One word — “grace” — inspired the first cut-paper portrait Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas created in the series that appears in “The Geography of Innocence,” on view now at the Seattle Art Museum.
“[The word ‘grace’] has this open, full sound, and I love the fact that we have some words that, actually, within the sound, give you part of what the meaning is, that onomatopoeia kind of thing,” she said. “So I was drawn to that.”
Thomas found her subject for “Grace” in a photo of a young man in his early teens, holding a handmade sign that said “Don’t Shoot,” a slogan of anti-violence activists in Chicago.
It sparked an idea for Thomas, who had been grappling with the proliferation of violence against young people. “I thought … it may be interesting to do a series of young people and then think about not what I don’t want, but what I do want,” said Thomas.
She cut the image of the boy into black paper, with shades of orange, gold and turquoise peeking through. She changed the text on the boy’s sign to “Grace,” which would become a defining element of “The Geography of Innocence,” which combines a series of cut-paper portraits of young people much like “Grace” with an immersive installation.
“The definition of grace can be the moment between [a thought and] an action,” she said. “It’s sort of a pre-forgiveness not just for the other, but for yourself, and it gives you that moment of thought before you open your mouth, before you make a snap judgment, before you do any number of things that you have to walk back from — you just said something and now you gotta apologize. And you’re lucky if it’s just that.”
It’s an idea that extends to Thomas’ massive installation made of cut Tyvek, a synthetic material normally used as a housewrap during construction. Intended to resemble a sanctuary, the installation incorporates elements of sacred space. “I thought: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to create a space that would allow the viewer a change of world in order to experience whatever … I have opened them up to feel or think about,” she said.
It is an intentionally gorgeous container for reflection. “If you want to deliver a message or have people understand something that perhaps is not native to their system, you have to give it to them in a way that you can hold them while they can think about some hard stuff — and that was my room,” said Thomas.
“The Geography of Innocence” draws on Thomas’ decadeslong career, her engagement with James Hillman’s “Notes on White Supremacy,” and her contextualization of racism and other forms of violence within the popular imagination — in storytelling tropes, politics and the way former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush coded racial identities into their rhetorical framing of good and evil.
It led her to consider how social interactions are “set up” and how they impact children — “that includes places like Sandy Hook, that includes Michael Brown, that includes Trayvon Martin,” said Thomas, who concluded that “while I can’t change the archetypal structure of our universe, I can maybe tap someone on the shoulder and say, ‘You know what, when you look at these children, you might want to wait before you supply the reading of the story.’”
In the show’s wall text, Thomas elaborates: “‘The Geography of Innocence’ is a journey over and around the face of the dark child, one who is often misread as older or wiser than his years or misinterpreted as hostile, angry, or cunning. With this work, I offer an alternate view, one that brings the dark child into the definition of the every-child. … My cuts are pathways that carry the child’s curious entreaties, ones that assume the protection the adult gaze should engender.”
Making all these tiny cuts is painstaking work, so for the Tyvek installation, Thomas enlisted several others to help. “I worked with about five to six different people over the time of the cutting … different ages, mostly people who are not artists, people that came in, neighbors,” she said. “I gave them a knife. That made their eyes really big.”
All of the panels contain cuts made by a variety of participants, which means when she walks through the space, Thomas can identify whose cuts are whose, pointing out one cutter’s especially delicate and angular knife strokes. “I could have done it all by myself, but I don’t think it would be as beautiful,” said Thomas.
Anyone who’s spent any time with Thomas’ work knows that her approach is deeply interdisciplinary; she’s a writer as much as a visual artist, and she pulls a literary thread through “The Geography of Innocence,” employing book titles and strategic phrases as leitmotifs.
“Color Wheel,” a cut-paper portrait of her cousin’s grandson, includes the titles of Richard Wright’s “Black Boy,” James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me.” Another image, “Wonder Boy,” features a little boy beaming over a rite of passage: his first library card. He is Emery Spearman, the son of Elisheba Johnson, co-founder of Wa Na Wari, and grandson of the scholar and author Charles Johnson.
Charles Johnson and Thomas are longtime friends, and while she was a student at Cornish, Elisheba Johnson got to know Thomas as a mentor and an important role model as a working artist.
Though she’d always known Thomas as a family friend, when she became an artist, Elisheba Johnson was able to “step into the gravitas of who [Thomas] was” — an artist mentored by preeminent artists Jacob Lawrence and Gwendolyn Knight — while still being “the most approachable, funny person you’ll ever meet.”
Johnson herself has been one of Thomas’ subjects, and when Thomas decided to add portraits of children she knows to her series for “The Geography of Innocence,” she asked for a photo of Emery, who is 9, from when he was about 4 or 5, recalled Johnson, because “that’s the time when anything is possible,” before that potential can be blunted by a lack of resources or adult support. The artist wanted to capture “people’s innocence at this particular time,” said Johnson, as a way of seeing “our collective humanity.”
She dug up a photo of Emery, who learned to read when he was 4, getting his first library card.
Thomas responded to it. “I thought that was so amazing,” she said. “Because I just remember thinking that a library card was about the most magic thing a person could get.”
With Emery in mind, Johnson and her father co-wrote a series of books about “The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder,” to give him “an adventure story he could see himself in,” Johnson said.
Thomas titled the portrait after the series.
While her work incorporates text and a suggestion of narrative — “The Geography of Innocence” even includes one of her poems — Thomas contrasts her approach with the explicit narrative that distinguishes the work of artists like Lawrence, a difference she also views as a generational shift.
“With Jacob and a number of the artists from his generation and a few decades after that, we’re talking about the concrete things that they were seeing in the world … the things that were happening, people living in squalor, people physically struggling on the street,” she said.
The struggle her work reckons with is more internal, cerebral, something every viewer is called upon to consider. “I create what I want from the other,” she said. “So it’s not a space for you to go and just think about all the bad things that happen to Black people or happen to Black children. What about your own children? What about you?”
The shift Thomas invites is highly personal. It’s also urgent. “I’m talking about what has to happen now. The battle has gone from the literal landscape into the heart,” she said. “And that is where the last change has to happen.”