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Thomas, Barbara Earl (b. 1948)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 10/23/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9197

The former Executive Director of Seattle's Northwest African American Museum, Barbara Earl Thomas is far more than an institutional administrator. She is also an inspiring lecturer on the topics of art and culture and -- as the University of Washington Press notes -- a "painter and writer of prodigious talent and remarkable visionary sensibility." A native of Seattle, Thomas studied under Jacob Lawrence and other revered instructors at the University of Washington where she attained her Masters of Fine Arts degree in 1977. In the years since, Thomas has established herself as an artist of prominent stature whose work is represented by Seattle's prestigious Francine Seders Gallery and has been exhibited in galleries (including the Seattle Art Museum) all across the nation.

Her Father's House

Barbara Earl Thomas's grandparents were among the great influx of southern African Americans who migrated to the Pacific Northwest at the dawn of World War II in search of work and a better life. As she told Seattle Woman magazine: “They heard that you could have a job here, you could own property, own a home. I had relatives that came here who never saw money -- actual money -- before, because they lived on sharecropping farms and they got paid in scrip.”   Her maternal grandfather came out first, from Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1941 and after gaining employment in the shipyards he sent for his daughters. One daughter, Lula Mae Bailey (d. 1988), eventually married a Fort Lewis-based soldier, William Earl Thomas, and the couple had two daughters, Lyndia and Barbara.

When Barbara was age 3 her father died of leukemia and a few years later her mother (who worked as a housecleaner) remarried. Grady C. Wright (d. 1988) -- a Fort Lewis soldier and native of Florida -- fulfilled the fatherly role for the Thomas girls splendidly while also earning a decent income by working on a Seattle Engineering Department street maintenance crew. That was a job which allowed him to move the family up from transitional military housing in West Seattle's High Point area, to their own large home (1464 21st Avenue) in the Central District in 1953.  

Southern Heritage 

Still, the neighborhood surrounding them seemed a bit different: "Everything in my house was Southern," she told The Seattle Times. "Everything else outside was Norwegian or Japanese or whatever. But when you went in your house, you ate Southern food, you thought Southern thoughts" (Beason). As the family settled further into the rhythms of Seattle life they carried on with their familiar ways of making ends meet -- which centered around weekly fishing trips from their home to various local lakes, ponds, and Puget Sound bluffs.

"I am from a family of fishermen who migrated from the South in the early 1940s, specifically Louisiana, Texas and Florida," Thomas once recalled. "While they left much behind, what they brought with them was a love for being out of doors on the lakes fishing for food to feed the family and sometimes the whole neighborhood. What set us apart from the Native Americans and the Scandinavians who came before us was our ritual of fishing for bottom fish. For years after my family’s arrival in the Northwest in the 1940s there was no concept or talk of trout or steelhead. It was catfish, crappy and perch that lived in our dreams" (Seders).

Though a Northwest kid through-and-through, Thomas absorbed plenty of her peoples' rich southern traditional ways. One description of her later work would note that she "expresses in her art a dual heritage, translating southern roots and culture into a Northwestern landscape" (UW Press). 

The Student

Thomas began attending public schools -- T.T. Minor Elementary (1700 E Union Street), Meany Junior High (301 21st Avenue E), Cleveland High School (5511 15th Avenue S.) -- and finally, Garfield High School (400 23rd Avenue) where she graduated in 1967. The following year Thomas became the first person in her family to attend college when she enrolled at Seattle Central Community College (1701 Broadway). In 1969 she began attending the University of Washington, but her career goals were unsettled -- Thomas was still telling everyone that she wanted to be a physical therapist. “I didn’t know what it was," she admitted, “but people were very impressed” (Nicol). And, as she once told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "When I got into the university, it was a miracle. I hadn't planned to go. No one in my family went. I was enrolled before I realized I could major in art."

But then one day she stumbled into the campus' School of Art building and a whole new world opened up for her. She initially was interested in working as a fabric artist but then in her junior year Thomas switched to painting. "Doing that turned my life on. I saw that I could think and read and have ideas" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). But even with that late start she quickly demonstrated a deep passion for the expressiveness that the visual arts allowed and encouraged. And along the way, she studied under esteemed painters, Michael Spafford (b. 1935), Norman Lundlin (b. 1938) -- and one of America's leading figurative artists, the famed Harlem Renaissance painter, Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000).

In 1971 Lawrence -- then serving as jurist for an annual art exhibition sponsored by the Seattle Chapter of the Links, Inc. (an association of African American business and professional women) -- bestowed the Links Art Award's $250 prize to Thomas. In 1973 she received her Bachelor of Arts degree. Married and divorced, in 1975,  Thomas went to France where she studied at the University of Grenoble,. In 1977 she achieved a Master of Fine Arts with minors in Art History and French.

The Arts Administrator

In 1979, the Seattle Arts Commission hired Thomas as a coordinator for their Artists in the City program. Over the following decade she developed the commission's  literature division and administered its grants program.   

Then in 1989 Thomas began working as advertising manager at the Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S Main Street) where her eventual husband, Rick Simonson, was a buyer and the shop's author-event coordinator. That same year also saw Thomas leave the Arts Commission and begin overseeing programs for Seattle’s Department of Arts and Cultural Affairs and working with Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival Commission which organized the Northwest’s largest arts Festival, Bumbershoot -- and of which she eventually served in the role of director.

The Artist

An up-and-coming painter, Thomas had first seen her works exhibited at Seattle's modest Greenwood Galleries (89 Yesler Way) in 1977 and 1979. Then in 1980 (while doing her painting in a studio at the downtown YMCA building), Thomas mounted her first-ever solo exhibit at Greenwood Galleries -- one which was stung by Artweek magazine's negative review. But that critique proved invaluable because it forced a reevaluation of her own work and artistic approach -- a soul searching process that  resulted in a renewed commitment and greater focus on her own individualistic expression.  

The following year saw another exhibit there as well as one at Seattle's A Contemporary Theater Gallery (100 W Roy Street). Her For Women Who Sleep with Crocodiles exhibit was mounted at Seattle Pacific University's Art Center gallery (3 West Cremona Street) in 1983 and 1984 brought exhibits at the King County Courthouse's Executive Office Gallery as well as Thomas's debut exhibit -- Recent Work -- at Seattle's esteemed Francine Seders Gallery (6701 Greenwood Avenue N). The Francine Seders Gallery has represented her work ever since.  

In the years hence, Thomas's paintings have been exhibited widely -- including a show sponsored by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. -- and her work is in prominent collections including those of the Seattle Art Museum, the King County Public Arts Collection, and the Washington State Arts Commission.

Artistic Achievement

Among the reoccurring visual themes in Thomas's art are water, sky, fish, birds, and her beloved childhood home. Jacob Lawrence wrote that her "technical skills as an artist in the handling of abstract elements of color, line, texture, shape, and value are inventive, dynamic, and exciting to view. In formalistic terms her works have scope and dimension. She continues to express with deep conviction and passion her perception of life. Her paintings are developed with insight and experience."

The University of Washington Press noted "the magic realism that infuses the stories Thomas tells with her paintings" and Seattle art critic Regina Hackett described her art as being "moody and hypnotically subtle." Furthermore, "The universe of her painting is tightly knit, and weather is the dominant element."

One significant point of reality that accounts for some of the moodiness and brooding weather patterns featured in her works is that in 1988 her world turned upside down with the sad news that both parents had drowned when their rowboat capsized in a storm while they were doing that most commonplace family activity: fishing. Unlike most folks who face such a tragedy, Thomas – as an artist – had a means right at hand for exploring her feelings at this sudden loss. As the Francine Seders Gallery stated about her art: "Thomas's paintings combine discipline with passion. They are carefully composed and ... while small in scale and subdued in color, they are full of human drama with figures tossed in tumultuous seas or skies as Thomas reflects on the precarious state of the world since the millennium."

Such perceptions about the quality of Thomas's work began to garner her further kudos: In 1996 the Seattle Arts Commission named her winner of their Howard S. Wright Award and in 1997 she received the Artist Trust Tenth Anniversary Award for Artistic Achievement and Community Contribution. The following year saw the University of Washington Press publish Storm Watch: The Art of Barbara Earl Thomas -- a book that explored the connections between her life and artistry. 

Recent Work

Since 1997 Thomas has mainly worked in the challenging medium of egg tempera (finely ground dry pigments, egg yolk, and water all mixed together) which is applied in very thin, and fast-drying, layers that offer little opportunity for tweaking. The results have been quite impressive: her artwork is included in a number of prestigious private and public collections such as the Safeco Corporate Collection, the Microsoft Corporate Collection, The City of Seattle 1 Percent for Art and the Seattle Art Museum permanent collection. In addition it has been exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum, the Bellevue Art Museum, the Evergreen State College, and Whatcom County Museum, and in galleries throughout the United States.   

In 2005 Thomas had major solo exhibitions at the Evansville Museum of Arts and Science, Evansville, Indiana and at the Meadows Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana. In 2006 Washington State's Lt. Governor Brad Owen announced that several works by Thomas had been mounted for display at his office in the Legislative Building in Olympia. Then in spring 2007 her Electric Raven art-piece – a laser-cut steel screen that evokes the legend of how ravens utilized lightning storms to create the world -- was installed at the Sound Transit Project's new switching station at Seattle's Walden Triangle (Martin Luther King Jr. Way S and S Walden Street).

The Award-Winning Writer

Meanwhile, Thomas' writings have been included in numerous publications and anthologies, including: A Single Mother's Companion, Aorta, Calyx, Gathering Ground, Raven Chronicles, Intimate Nature: The Bonds Between Women and Animals, Raven Chronicles, The Gift of Birds: True Encounters with Avian Spirits, and Writing Down the River: Into the Heart of the Grand Canyon. Major essays were included in Storm Watch and Never Late for Heaven: The Art of Gwen Knight, a monograph on the work of Gwen Knight Lawrence (which she co-authored with curator Sheryl Conkelton) that accompanied Knight's retrospective exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum in 2003.

Essays by Thomas -- including "In My Father's House There Are Many Roomers," "Night Crawlers and Earth Worms," and "Man Cleans Fish" -- were included in the Johns Hopkins University Press's summer 2004 volume of Callaloo. Such pieces began to attract considerable critical regard: In 1998 she received the Seattle Arts Commission award for new non-fiction, just as she did in 2000.   

The Museum Director

After many years of wishing, hoping, dreaming, and planning by numerous members of the community, the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) finally opened in Seattle's historic Colman Elementary School building (2300 S Massachusetts Street) on March 8, 2008. Thomas had contributed to that planning effort since 2005 and initially served as the organization's curator -- a role that saw her leading the development of the museum's inaugural exhibits including the Making a Life/Creating a World showcase of two of the region's most acclaimed African American artists, James W. Washington Jr. (1908-2000), and Jacob Lawrence.   

Along the way Thomas had taken on the additional responsibility of serving as Deputy Director under the leadership of Carver Gayton (b. 1938). But then, only a few months after their grand opening, Gayton retired and Thomas moved up to the acting director slot, and  ultimately to the museum's Executive Director position.  While conducting a tour of the museum's central gallery Thomas once stated of the history represented there that: "We start with the present and work to the past. It's not a finite story; you're not going to just find out about things that have already happened, but things that African Americans do and have done" (Nicol). Similarly, Thomas' life story is not just about the past, but of the great things she has accomplished and will continue to do so.


Regina Hackett, "Painting Is Positive Energy for Late-bloomer Thomas," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 17, 1995, p. D-1; Tyrone Beason, "Living Black History: Artist Reflects on a Life Lived in Two Worlds," The Seattle Times, February 1, 2005 (http://seattletimes.nwsource/); Barbara Earl Thomas, "Biography," barbaraearlthomas.com website accessed on September 24, 2009 (http://www.barbaraearlthomas.com); Barbara Earl Thomas, "Passing Secrets," essay, Storm Watch: The Art of Barbara Earl Thomas (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), 35-48; Jacob Lawrence, "Foreword," essay, Storm Watch: The Art of Barbara Earl Thomas (Seattle: University of Washington  Press, 1998), 9; Vicki Halper, "Introduction," essay, Storm Watch: The Art of Barbara Earl Thomas (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998) 13-34; Francine Seders Gallery website accessed on September 24, 2009 (http://www.sedersgallery.com/Artists/062/ThomasRESf.html); Eileen Nicol, “'We Do Everything': Barbara Earl Thomas and the Northwest African American Museum," Seattle Woman magazine, July/August 2009, pp.11-13; "Lt. Governor’s office displays works of Barbara Earl Thomas," press release, November 9, 2006, ltgov.wa.gov website accessed on September 20, 2009 (http://www.ltgov.wa.gov/PressCoverage/newsreleases/thomas11092006.htm); Jack Broom, "Director of Northwest African American Museum to retire," The Seattle Times website accessed on October 21, 2009 (http://seattletimes.nwsource).

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