Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas has a magical way with a line.
In “The Reading Room: Prints 2006-2013,” her new show of linocuts at Paper Hammer, Thomas uses strong linear design and minimal color to create worlds that are simultaneously folkloric and surreal, lyrical and turbulent, workaday and mythical.
The result is a marvelous, compact exhibit exploring memories and dream-realities to do with two of Thomas’ favorite activities: reading and fishing. The images also reflect Thomas’ heritage as a Seattle-born daughter of African-American migrants from the Deep South who, as she writes, “left behind family and friends and a history rooted in slavery and sharecropping to take up 1940s war jobs.”
While Thomas never stopped producing artwork in her studio, it’s been some years since she showed any of it in Seattle, in part because her duties as executive director of the Northwest African American Museum (2006-2013) have kept her otherwise occupied. Since stepping down from that full-time position in January, Thomas has become NAAM’s Deputy Director/Major Gifts Officer, a part-time post that’s allowing her to get back to her artwork in a major way.
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Her new situation, she said earlier this week, is “wonderful for me on all fronts. … I feel fortunate.”
The pieces at Paper Hammer will make viewers feel fortunate, too.
The two earliest works in the show, “Man Cleans Fish” and “Nightcrawlers and Earthworms” (both from 2006), are linocut versions of tempera-on-paper paintings done by Thomas in the 1980s.
When she made her first linocuts, she explains, she was working in a medium she’d never tried before: “So I started with a theme and familiar compositions. It’s not unusual for me to do the same painting several times. It’s like doing rewrites and editing. So transferring the images and theme from the paintings to the linocuts was a natural transition for me in my practice.”
“Man Cleans Fish” and “Nightcrawlers” are relatively spare in design. But as Thomas kept working, her linocuts got bigger and considerably more elaborate.
“Dream Delivered,” from 2008, has a fantastical, perilous flow to it. In it, an elderly couple in sleeping embrace are afloat on a tilting bed that’s sliding over swirling currents. Lying across them, a book lies open, while arching over them is a bird with a fish in its mouth. Eddying waters filled with aquatic life surge all around them. Yet, entwined as they are in each other’s arms, they look safe.
“The Reading Room” (2013) has a crazed, almost Boschian energy to it, as book-filled bookcases and individual gigantic tomes careen around, some with figures clinging to them as though they were life-rafts. Up top, a tiny man blasts notes through a huge trumpet. Down below, figures tumble this way and that. Playing games with distortion and perspective, Thomas suggests both the drama of the worlds that books can unveil and the refuge that books can provide to readers unsettled by vicissitudes in their own lives.
“The Reading Room” and other large recent linocuts use color more prominently, as their lines shade from pale yellow to fiery orange against a solid black backdrop. Several figures in them seem to have flames issuing from them — a tribute to the way books can set your whole being on fire?
But it wouldn’t do to read too literal a meaning into these works. Much of their allure stems from the way they accommodate imagery from the unconscious as easily as details from everyday life.
A nicely produced $8 catalog, published by Paper Hammer/Marquand Books, will let you pore over Thomas’ work at greater leisure and spot lurking details you might have missed on first viewing.
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org