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Another Covid shutdown delays museum show, but doesn't stop this Seattle artist

It’s taken 40 years, but Barbara Earl Thomas will finally have her first solo show at the Seattle Art Museum.

Pandemic, willing.

The exhibition, “The Geography of Innocence,” had been scheduled to open on November 20. But a new series of restrictions on indoor socializing have delayed that opening until further notice.

Despite the hold up, this museum show is a tour-de-force for Thomas, whose seemingly delicate cut-paper portraits and sculptures subtly comment on social and political issues, from racial justice to climate action.

Thomas depicts friends and family members — people she admires for their positive impact on the community — despite the obstacles imposed by institutional racism.

One image portrays a young man involved in the city’s Pea Patch program; another portrait shows a boy looking off into the distance. He cradles a sign that says “Grace.”

Thomas adapted this from an image of the boy holding a gun, a commentary on gun violence. She said it’s high time we move beyond condemning what we don’t like to definitively stating what we’d like to see happen.

“You said you want to defund the police, but what does that actually mean?” Thomas said.

If it means advocates of defunding want to transfer money to social services or mental health care, then that’s what they should say, Thomas believes. When it comes to opposing gun violence, Thomas said, “If I don’t want them to shoot, what do I want? Grace!”

By that, Thomas means taking time to consider the impacts of what we say. It’s a lesson she’s learned over the years.

Thomas, a Seattle native, is the child of blue-collar Southerners who moved north during World War II. She’s the first person in her immediate family to go to college, at the University of Washington.

Although she had planned to study something "practical," Thomas was drawn to the university's art school, where, ultimately, she received an Master of Fine Arts.

Thomas was acutely aware that she was one of few African Americans in the program, she said. She later brought that racial consciousness to her job as the only Black administrator at the Seattle Arts Commission.

“I actually had a very hard time there trying to figure out how to be a professional, how to do a good job,” Thomas said. “I really did feel at that place there were certain jobs only white people could do.”

Ultimately, Thomas left the commission, later helping to start Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum, where she was the founding director. She stepped down from the museum in 2013 to focus on her own art.

Although Thomas trained as a painter and printmaker at the University of Washington, studying with artists Jacob Lawrence and Michael Spafford among others, she’s most recently turned her focus to hand-cut paper creations. Some works are two-dimensional. But over the past five years, she has been making immersive sculptural installations that surround gallery and museum visitors.

The main gallery of Thomas’ Seattle Art Museum show is filled with what look like tall white columns, lit up like paper lanterns. The artwork is actually hand-cut Tyvek, an insulating material more typically found on a building site than inside of an art museum.

This month's delayed opening is actually this exhibition's second pause. Originally it was scheduled to launch over the summer. Thomas and her assistants used the extra time for the laborious hand cutting her art requires.

They spent much of 2020 working while the pandemic and ongoing racial justice protests raged outside the studio. At 72, Thomas sees parallels between the current activism and the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. She acknowledges that fighting for causes you believe in can be exhausting and overwhelming, but she has some encouraging words for young activists.

“You will come through this,” Thomas said. “Maybe you won’t find that thing you lost the way it was. But you’ll find something else. And you won’t know what it is if you don’t get up and keep moving.”

When Governor Jay Inslee lifts current indoor business restrictions, Barbara Earl Thomas’ solo exhibition, “The Geography of Innocence,” will open to the public at Seattle Art Museum. It will remain there through November 2021.

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