Q & A with Barbara Earl Thomas
“Let me show you something funny,” Barbara Earl Thomas says, laughing softly as she walks across her Columbia City studio to retrieve a piece of paper taped to the wall. “Now, this has nothing to do with anything.” She laughs again. “But have you ever felt that you needed instructions for how to put on your pantyhose?” She hands over an old 1970s label printed with step-by-step instructions. Step three, almost painfully literal, reads: “Stand up. Repeat operation on thighs.”
“Did you ever think,” Thomas inquires, “if you didn’t have instructions, you would just be at a loss?”
Thomas, 59, has served the local arts community for almost her entire life. Seattle Arts Commission and Bumbershoot are a couple of the places where her presence has been felt. Most recently, she played a key role in getting the doors to open for the Northwest African American Museum, a project that was over twenty years in the making. No instructions were available for this process; Thomas and her colleagues figured out what it takes to make a museum, step by step.
Meanwhile, she has had a thriving career as an artist, creating, in addition to studio work, large-scale public art pieces for locations around the region.
We talked to Thomas on several occasions, both before and after the museum opened in March. We learned that working from scratch is easier if you have her kind of humility, optimism and abundant good humor.
City Arts: What prepared you to be curator of the African American Museum and to get the place up and running?
Barbara Earl Thomas: You look around and you see what needs to be done. When I started this project, quite frankly, I had no idea what would be involved.
I was asked to plan some programs. (laughs) I thought, well, I can plan! Little did I know I was planning not only programs, but also the concept for the first show.
And the three shows after that. And the budgets for those shows. Where the volunteers were going to come from. Where the janitor closet was going to be. Who the janitor was going to be!
One night, I was lying in bed and I sat up like a cadaver that had gone into rigor mortis. I said out loud: “Where are the water fountains? Don’t these places need to have water fountains?” It turned out we did have them. But those are the kinds of things that happen to you when you get into a project like this.
What’s your background?
I graduated from Garfield High School. Then I went to the University of Washington. I turned right around and went to graduate school there. I was in school my whole life until I was twenty-six. I’d meet people all the time and say: “Hi! I’m Barbara Thomas, the student.” When I finally graduated, I don’t think my mother believed it.
Were your parents involved in the arts?
No! My parents are originally from Louisiana, where they caught catfish. They were just happy that what I did was honorable and that they would see me in the paper every now and then.
Why didn’t you run off to New York or some glamorous artist place once you finished school?
I thought about it. But I also thought: My family is here. So I stayed. I decided if you are going to make things and do things, you will no matter where you are. I might have met more people and more doors might have been opened if I had gone to, say, France. But, you know, it’s like this museum: what I’ve done is what I’ve done. I don’t think much about what I didn’t do. I could have had a million different lives. This is the one I have. I’m having a pretty good time.
How did you get involved with the museum?
In 2004, the Urban League, shepherd of this project, was looking for someone to get the museum going. The committee wanted to hire people who were from the area. Carver Gayton and I were both asked to work on the project. In January of 2006 we started in earnest, just me, Carter and Leila Miles, our funding developer.
And that’s the history.
What were your initial goals for the museum?
From the beginning we agreed we weren’t going to re-create the wheel. We had to think about how we were going to use the space, not in an ideal sense but in a real sense. If you were starting from scratch, which many people suggest is the right way to do it, you would have designed the building differently. But because it is an existing space and some of the walls are three feet thick, there are things you are not moving around.
We decided we want to be an institution that connects, that collaborates with other groups. Just think: there’s the CD Forum, there’s Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center, there’s the James Washington Jr. Foundation. In Tacoma, there’s the Washington State History Museum. In order for us to realize our mandate and also to really capitalize on our resources, we have to collaborate. We have found open arms when we offer ourselves up as that kind of an institution. Organizations have been incredibly generous.
How did you decide on the content of the exhibits?
Obviously we are not able to do anything comprehensive. We’re trying to communicate that each thing you see here represents a rich vein. Take the theatre arts African Americans have participated in in the Northwest. We talk about Black Arts West in the ’60s and ’70s, but we also go all the way back to the 1920s. There is a whole history there of performers and writers. The hope is that when people come in, they’ll recognize an era or an event and they’ll be reconnected with the sweep of our history and culture. And then there are lots of things here that will surprise people. They’ll think, “Oh, I had no idea.”
Carver Gayton has left his role as executive director and you now have that responsibility, too. Are you concerned about that?
It’s part of the plan. We’re really just trying to get the museum on its sea legs. The sooner it’s not depending on Carver and me, the better. That lights a fire under
the board of directors and the community.
Carver is still part of the fundraising team. He’s just doing his part as a board member, not as executive director. Hopefully, I can finish up all the shows I’ve got planned, then step aside and say, OK, you got the space, you got the ideas, you know how this thing runs. I’ll see you later!
It’s not like I won’t be available to my community. We are planning something that has its success based on finding and creating opportunities for the people who will come after me. Obviously whoever comes in won’t do it exactly the way I do it. But I do want the museum to be firmly enough established so that its mission and vision — that thing we promised to the community — stays in place.
What will you do once you’ve passed the torch?
I’ll write and paint and keep doing what I’ve always done, but not worry about where the office furniture is going to come from.
Has this experience changed you as an artist?
I realize now that I can work with a group of people on a creative project and figure out how to get the best out of those people and out of myself. That’s been a real joy — and a real challenge — for someone who typically works by herself.
That takes me back to my artwork: all I want to do is tell a story. But in order to tell that story, you need to be clear about the subject of your sentence. You can’t assume that you’re going to be understood just because you talk. That has to be your goal — or else you’re just going to make everybody guess, “Well, what do you think she meant by that?” Intentions are one thing, but getting results is different.
Speaking of results, what kind of response is the museum getting?
People cry all the time. I call this the “Northwest African American Crying Museum.” People come in and they see someone or something that is familiar. For instance, we have a jacket that belongs to William H. Holloman III, a Tuskegee Airmen pilot. People are so touched just to see that symbol here and remember that African Americans fought for their country in World War II — and all wars — but that war in particular. People also love seeing Jimi Hendrix’s hat and scarf. They stand there and just marvel that that was really on his head.
We have an image from the march that took place on Denny Way in 1968 after Martin Luther King was killed. I overheard a father explain to his son why
people were marching and that he was there himself. That’s one of the reactions we really wanted people to have. To pick up little pieces of those stories. What
we have here is a broad brushstroke with lots and lots of stories behind it. When people come in, they complete the story.
The Northwest African American Museum is on the ground floor of the historic Colman School building. The top two floors of the building, which was purchased by the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle in 2001, provide affordable rental units for artists, teachers and others. The museum’s goal is discovering, honoring and celebrating the traditions and innovations in art, education, history and culture of the African American community of Seattle. The opening exhibit, Creating a World, Making a Life, a retrospective of the artists Jacob Lawrence and James W. Washington Jr., is on view through February 2009. It was curated by Barbara Earl Thomas. Go to naamnw.org for visiting hours and more information.
What about reactions from local people who are in the exhibits?
I got a letter from one of the ladies that speaks in one of the videos in the Journey Gallery timeline display. She came to the opening and was very pleased. In the video she speaks about working in Spokane before the city was fully integrated. She worked at a grocery store and one day a guy came through her line and told her “If I had a baby like you, I would take it out and drown it.” She’s in her seventies. But she says even now, every time she thinks about it, it just breaks her heart.
You know, lots of kids don’t know that’s part of what their parents and grandparents have gone through. But they’ve come out of it, too. If you meet this woman, she’s the most life-affirming, positive person you could meet. That’s the kind of thing that shows us what humanity can bring to the table.
Martin Luther King said that we really want to get over all of this. We want to remember without carrying forward the bitterness. And that’s just what she has done. She’s remembered; she’s recounted the story. But when you meet her, she’s not carrying forth that bitterness to the future.
Have you gotten any negative feedback from the community?
Once you put yourself out there, people are going to be giving you all kinds of suggestions and you just better be open for it. That’s something being an artist has prepared me for. People are always going to tell you they do or don’t like your work. They wish it had, say, more yellow. At one of my shows a woman came up to me and said, “You seem like such a cheerful girl!” Meanwhile she’s looking at my work like she’s thinking: “That [expletive] is really depressing.”
But, of course, I like Alice Munro, Charlotte Brontë and those really dreary British writers. I mean, Alice Munro, you couldn’t get a cheerful story out of that woman if you held her upside down by her ankles and shook her. Not one jolly thing. I think I’m attracted to gothic darkness.
Where did you get your sense of humor?
From my parents. It was just in the way they saw the world. You know, sometimes if you’re in a hard space, or you don’t have enough of this or that, I mean, you just have to laugh. You truly just have to laugh.
Does the museum meet all of the goals you have for it?
I like to think of it as this little jewel that has relationship possibilities with sister institutions that widen and lengthen its breadth and possibility. It’s modest in a way that works for me. We sit here; we’ve got concrete floors. We’ve tried to make anything that seemed like a limitation become something that you include in the function.
I think limitations have a way of pushing you and making you work harder in your imagination, make you more creative than you might be if you were just given unfettered possibility.
That sounds like the artist side of you talking.
It’s a balance. It’s hard when people walk into the museum and say “Is there any more?” Or, when people come into my studio, you take them through and they say, “So what else you got?”
The thing is, if you make it look easy, then you know you’ve done your job. If you make it look easy, they go “Wow, yeah. That’s nice.” When I haven’t done my job is when people say: “How long did it take you?”
I know you’re a voracious reader. What are you enjoying this summer?
I just finished an article by Charles Johnson. It’s about African Americans needing a new story. You know, we’re living in a different time and we need a new story to encapsulate how to move forward in the world now, post-sixties, post-seventies, post-eighties. He’s a true intellectual, a phenomenal person. Some of the most treasured moments I’ve had were listening to him and August Wilson have discussions. You know, those two could truly, as they say in the old country, kick it around at a very high level.
The people whose work I like, and who have made contributions that have changed the world for the better, they have consistently been themselves, and consistently worked, using whatever gifts they’ve been given, to bring some light to bear on our condition.
Haven’t you done that with the museum?
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s still hard. But it’s here now and I don’t think that the formula for keeping it going is as obtuse as the formula it took to make it happen. (laughs) Now there’s a recipe for this! There’s a recipe for, you know, how to raise money, how to hang things on the wall and all that.
Every morning you pick out the clothes you’re going to put on: you make choices. You try to figure out how to organize those choices so they add up to something at the end of the day. That’s what we try to do at the museum. That’s what I try to do in my studio, in my interactions with others.
The most important thing on the planet is to have a sense of humor. Because, if you don’t, you will bore yourself and everybody else. And that seems truly unnecessary.
Photo credits used:
In the museum (opposite): Jacob Lawrence’s mural, Games, 1979 (left), covers an entire wall inside the Northwest Gallery, which will host rotating exhibits. The museum’s Journey Gallery contains a timeline (right) tracking significant moments from 1790 to the present as African Americans worldwide came to call the Pacific