Daily Art Moment: Barbara Earl Thomas

A Fire in the Landscape. Barbara Earl Thomas. 2003. Egg tempera on paper. 15 in x 30 in. Long painting framed in a simple, thin, dark wood frame with a cream mat. Subtle, but contrasting colors of yellow and purple wave like shapes layer on top of each other completely filling the paper. Multiple organic shapes are woven together to form an ocean or sky like scene. The shapes resemble clouds, flames, waves, birds, fish, etc. At the top left, a purple human figure appears to lay on the layers of the waves of color, left leg tucked under the right, right hand resting on left knee, and right hand near head as if gently holding a pillow. The figure is bald and has delicate, but well-defined facial features, revealing closed eyes. At the bottom right of the paper are more human figures. Like the first, these figures are naked, bald, and have their eyes closed. A larger figure embraces a smaller figure, laying behind, arms wrapped around the smaller body. To the right, a single figure is tucked into a fetal position, with hands facing out by the face. White lines layer over the feet, outlining another pair of legs and feet which were not painted. A gray colored hand and dark brown hand also stretch out past the feet without bodies connected to them.

“I think about salvation and redemption, where in the world it might come from. Who and what in the end will save us from ourselves. One can only imagine what shape any God might take.”

Barbara Earl Thomas

With this work and related pieces, Barbara Earl Thomas explored humanity’s relationship with nature. Depictions of the elements—fire, wind, water, earth—swirl around huddled figures; she portrays them as small characters within this dynamic scene, suggesting the power of external forces upon us. While the picture strikes a biblical tone (is that an angel in the top left?), it can also be seen as a broader cosmological statement about understanding our place in the “firmament,” as the artist told me. At the time she made this work and its companions, Thomas was painting in egg tempera, a medium that enabled her to layer rich colors onto the paper and achieve a glowing luminosity. Playing with light has continued to be an important part of Thomas’s practice and viewers in the Northwest can see recent examples of her large scale cut paper compositions in an exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum and in a recently installed steel-cut window commission for the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland.

Sara Krajewski, The Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Barbara Earl Thomas (American, born 1948), A Fire in the Landscape, 2003. Egg tempera on paper. Gift of Josef Vascovitz and Lisa Goodman, 2017.78.3 © unknown, research required

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