something or you've learned something or you've been challenged .... in a certain way by the conversation or by the quality of their thought. And you're like, "Wow, that really pushed me a little bit and I had my gig here and that person said a little something else and, all of a sudden, it kind of was a mash-up." And there, all of a sudden, I was made to think again about something. I don't know what it might be, but that's what I like. And it's stressful for my friends.
To go to Part 2, click "Next Feature"