Barbara Earl Thomas discusses her commissioned work “Caught in the Matrix” (2017).
A LUMINESCE INSTALLATION glows and emits shadows at the far end of the gallery. The floor to the ceiling work is a series of paper-cut panels of Tyvek. Standing 14-feet high, from a distance it appears lantern-like. Up close, it is a mesmerizing environment, a space visitors can walk through, see billows and folds resembling sea foliage high above and observe that the patterns cut from the panels are actually free-falling bodies, figures rendered in a style recognizable from paintings by Jacob Lawrence. A multi-dimensional work, “Caught in the Matrix” was commissioned for “Lines of Influence,” the centennial exhibition paying tribute to Lawrence at the SCAD Museum of Art.
Highlighting his associations with artists past and present, a major aspect of the show focuses on the ways in which Lawrence has inspired the work of artists living and working today. Storm Janse van Rensburg, the museum’s head curator, invited five contemporary artists to make new works in response to the legacy of Lawrence. “Lines of Influence” features “Caught in the Matrix” by Barbara Earl Thomas, along with works by Derrick Adams, Aaron Fowler, Meleko Mokgosi, and Hank Willis Thomas. The commissions explore a variety of connections with Lawrence, ranging from aesthetics and his technical approach to substantive aspects of his subject matter.
For Thomas, the influence is personal. The Seattle-based artist was very close with Lawrence and his wife Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence, who was also an artist. An MFA graduate of the School of Art at the University of Washington (1977) where she also earned her bachelors degree, Lawrence was Thomas’s undergraduate professor and graduate advisor.
“I didn’t know Jacob was famous when I met him,” she said during a tour of the exhibition. It was the early 1970s and she was 19. She later saw his works at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. As she began her career, the elder artist was always supportive. On one occasion, Lawrence called to let her know he wouldn’t be able to attend one of her exhibition openings because he had “an event” she recalled. The next night she learned more about the event: “I am looking at the TV and there is Jacob at the White House.”
Installation view of “Caught in the Matrix” (2017) by BARBARA EARL THOMAS. | Photo by Dylan Wilson, Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art
THE MUSEUM HELD A SYMPOSIUM in October to advance and further explore the themes of the exhibition. The commissioned artists participated in panel discussions and spoke about their works during a tour of the show. Standing before her installation, when van Rensburg introduced Thomas, he noted she is on the board of the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation and toward the end of the artists’s lives was like a daughter to them. She shared a touching story about helping the couple transition from a dial phone to a touch-tone one. “I went through lots of different phases with them, but mostly it was being a friend,” Thomas said.
This same element of community is ever present in Thomas’s life and work. An artist and writer, she served as executive director of the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle (2008-2013) and remains active in the Seattle arts community. Next month, she is speaking at the National Art Education Association convention.
Thomas executed “Caught in the Matrix” with the help of her neighbors and friends who range in age from 15-75 years old, none of them artists. For four months, the group, which she referred to as “my crew,” helped her cut the six panels. Each person committed to at least two three-hour cutting sessions and she paid everyone for their time and contribution. She chose Tyvek for the symbolic and practical properties of the building material. She describes the piece and the process as an homage to Lawrence who often referenced African American “builders” in his work.
“Tyvek, for any of you who don’t know,” Thomas said to the group of mostly students gathered for the tour, “if you’ve ever built anything or watched building being constructed, it’s a moisture barrier that they put up on the outside after they put the insolation in. It is also archival, waterproof, used in museums to wrap things and make sure they’ll be okay.”
Detail installation view of “Caught in the Matrix” (2017) by BARBARA EARL THOMAS, “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence,” SCAD Museum of Art (Sept. 7, 2017-Feb. 4, 2018). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
Detail of “Caught in the Matrix” (2017) by “Caught in the Matrix” (2017) by Barbara Earl Thomas. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
The work is multidimensional. Writing is an important part of Thomas’s practice and she has incorporated language into the work with a pair of texts from 1995 and 2016 featured on the exhibition labeling. Titled “The Book of Telling A Prayer for Our Century,” Thomas’s prose from 1995 reads in part: “I find that I am unsure of my step, once firm ground lies wasted, it gives way and I am falling. I tumble, bump and collide with others who are struggling, as I am, to right themselves.” The work’s defining characteristic is achieved with light. Emanating through the figurative and organic design elements die-cut in the Tyvek panels, light casts distinct, graphic shadows on the gallery floor and the adjacent walls–one white the other charcoal gray.
“Jacob was always clear about the fact that even when you are doing an image and it has figures, it has objects that are recognizable to the viewer, each and every one of those objects was a design element that had to work in space and place,” Thomas said. “Those were things that I was always very aware of. He said it’s just like writing. If you are doing it and you love it but it doesn’t work, get rid of it. So that’s what I took in my work.”
“Jacob was always clear about the fact that even when you are doing an image and it has figures, it has objects that are recognizable to the viewer, each and every one of those objects was a design element that had to work in space and place.” — Barbara Earl Thomas
She added: “In this piece you’ll see the bodies descending through space. I am hoping I was able to use the body so that they help you fall softly through space because that was my goal. To have them fall in a way that they look like that next movement they are going to make is a natural one, even if it’s one that might you might not be something you want to do on a daily basis.”
DERRICK ADAMS, “Jacob’s Table” series, 2017 (acrylic, cardboard and fabric on wood panels, 51 x 84 inches each). | Commissioned by SCAD Museum of Art, Courtesy the artist
DERRICK ADAMS ALSO TRACES his connection to Lawrence back to his art school days. He grew up in Baltimore and lives and works in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“One of the reasons I went to Pratt for undergrad is because I read in one of the books on Jacob Lawrence that he taught at Pratt. …When I learned that he was at Pratt, I basically decided I was going to move to New York. I applied. Got into Pratt and came to Brooklyn. My whole quest from the time I was in undergrad was finding out people who knew him,” Adams said during the exhibition tour. “I would go into classes and say, ‘Do you know Jacob Lawrence?’ and some of the professors actually were his students at the time. They knew about his personality. They talked a little bit about their experience with him as an instructor. I became familiar with him just talking about him and also looking at his work and hearing people talking about their experiences.”
For his “Lines of Influence” commission, Adams was inspired by the tables that are central to the composition in a several of Lawrence’s paintings. The artist, whose solo exhibition “Sanctuary,” is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York through Aug. 12, says the narratives of African American life and history in Lawrence’s paintings are so familiar to him and his experiences that what really draws his attention is how he constructs his images, a defining element Thomas also emphasized.
“One thing that really stood out to me in the beginning of my artist’s career was the way that Jacob imagined life in an artistic way and how he was able to compose images that reflected the realness of the black experience in America but also without compromising the integrity of his imagination and the way that he was able to express these experiences through his craft and through the way that he formed the composition of his works. That to me was really about breaking the rules of constructing images that represent people and spaces,” Adams said.
“When I was invited to create a work for the show, I focused on the composition and the exaggerated perspective of the interior space that he created in his works. …A lot of the tables in the paintings really felt like they were the structure of the paintings in a way that they set the stage for what was happening in the paintings. For me, looking at the paintings, I would always notice that everything that was surrounding the tables really activated the way the viewer interacted with the work.”
Adams made a quartet of works literally inspired by the tables featured four of Lawrence’s paintings: “The Life of Frederick Douglass, No. 22″; “Two Builders Playing Chess”; “You Can Buy Bootleg Whiskey for Twenty-Five Cents a Quart”; and “The Card Game.”
The works Adams envisioned have come to symbolize “Lines of Influence.” His series of table images can be seen on light posts in the area surrounding the museum on banners advertising the exhibition. CT
IMAGES: Artists discuss their commissioned works during Oct. 20, 2017, “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence exhibition tour, SCAD Museum of Art. Top, Barbara Earl Thomas stands before her installation “Caught in the Matrix” (2017); Above left, Derrick Adams talks about “Jacob’s Table,” (2017) his series of four paintings. | Both images, Photo by Dylan Wilson, Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art
An early volume, “Storm Watch: The Art of Barbara Earl Thomas” (Jacob Lawrence Series on American Artists), explores the work of Barbara Earl Thomas. A catalog documenting the exhibition “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence” is expected this year. “Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series” was published to coincide the “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series,” the Museum of Modern Art exhibition inspired by Lawrence’s seminal series. Also consider, “Jacob Lawrence: Moving Forward: Paintings, 1936-1999” and “Over the Line: The Art and Life of Jacob Lawrence.” The complete Jacob Lawrence catalog raisonne was published in 2000. “Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, A Young Artist in Harlem,” is a great introduction to Lawrence for children.
Installation view, from left, Nina Chanel Abney, “Jabob’s Table” series (2017) by Derrick Adams, and Faith Ringgold’s “Tar Beach #2” (1990-92), “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence,” SCAD Museum of Art (Sept. 7, 2017-Feb. 4, 2018). | Photo by Dylan Wilson, Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art
Oct. 20, 2017 – “Jacob Lawrence: Lines of Influence” Symposium, Panel Discussion with, from left, Barbara Earl Thomas, Derrick Adams, Aaron Fowler, and moderator Storm Janse van Rensburg (not shown), at SCAD Museum of Art. | Photo by Dylan Wilson, Courtesy SCAD Museum of Art
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