February 15, 2021

Barbara Earl Thomas Exhibition Opens at Seattle Art Museum

A backlit sandblasted-glass portrait and a glass candlestick, both by Barbara Earl Thomas, are part of “The Geography of Innocence,” her exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum on view through November 14. Photography by Spike Mafford.

The Seattle Art Museum is giving its first solo exhibition of hometown artist Barbara Earl Thomas, who is also a former director of the city’s Northwest African American Museum. “The Geography of Innocence” is a poetic distillation of Thomas’s longtime concerns: light and shadow, perception and knowledge, Black lives and experiences, and the nature of empathy. The show comprises two parts: an immersive, single-room installation and an adjoining gallery of portraits. In the former, three walls are sheathed in backlit, intricately cut Tyvek panels, creating a lanternlike glow. Each wall includes a central “altar” in the form of a glass portrait and candlestick. Similar panels cut with detailed imagery form a 12-foot-tall luminaria in the center of the room. Hanging in the neighboring hallway, 10 portraits—in cut black paper with hand-colored backgrounds—depict people involved in the artist’s life. “My goal is to disarm,” says Thomas, who trained as a painter and printmaker at the University of Washington, where she earned her MFA. “It’s a portal into a place where you are surrounded by beauty and pause to take in the complexity of the stories being told.”

Cut, backlit Tyvek panels and a central luminaria in the full-room installation. Photography by Spike Mafford.
Grace, her 2019 cut-paper portrait. Photography by Spike Mafford/courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery.

In honor of Black History Month, the Interior Design team is spotlighting the narratives, works, and craft traditions of Black architects, designers, and creatives. See our full coverage here.

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