Q&A With Barbara Earl Thomas: On Seattle, Jacob Lawrence, and Why the Arts Are So Vital

Special Interview: 2018 NAEA National Convention Speaker

Longtime Seattle artist Barbara Earl Thomas may be best known for her passion—not only in her powerful art but also in her efforts to build a community that is inclusive of all. What has influenced her the most along her journey, she says, has been three things: her family, her education, and the support of Jacob Lawrence, her decades-long mentor and friend.

In March, Thomas will be speaking at the 2018 NAEA National Convention in Seattle as a featured artist. Thomas works in various media, including public sculptures, cut-paper installations, egg tempera, and glass. In addition to exhibiting her art professionally since the early 1980s, she has worked in arts administration and headed the Northwest African American Museum for several years.

NAEA caught up with Thomas to hear about her Seattle childhood, what “community” means, and why she believes the arts are so essential to human potential. She also shared some advice on must-sees for those visiting her hometown.

You were born and raised in Seattle—a granddaughter of sharecroppers from Texas and Louisiana, among a tide of Southern families who moved to the Northwest in the mid-1940s for work.

I grew up in the 1960s in Seattle’s Central District. While it was a segregated community, this was not a word that I knew or understood in any way. I was surrounded in this working-class neighborhood by families who were similar to my own.

My childhood was full of rich Southern lore, history, food, and stories filled with a certain sense of humor. Most of the fathers in my world had been a part of the military who were mustered out in the mid-1950s from the Korean conflict. These people worked hard and, for many of the families, this was their first real chance to buy a home. I am a native Northwest person born of Southern parents—my figurative, narrative work reflects both sensibilities.

One of your mentors was the acclaimed artist Jacob Lawrence, your undergraduate professor and graduate advisor at the University of Washington. When did you first meet him?

I met Jacob Lawrence in the mid-1970s when he joined the teaching faculty at the University of Washington. He came to the university during a turbulent time when demands for diversifying the faculty were high.

We all benefited from his presence—he was a kind man and a most excellent teacher. As an instructor, he was demanding. He helped me develop the skills to implement my vision. He was always able to find something positive, even as he pressed me and all his students to work hard. That is a talent.

You became longtime, close friends—“crucial friends,“ as you’ve said—with Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight, an artist in her own right. What kind of influence did they have on your own art, your life?

It was gradual and started with small things like a ride to the grocery store or to a reception. Jacob and Gwen were New Yorkers at heart and as such they never learned to drive. I was lucky enough to accompany them to social functions like openings and formal events. It was an honor and no burden at all.

In the mid-1980s, I joined Jacob and Gwen along with Francine Seders, their gallery director, for Jacob’s retrospective at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. It was an historic occasion and the first time I’d seen so much of his work in one place. It was amazing to be with them among so many of their peers who were, at that time, still living. I got a first-hand sense of just how important they both were, not only to the art world but also to the African-American cultural community.

During our long friendship, I experienced the depth of their generosity to students and those around them. They served on countless committees and advisory boards and always seemed available even for small events. What started out as a student relationship extended into my adulthood—I was with both of them at the close of their lives and that, too, was an honor.

Did you have access to art education in your K-12 schooling?

I went to public schools, and I firmly believe in public education. I was lucky enough to have arts during my entire K-12 school experience. It was reading and literature that I found to have the most influence in my life. I believe that reading is crucial—to learn to read and to develop a system of thinking about what one reads is transformative. It will aid the student in whatever field he/she follows.

Reading requires patience, concentration, and thought. These three elements are key for having a deeper, more meaningful relationship with the natural world and oneself. Moreover, they are necessary if one is to do anything significant and have success in the world.

What do you recall most from your university-level art classes?

It’s not the classes, I remember so much, as the privilege of having the opportunity to be at university. Going to the university was not something I’d imagined for myself until I was out of high school, so to find myself at the university was amazing. I loved the libraries—every single one of them—from the art library to the Suzzallo. I was amazed that part of being a student at university meant I could use any of the libraries at any time.

Did you ever consider a teaching career?

Teaching is one of the hardest jobs a person can have. Because I was lucky enough to have several very good teachers, Jacob Lawrence among them, I knew how hard I would have to work to be a great teacher. As I was choosing to make art, I found it better not to split my passion.

In terms of jobs outside of artmaking—working in arts administration allowed me to create programs and structures that lent themselves to real-life career opportunities for artists, writers, and dancers. Being an artist is deciding one is going to have a business that will at some point yield some part of one’s living or, at the very least, support itself. Working with arts agencies that created these opportunities was for me, a natural.

You’ve worked with youth, neighbors, and other artists to create art. You also worked at the Northwest African American Museum, which you headed for several years. Across the city and region, you are known for your strong commitment to community. What does “community” mean to you?

As our cities becomes more and more dense and expensive and the reality of homelessness is more visible, “community” ostensibly means creating connections, and it requires us to reach across political and cultural lines to at least admit we are breathing the same air and, therefore, share something in common.

I think of community in action as a hand-to-hand activity that starts with acknowledging your neighbors and working together with them to create shared projects like benefiting the young people in the neighborhood. One of the best, unforeseen consequences of heading the Northwest African American Museum was realizing that we, at the museum, were actually creating living wage jobs that supported young people in their careers.

Would you say arts are essential to the development of human potential?

The arts and creative thinking are crucial—I’m not the first person to say that the human heart and mind are the last frontier, but I believe it. Imagination and creative thinking have brought us all kinds of wonders like the computer, intelligent phones and altered realities. Our challenge is to find ways to have all these gadgets serve us rather than enslave and distract.

We are being called upon to do more than witness and document the confusion. Our environmental, social, and political challenges cross all lines and they require us to write a new story, create a new image of who we think we are with all our imperfections. No small assignment.

What’s ahead for you over the next year or two?

Working and thinking, and more of the same. The paper-cut drawings and story vessels I’m creating at this moment will be shown at Expo Chicago in the fall. It’s an exciting time for me and I’m privileged to have the opportunity to work long hours in an activity of my choice. How amazing is that!

I did not get here alone—my community of family and friends has been one of encouragement and support. They have pushed me forward and I’ve tried to honor their faith in my work.

Do you have any advice for visitors to Seattle? A lot of us are coming your way!

I hope visitors can get out of the conference center long enough to see the landscape, as that is what the Northwest is all about. We are a sliver of land between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. Visitors should take a walk in the Seattle Art Museum’s Sculpture Park. It’s a spectacular setting.

After you visit the Northwest African American Museum, which is just above Interstate 90, you can wander down to the lake side of the city where you find the Leschi, Madrona, and Seward Park neighborhoods that border Lake Washington. Many locations’ names—like Leschi—remind the visitor that he/she stands on Native American ancestral land. Luckily, our parks give a glimpse of that heritage.

Attend Barbara Earl Thomas’ session at the 2018 NAEA National Convention in Seattle on March 24, 2018 from 1:00 - 1:50 pm, Center/Ballroom 6 A, B, C/Level 6.

Explore More