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Tuesday, February 1, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Living black history: Artist reflects on a life lived in two worlds

Seattle Times staff reporter

Barbara Earl Thomas

Age: 56.
Occupation: Artist, writer; Northwest African American Museum curator.
Childhood: Grew up in West Seattle's High Point area, and on 21st Avenue in the Central Area.
Launching pad: Studied with Jacob Lawrence at the University of Washington, where she earned a master's of fine art degree.
Art: In addition to solo shows and exhibitions, she has won numerous commissions to design art for festivals and public agencies.

Living black history

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Barbara Earl Thomas the person is a direct contrast to her more recent egg tempera paintings, which often deal with memory, loss and a yearning for emotional shelter.

Bubbly to the point of percolating, the 56-year-old Seattle artist and curator for the coming Northwest African American Museum radiates warmth and good humor.

Her reminiscences about growing up black in Seattle abound with stories not of loss but of discovery. And if she longs for emotional shelter, it's balanced by a deep connection to physical spaces. From the transitional housing in West Seattle where her family lived before they purchased a home in the Central Area to her basement art studio near Seward Park, she has always enjoyed one form of sanctuary or another.

A natural storyteller, Thomas has reconstructed scenes from her experiences coming of age during the 1950s, '60s and early '70s, when her nickname was Bobbi.

Here, in her own words, she illustrates that being black in Seattle has offered an indispensable perspective on race, art and the city itself.

Thomas was raised in a family of Southerners who just happened to live out west.

Everything in my house was Southern. Everything else outside was Norwegian or Japanese or whatever. But when you went in your house, you ate Southern food, you thought Southern thoughts.

In her own words

 

 

Thomas says the tumult of the civil rights struggle in the South seemed remote in Seattle, but the Northwest did not escape segregation. (:55, MP3)

My grandfather [on her mother's side] came to Washington state because of the jobs that you could get as ship scaler, and working in the shipyards. And then he sent for my mother and aunt once he got here and got established.

I had two fathers. My birth father [William Earl Thomas] who died when I was 3, and then my second dad [Grady C. Wright]. They came both as a result of the war — my first dad because of World War II and my second dad because of Korea. So when I was young, I used to think that fathers came from Fort Lewis; that that's where you went to get a father, because that's where you were always picking them up from [laughing].

Thomas' parents, Wright and Lula Mae Bailey, bought a five-bedroom home at 1464 21st Ave. in Seattle's Central Area after living in transitional housing for military personnel at High Point in West Seattle. She attended T.T. Minor Elementary, Meany Junior High and Garfield High before volunteering to be bused to Cleveland.

For years, her parents rented temporary rooms to young men and women; each tenant became like part of the family. As for the family itself, Thomas describes it as a pretty ordinary one, "a black version of Archie Bunker."

The Central District was really funny; it was just like a little village. It was more a village for me because my parents didn't let me go off the block. I could cross the street and go to a little grocery store that was right on Union, and then that was like my universe. Then when I got a little bit older, I could walk to Meany.

And then I would walk across Madison, which was soooo exciiiting. There were lots of music places and lots of kind of mysterious people who hung out there. But I was supposed to go like this [she presses her hands against the sides of her face like blinders].

My dad would say [voice deepening], "You come straight home after school. I don't want you stopping nowhere."

He would drive around on these little rigs — he was at the [city] engineering department at that point — and he would be places and he'd see if I did anything. And he'd say [voice deepening again], "I saw you stop over there with them kids; I told you to come on home."

And I'm like, "Is there gonna be any freedom in America — and is it gonna to be in my house?"

By the time Thomas and her family moved to 21st Avenue in 1953, many white families were moving out. Thomas believes a Jewish family may have previously owned the house her parents bought.

Around the house I would always find rolls of things that they left, like crepe paper and buttons, really fancy buttons ... pieces of lace that they'd left up in the back of a closet. They left so fast they didn't take all their stuff.

Attending school at Cleveland, a more racially mixed environment than Garfield, was "uneventful" for Thomas, except for one incident.

It was interesting but, you know, I'm from Seattle, so being one of three black people or whatever, it's kind of normal. My community was black, but if you went downtown or if you just went three blocks in the car, you know, that all changed really fast.

The only racial incident that I had at Cleveland was this young white girl who was exactly my same age.

We were sitting in class together and she looks at me, and she says, "You know, my mother told me that you can tell if someone's black by looking at their fingernails."

And I said, "Really?"

She said, "Yeah, black people have a blue tinge to their nails."

And so we sat there and we both looked at our fingernails and I think we decided that mine looked a little more purple than hers. And I said, "Yeah, you're right," and that was it. [giggles]

I don't know why she didn't just look at me and say, "You know, I can tell you're colored because you are colored." But we looked at our fingernails, and that's how we made the discovery that I was black.

Thomas remembers watching news coverage of the civil-rights struggle in the South on TV, but the tumult seemed remote.

It seemed very serious, but there wasn't always a way to relate to it in a very experiential way.

We had things here in Washington that were very segregated; but it was a quiet kind of segregation: Black people couldn't live north of the canal.

When you would drop down Madison Park, you knew this was not your world. The people were perfectly nice to you — but you knew that it was not your place.

You were still taught to behave, not just because your parents wanted polite children, but so if you happened to get caught somewhere or be out of your environment, you wouldn't get hurt — everything was for a reason.

Thomas' art career started humbly enough. She loved building trains, planes and boats from model kits. And the family embroidered everything — skirts for lamps, pillowcases and other things.

If you sat for really a long time, they'd start embroidering you. I would be embroidering something and I would show my mom and the first thing she'd do is she'd turn it over and she'd look at the back side, because the goal was that the back had to look almost as good as the front. It was about craftsmanship.

At the University of Washington, Thomas majored in art. Her first meetings with the famed black artist Jacob Lawrence, who taught at the UW while she was a student there, didn't faze her. But during a visit to the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., she realized his place in art history.

So I'm walking around the National Gallery and I walk up and I see Jacob's painting, and I say, "You know, that guy is one of my professors!"

And some guy comes out. He says, "That's your professor? Come back here."

In her own words

 

 

Thomas majored in art at the University of Washington. She recalls how she learned about the fame of one of her professors, Jacob Lawrence. (:29, MP3)

He takes me in this room, and he shows me this whole big portfolio of Jacob's things that they have there, and I'm like, "You're kidding!"

I always tell people about Jacob: Unlike a lot of the professors, he was not interested in forwarding his theory or his method. He was very much about not imposing himself but helping you do whatever it was you were trying to achieve.

He was a very deliberate, nonshowy person. And I don't think he ever gave you a criticism that wasn't balanced with some suggestion about how you could deal with whatever your issue was. I knew that it was special — that you don't have to break a person down in order to build them up.

An earlier revelatory moment came in 1968, when Thomas went to a Jimi Hendrix concert at Seattle Center. It didn't necessarily change everyday life, but it rocked her view of blackness — and the world.

When I got old enough, I finally did hear this music. And I tell you, we would be at a party and we would put it on and all of us would just stare at the record player like, "What is it?"

Still, with that, [Hendrix] was black, and he was doing things that put him out in front. So what you did was you supported that.

So I [went] with this fellow — I call him Floyd; I don't remember what his name was, but he had a car.

In her own words

 

 

Thomas describes her first Jimi Hendrix concert. (3:51, MP3)

It was still a period when, at least for me in my house, if you went out anyplace, you put on your good clothes.

I had on what was basically my Easter outfit. It was a salmon-colored suit, that was kind of like a Jackie suit, with a little bolero top, with white piping and a straight skirt with a kick pleat, white gloves and black patent-leather pumps.

I sat in the dining room, and I waited for this kid to come pick me up. I was ready, my mother looked at me and she said, "You look like a nice young lady." I felt like a nice young lady, and I was going out to a concert.

So we get out there and parked the car, walk across the grounds — all these white kids. Because at that point, even though there wasn't any struggle or anything, white kids and black kids did not end up at the same social functions. So I'm looking at Floyd, and the white kids are not dressed correctly, and we're thinking, "Oh God, they are so backwards." And they were, like, doing the noodle thing [demonstrates by moving her arms in a snakelike motion]. And so we get in and we walk through the door — and I'm still going on faith here — we go to the guy and we have our tickets and we ask him, "Where are our seats?"

He said, "Festival seating."

I thought he said, "Vegetable seating."

I said, 'What's that?' And then it dawned on me that he meant that we could sit on the floor if we wanted to. He was just totally freaked out that here we were, totally not ready for anything.

We sat on the side of the stage and at some point, out comes these four boys — young, a lot of hair, doing things on stage that you just couldn't believe, like [Hendrix] plucking the guitar with his teeth, putting it on his crotch, strutting back and forth. And he had no steps!

Sooner or later, we get with the whole program, and I just realized, you know, you are not in Kansas anymore, Barbara. I realized that the world had really sort of split, and the kind of world I was raised in was not the world I was going to grow up in.

Still, in college, Thomas' dad would drive his camper to her dorm and pick her up to go fishing, whether she wanted to or not.

I would sneak out; I didn't want anyone to see me getting in this camper.

I remember saying to him, "Daddy, you know, I think this is the sexual revolution and I don't think I'm in it."

He said, "You gotta go fishin.' "

He did that for the first year, almost every other weekend, in fishing season.

It was stressful [laughs] except now I think it's really funny — and so dear."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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