Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body

February 17 – May 21, 2024

Barbara Earl Thomas’ most recent series of portraits weave an exquisite tapestry of light and color to depict individuals illuminated in moments of creativity. Invoking the history of portraiture, Thomas’ nine large-scale cut paper pieces celebrate great Black cultural icons such as August Wilson, Seth Parker Woods, and Charles Johnson, alongside Thomas’ friends, family, and acquaintances. Set in contexts ranging from public performance to the quiet of daydreaming, they honor the creative spark in all its manifestations. Thomas describes her subjects with nuance and care, encouraging extended viewing of these vibrant and layered portraits. The portraits are presented with The Transformation Room, a luminous installation created from light and intricately cut Tyvek, which offers a moment of respite for reflection and inspiration.

 The Illuminated Body is the first time the work of this celebrated artist, writer, and thinker will be seen in Philadelphia. A visual storyteller for over 40 years, Thomas draws from history, literature, folklore, mythology, and the Bible to reflect the social fabric of our times. Her narrative and figurative imagery has a deep philosophical and emotional force, leveraging the powerful imagery of light and dark. Thomas’ most recent commissions include six major stained-glass windows for Grace Hopper College at Yale University, a 33-panel commission for the façade of the Central Courthouse of Multnomah County in Portland, and a large-scale glass commission for the Judkins Park Light Rail Station in Seattle.

Barbara Earl Thomas (American, b. 1948), Girl and the World, 2022. Paper cut with hand-printed color. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, New York, and the artist. Photography by Spike Mafford / Zocalo Studios.

In addition to the exhibition, public programs organized in conjunction with Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body include a performance of Difficult Grace featuring Seth Parker Woods, a conversation between Barbara Earl Thomas and Kemi Adeyemi, a lecture with Marisa Williamson, and a community-organized celebration.

The exhibition catalog Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body presents the artist’s newest body of work, examining the conceptual, visual, and processual links that she makes among various media. The catalog contextualizes these artworks within Thomas’s artistic practice and in terms of her creative influences and art historical context. The catalog – which contains essays by Carolyn Swan Needell, Kemi Adeyemi, and Emily Zimmerman – is published by the Chrysler Museum of Art and distributed by the University of Washington Press.

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body Community Advisory Group
Glenn Bryan, Maori Karmael Holmes, Elaine S. Holton, Terri Lyons, LaNeshe Miller, Nasheli J. Ortiz González, Elijah Pringle, Laurel Raczka, Jasmine Jahwula Seapoe, Karen Smith, Andrea Walls

Barbara Earl Thomas: In Process
March 18 – May 22, 2024
Fisher Fine Arts Library

In concert with Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body, this exhibition shares Thomas’ process for making her detailed and luminous portraits and installations. The exhibition will feature materials from Thomas’ studio as well as photographs.

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body is organized by the Chrysler Museum (February 24, 2023 to August 20, 2023) and curated by Carolyn Swan Needell, the Carolyn and Richard Barry Curator of Glass. The presentation at the Arthur Ross Gallery and the public programs are organized by Emily Zimmerman, Interim Director of Exhibitions and Programs. Major support for Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation.