October 6, 2021
Barbara Earl Thomas, an African American artist from Seattle, Washington, has work spanning a variety of mediums, from egg tempera and paper cutting to sculpture, often with the intent to carry a narrative.
Thomas’ latest images on the steel exterior panels of the new Multnomah County Central Courthouse The building opened in October 2020 is no different.
Their 33-panel graphics on the outside of the building use both abstract and realistic techniques to portray a representative history of Multnomah County. The panels were financed from the district’s funds for the art ordinance, which applies to the construction of the district’s facilities.
Thomas has been a “doer” for as long as she can remember. “I’ve always loved building things,” she says. “I’ve been building things for as long as I can remember. I built fortresses, had trains, had model airplanes, had painting sets and all that, and I just love doing things. “
Thomas says her family was the same. From a young age, her parents, who moved from the south to the Pacific Northwest, recognized the value of creating and decorating their home. Thomas remembers spending hours with her mother embroidering pillowcases and quilts.
“It wasn’t about, ‘Oh, this is going to be in a museum,'” she says. “It was about decorating your living space and making something more beautiful that might not have looked so beautiful. The beautiful teacup, the beautiful plate, the beautiful tapestry tell a story and fulfill a function and are also visually enriching. “
When she attended college at the University of Washington, she hoped to become a physical therapist, having no idea that studying art was possible. But Thomas quickly switched to fine arts and studied with the famous Afro-American painter Jacob Lawrence. In 1977 she received a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Washington.
Thomas’ work is highly regarded in its field and has been featured in galleries such as the Seattle Art Museum and others across the country. Below are excerpts from a conversation with Thomas about her work on the new courthouse. For the sake of clarity, the interview has been compressed and edited.
Walk me through how you got the job of making the panels.
I was approached for the project by the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) through (project manager) Peggy Kendellen. Actually, I was a bit surprised by the whole thing. I made a suggestion and I think I was one of three and I was chosen by the three.
How did you decide what exactly should be included in the panels?
I came to Portland before the pandemic when you could hang out with people and drive around. I did a couple of tours around the county and I went with one of the RACC members and she showed me things that she thought were important. I took notes, read, and spoke to people through the panels. Then I started making lists of the things I saw.
There’s kind of a loose theme to this car and this mysterious driver leaves home and drives through Multnomah County and comes across these kinds of otherworldly things.
So he goes over the bridges because there are so many bridges in Portland and Multnomah Counties. Then he ends up in the past, he ends up in Rockwood, a school that no longer exists but definitely something that is iconic. I said, “Let me insert something that probably no longer exists, but it will be some kind of nod to a past that a lot of people will know about.”
Then he leaves Rockwood and returns to the present. And then there is the framework from a farm. We have cows and chickens together. I had to work very hard on the cows because I had never really drawn a cow before. My cows always looked like dogs because my neighbors have so many dogs, so I drew their dogs.
And then the last two windows are actually tulips that stand up and are cut through by a railing. There is this whole idea of the tulip and how it symbolizes hope and beauty.
It’s not in every single panel, but in most of the panels you can see the car coming in or out of the visual plane so I thought it would be interesting. There are a couple of playful things because I don’t think everything has to be hard and you know we have enough hard stuff to deal with every day so I feel like it balances that out.
I also kept in mind that these panels won’t just be shown for a year or six months. So what will be interesting and still visually appealing in six years? That was another thing that crossed my mind: not tying it so closely to a local event.
Most of the things on the panel are real, except for the one that says “leave home”. Home is so different for so many different people, and right now we have a lot of homelessness, so I didn’t want to talk about everyone coming from their nice little house – not everyone comes from a nice little house. Some people live rough, others live half rough, but that doesn’t mean they don’t own the beauty of the world because they don’t have what everyone else has.
I particularly noticed that your style is very creative, but the narrative also tells very well. How did you balance the creative themes while telling a narrative?
For example, let’s say someone came from the Midwest. They don’t really care about multnomah [County]but if you saw something nice like Multnomah Falls I have a picture of Multnomah Falls. I have a picture of the basketball team – you know people will know. I included it because everyone I spoke to while reporting it mentioned it.
So I did both and tried to balance it out. That was my rule of thumb. I had 33 opportunities because there are 33 images around the building. That may seem like a lot, but when you try to tell a story with so much geography, you just leave something out and live with it. I couldn’t put everything in, so I tried to put things in that people could at least identify with, even if it wasn’t in their respective neighborhoods.
But I’ve recorded things about different parishes and neighborhoods, which means it’s not exhaustive, but it’s representative of what I’ve been trying to do. Multnomah County is like America in that there is a multitude of people and food, places and history and they all kind of converge and I think if you look at the work you will find that there is a lot of movement.
I have the feeling that my work is really a metaphor for the fact that nothing stays the same. Things are constantly changing, they move from one to the other, that is the motif that runs through all court buildings, regardless of whether it is historical or a specific landscape, a specific event or a district.
In a broader sense, why is it important to have art in public spaces like courthouses?
I think to humanize the space. So I wanted to have multiple types of visual experiences for people. I also thought if you are there and out with kids and walking around outside I want it to be visually engaging and stimulating. I mean, a lot of the panels are really super life size because some of them are 13 feet tall and seven feet wide. But at the same time, if you take a step back and look at them, they are something that represents the world and the country, and they are not alien experiences.
You originally designed these graphics as paper cuts. How did you make that decision?
I do a bunch of different editions and I could have sat down and drawn anyone, but it didn’t seem like the best since I’ve had [steel paneling] Capability. I thought the best direct translation would be to do something that would translate more accurately. I think that’s part of it: I worked a lot, so it was a very intense process.