Carving with light

Arthur Ross Gallery presents Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body

5 minute read
August Wilson's portrait described in the piece. Shades of blue, teal, & flashes of yellow & orange break through the black.

With a small, sharp knife, Barbara Earl Thomas pierces darkness, revealing a world rich in symbolism, imagination, and memory. A collection of her work on paper and in glass is on view at the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Ross Gallery in The Illuminated Body.

“In my paintings, I’ve always been trying to figure out how to make the light appear to be coming from the painting,” Thomas said in a 2020 interview with Demetri Broxton of the Museum of the African Diaspora. The Seattle-based artist credited her discovery of paper cutting to a residency at the Tacoma Glass Museum in 2013. “I started cutting paper and shining light through … using color and contrast. It is a very exacting kind of work, [but] if I’ve succeeded, people don’t say, ‘My God, how long did it take you?’ They’ll look at it and say, ‘My God, that looks like stained glass!’”

Though the spectacle of paper replicating glass is the first impression, you can’t help recognizing the planning and patience needed to achieve it. Girl and the World (2022) is a lacework of cuts that form a small Black girl sitting in a window seat, knees pulled up. She wears a t-shirt that reads “SWEET” and a lavender-blue blossom curls over one ear. A globe rests at her feet, and a hummingbird—a favorite Thomas talisman—hovers above with a flower in its beak. The image glows with jewel-toned edges defining the girl’s calm expression, ruffled skirt, and the rose-patterned cushions on which she snuggles.

The rewards of careful viewing

Thomas incises the image in black paper and places it over layers of hand-printed colored paper so that the visible edges define the picture. “The negative space allows the light to shine in contrast. It heightens the experience,” she explained in a 2020 conversation with Catharina Manchanda of the Seattle Art Museum.

The cut-paper works here are portraits of Black subjects Thomas knows and admires, depicted in mythic settings endowed with representative elements. Playwright August Wilson, resplendent in a flowered dinner jacket in Two Trains (2022), points with a red-tipped finger to the script of Two Trains Running, part of his 10-play Century Cycle, which explores Black American life in each decade of the 20th century. Jitney, another title from the cycle, lurks in a lower corner. Thomas incorporates so much detail into her works that slower viewing, while not required, is rewarded.

The original version of The Illuminated Body was organized by Virginia’s Chrysler Museum of Art and curated by Carolyn Swan Needell. The Arthur Ross presentation was organized by Arthur Ross Gallery's
Emily Zimmerman.

A creative mythology

Musicians figure prominently in Thomas’s art. The player in Trumpet Offering (2022) holds his horn to his chest and purses his lips as if awaiting a cue. Flames flicker from his mouthpiece and shirt pocket as if he’s revving up. Fire, an iconic image for Thomas, is described in gallery notes as an “agent of transformation and destruction, as well as a source of light, wonder, and creativity.” Though not on fire, the intense street musician in A Joyful Noise (2022) causes flowers to burst from the pavement as he plays cello for oblivious passers-by.

The cellist’s shirt has complex geometric designs in orange; the passersby appear in blue, teal & orange block shapes behind.
Detail of ‘A Joyful Noise’ (2022) by Barbara Earl Thomas. (Photography by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios, image courtesy Arthur Ross Gallery.)

Regardless of medium, Thomas weaves a cutwork tapestry of literary, historic, and religious references into her work. The many Biblical allusions are her nod to the influence of her devout grandmother. As she recalled growing up in a churchgoing community, the artist described being “drawn to the oratorical language of the sermon and its talk of miracles and prophecy—none of which I’d seen. It was the music I listened to, the silences from the adults as I entered the room and the ladies who prayed over me when I was sick. The ritual and the shape of sanctuary, no matter the denomination—Catholic, Jewish, Baptist, Lutheran, and Evangelical—was all the same to me.”

There was an ever-present awareness of the tension between good and evil: “Light and dark … what is seen and unseen. What is clear and what is mystery—these kinds of experiences are part of my story in addition to my formal education. This is the base that provided the vocabulary and shaped my narrative of the world.”

Sculpting with sand, transforming with Tyvek

Three luminarias animate familiar Bible passages. To create them, Thomas placed protective rubber stencils bearing the designs on the glass before sandblasting. Finished, the luminarias reveal black silhouettes embedded in frosted glass and are lit from within. The largest on view, Gabriel’s Trumpet Sounds Every Day, includes twisting vines, birds, a sinuous snake, and a cross-legged man, blowing mightily—whether to charm the snake or fell it isn’t clear. The visually arresting pieces beg to be picked up and inspected, but a vitrine (wisely) prevents that.

Pale wallpaper-like pieces in a windowed corner of the gallery seem to glow with lace-like filigrees of orange light
A view of ‘Transformation Room’ (2021) by Barbara Earl Thomas. (Photography by Eric Sucar, image courtesy Arthur Ross Gallery.

Instead, step into a life-size luminaria, The Transformation Room (2021). Lined with floor-to-ceiling sheets of meticulously hand-cut polyethylene, backlit with soft pastels, it’s like wandering into a bolt of fine Belgian lace. Suffused with artificial and natural light, the enclosure is the inverse of Thomas’s other works. Its focal point is a tall tree formed by the phrase: “Entangled divided we fall To merge into the divine mystery.”

In The Transformation Room, Thomas unleashes the light that she hints at elsewhere, not piercing the darkness but overcoming it with her sharp little knife.

At top: Two Trains (2022) by Barbara Earl Thomas. (Photography by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios, image courtesy Arthur Ross Gallery.)

What, When, Where

Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body. Through May 21, 2024, at the Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania, Fisher Fine Arts Library Building, 220 South 34th Street, Philadelphia. (215) 898-2083 or

What, When, Where

The wheelchair-accessible entrance to Arthur Ross Gallery and Fisher Fine Arts Library is through the Duhring Wing on the building’s south side opposite Irvine Auditorium. To access the entrance, call (215) 898-2083 in advance or (215) 898-1479 (guard’s desk) when on site.

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