“Heaven on Fire,” by the former executive director of Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum, is a must-see. It’s at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art through Oct. 2.
Barbara Earl Thomas’ paintings sing right out with a linear flow as distinct as a rising melody. That visual musicality has been a touchstone of her work since the 1980s, making it as instantly identifiable as Emily Carr’s or Jacob Lawrence’s. Her personal iconography — besieged human figures in loving embrace, crows as trickster-companions-cum-predators, books as capacious homes for the mind to inhabit — has provided a through-line of subject matter over the decades.
At the same time, she brings plenty of experimental variation to her process. She is ceaselessly inventive in her composition. And in recent years, she has eagerly tackled new media.
That makes her retrospective at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art a must-see.
‘Barbara Earl Thomas: Heaven on Fire’
10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily through Oct. 2, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, 550 Winslow Way E., Bainbridge Island; free (206-842-4451 or biartmuseum.org).
“Barbara Earl Thomas: Heaven on Fire” covers more than 30 years in the Seattle artist’s career. It encompasses prints, glasswork and paper-cut installations, as well as the dozens of egg-tempera-on-paper paintings that comprise her main body of work.
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The surprising centerpiece of the show is “The Illuminated Story,” a room created from paper-cut wizardry, text and light. It’s a chapel in white paper, unlike anything Thomas has done before.
Combining visual spectacle with verbal content, it draws from her memories of growing up black in Seattle’s Central District (she was born in 1948 and went to Garfield High School). In one wall panel, she writes with guileless candor about becoming race-aware in the 1950s: “The form asks what are you? White, Indian, Mexican, Negro, American Negro, or Black. I am a nine-year-old with three choices and 10 seconds to figure out which of these is the least bad thing I can be.”
“Bloodletting I & II,” two bas-relief papercut installations, are even more powerful. Both depict fallen African-American figures in snow-white, as scarlet blood pools below them — no words necessary.
In her glassware, Thomas parlays her sense of narrative and linear design into jagged-tipped “story vessels.” Her linocuts — “Night Crawlers & Earthworms,” for instance — sometimes translate earlier paintings into a new print medium, their strong lines and minimal colors creating worlds that are simultaneously lyrical, turbulent, folkloric and surreal.
Still, the paintings are the highlight. And the good news is that she continues to go from strength to strength on that front.
Two gorgeous egg-tempera-on-paper works from 2015, “Illuminated Stories I” and “Illuminated Stories II,” are radiant presences in the show. Both play with the idea of medieval illuminated manuscripts, with central images framed by semiabstract decorative detail.
In “Illuminated Stories II,” a sleeping figure curls up on a gigantic open book as billowing energies swirl around its pages. These elements obey a dream logic as soft clouds and little licks of flame seem to permeate the book’s contents, then follow a continuum outside it.
Earlier paintings — “The Storm Watch,” “Fishers of Men” — depict fragile figures in intimate embrace, buffeted by the elements. The fire of the exhibition’s title crops up in a number of paintings, its russet flames almost always enclosed in cool blue-green Pacific Northwest colors.
For many years, Thomas’ local profile as an artist was low because her duties as executive director of the Northwest African American Museum kept her otherwise occupied. Since stepping down from that full-time position in early 2013, she has returned to the studio in a big way.
“Barbara Earl Thomas: Heaven on Fire” makes it clear just how grand her accomplishment is.