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Rooted in Community - Barbara Earl Thomas

Vivian and Marcie enjoy a studio visit with Seattle-based visual artist, Barbara Earl Thomas. Barbara has been working as an artist for more than 40 years. In 2016, she made a conscious decision to spread her wings beyond her hometown, forging a national reputation for the work she creates. Despite her growing fame, Thomas retains her strong ties to both her hometown and the Black community she loves.

"I realized I had to start making really big stuff, because in America, things that are important are big. Size matters. So I started to make big things out of steel. Big hard things." -- Barbara Earl Thomas

"Grace," Barbara Earl Thomas, 2019 Barbara Earl Thomas by Jovelle Tomayo


Barbara Earl Thomas is a Seattle-based award-winning writer and visual artist with a career that spans more than 30 years. Her far-ranging exhibits include The Savannah Contemporary Art Museum and the Seattle and Tacoma Art Museums with solo exhibits at the Meadows Museum in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Evansville Museum of Art and Technology in Indiana. Her works, widely collected, are included in the Portland, Seattle, and Tacoma Art Museums and private and corporate collections such as Microsoft, 21c Museum Hotel (Louisville, KY), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2013 Thomas received the Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award and in 2016, the Washington State Governor’s Arts Award, the Artist Trust, Irving, and Yvonne Twining Humber Award, and the Seattle Stranger Genius Award for excellence in the arts. She was also nationally noted for her exhibition “Heaven On Fire,” a major career survey with The Bainbridge Island Art Museum. Her work has been widely featured nationally; with the John Braseth Gallery at the Seattle Art Fair (2016), and at EXPO Chicago (2017, 2018), and Pulse Contemporary Art Fair (2018) with Claire Oliver Gallery (New York). As of 2019, she is working on commissions for the Sound Transit’s I-90 station and the new Multnomah County Central Courthouse (Portland, OR). She is also preparing for the 2019 Pulse Contemporary Art Fair in Miami. Thomas joined the Claire Oliver Gallery in 2017 with her solo exhibit “Blood Letting and Other Stories.”

As the daughter of Southerners who came to the Northwest in the 1940s, she is among the first generation in her family born outside of Texas and Louisiana. She credits her southern heritage for her penchant for storytelling and humor. From her mother, Lula Mae, she inherited her love of reading. From her father, Grady, she learned that the truth is better than a lie because human beings are not smart enough to keep multiple storylines untangled. She is a reader and writer who has also published essays on travel, nature, and contemporary arts and culture. Also, to her credit are monographs on artists such as Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, Joe Fedderson, Cappy Thompson, Alan Rohan Crite, and Julie Speidel.

Thomas is noted for a social commitment to her community that is broad and inclusive. She values good citizenship and social responsibility whose rewards she says she first experienced as a 4th grader when she was charged with collecting the milk money and overseeing banking day. As an artist, Thomas has a long and consistent practice of including the world in her art and her life in the world. Through her art administrative work in agencies such as the Seattle Arts Commission and Bumbershoot, she has given time and energy in support of individual artists in all genres. In 2012 she stepped down from the directorship of the Northwest African American Museum where she was instrumental in creating the agency and the broad-based support that it now sustains.

Thomas is a graduate of the School of Art, University of Washington where she received her Master of Arts in 1977. She counts herself most fortunate to have had mentorships with Michael Spafford and Jacob Lawrence who have both influenced her work. She will tell you that these two men were not only supportive but crucial friends in her life.

Find out more about Barbara Earl Thomas and her upcoming shows here!


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