Canonical history of portraiture and silhouettes invoked in 'The Illuminated Body' by Barbara Earl Thomas
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Canonical history of portraiture and silhouettes invoked in 'The Illuminated Body' by Barbara Earl Thomas
Barbara Earl Thomas (American, b. 1948), "A Joyful Noise," 2022, Paper cut with hand-printed color. Courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery, New York, and the artist. Photography by Spike Mafford / Zocalo Studios.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- Arthur Ross Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania is opening The Illuminated Body, an exhibition of works by artist Barbara Earl Thomas on view starting today through to May 21, 2024. Invoking the canonical history of portraiture and silhouettes, Thomas creates powerful narratives that address systemic racism, gun violence, history, literature, and climate change across the media of paint, printmaking, and glass. The exhibition is composed of largely figurative artworks including a large-scale installation entitled The Transformation Room. Throughout Thomas’ work, light and color interplay to explore both physical and metaphorical illumination. Thomas’ large-scale cut paper artworks celebrate her personal friends alongside great Black cultural icons such as August Wilson, Seth Parker Woods, and Charles Johnson. In tandem with the exhibition, renowned cellist Seth Parker Woods will perform “Difficult Grace” in Zellerbach Theater at Penn Live Arts on April 11, 2024.

“The Illuminated Body is a collection that is very near and dear to my heart,” says Thomas. “The subjects in this series are all real people – many of whom I know personally. Through this exhibition, I wanted to bring to life the idea that despite the challenges we face in modern day society, we find joy. The media often portrays Black people as constantly plagued by calamity. The Illuminated Body shows the other side – where strength and hope live.”

“The Arthur Ross Gallery is thrilled to introduce Philadelphia audiences to Thomas' powerful work,” said Emily Zimmerman, Interim Director of Exhibitions and Programs at The Arthur Ross Gallery. “In The Illuminated Body Barbara Earl Thomas invites the viewer into a story world that charts broad cultural narratives and balances those against the personal stories of individuals linked within communities.”

A highlight of a dynamic roster of programming will be a special performance by Seth Parker Woods, whose portrait by Thomas is featured on his Grammy-nominated album and is part of the exhibition. Woods will perform “Difficult Grace” at the Zellerbach Theater at Penn Live Arts on April 11, 2024. The performance takes inspiration from Dudley Randall’s poem “Primitives” and pulls aspects of Randall’s poem (rhythms, durations, phonetic timbre, syntax and meaning) to generate each musical gesture and set Randall’s original poem in dialogue with itself in musical time, both verbally and sonically. Music from the record will also accompany the exhibition. Additional programs include a conversation between Barbara Earl Thomas and Dr. Kemi Adeyemi, a lecture with Marisa Williamson, and a community-organized celebration.

The Illuminated Body is organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art and curated by Carolyn Swan Needell, the Chrysler’s curator of glass. The exhibition tour began at The Chrysler Museum of Art from February 24 – August 20, 2023 and is currently on view at The Wichita Art Museum through January 14, 2024. In tandem with the exhibition, the Chrysler Museum will also release an illustrated catalog with scholarly essays contributed by Carolyn Swan Needell (Carolyn and Richard Barry Curator of Glass), Dr. Kemi Adeyemi (Associate Professor of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies and Director of The Black Embodiments Studio at the University of Washington), and Emily Zimmerman (Interim Director of Exhibitions and Programs at The Arthur Ross Gallery), and opening remarks written by the artist.

Earlier this year, The Arthur Ross Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania was awarded a major grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to support The Illuminated Body exhibition, as well as a series of programs organized for the exhibition.


Barbara Earl Thomas is a Seattle-based visual artist with numerous national exhibits to her credit and an active art-making career that spans more than 30 years. A skilled painter who now builds tension-filled narratives through papercuts and prints, placing silhouetted figures in social and political landscapes, she pulls from mythology and history to create a contemporary visual narrative that challenges the stories we tell as Americans about who we are. Thomas is also known for her large-scale installations that use light as the animating force and invites her viewers to step inside her world of illuminated scenography. Thomas’s works are included in the collections of the Seattle, Tacoma and Portland Art Museums, Chrysler Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Microsoft, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Washington State and Seattle City public collections. Thomas recently completed commissioned work at Yale University's Hopper College as well as two major exhibitions, Geography of Innocence, Seattle Art Museum (November 2020 -November 2021), and Packaged Black, a collaboration with New York based artist Derrick Adams at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington (October 2021 - May 2022). Upcoming solo exhibits include Claire Oliver Gallery (November 2022), and Chrysler Museum of Art (February 2023).

In 2022 Thomas was appointed as an Associate Fellow at Yale University. In 2016, she received the Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award and the Washington State Governor’s Arts award, the Artist Trust Irving and Yvonne Twining Humber Award and the Seattle Stranger Genius Award for excellence in the arts. She was also nationally noted for her exhibition “Heaven On Fire,” a major career survey with The Bainbridge Island Art Museum. Her work has been widely featured nationally; with the John Braseth Gallery at the Seattle Art Fair (2016), and at EXPO Chicago (2017, 2018) and Pulse Contemporary Art Fair (2018-21) with Claire Oliver Gallery (New York).

Thomas is a graduate of the School of Art, University of Washington, where she received her Master of Arts in 1977. She counts herself most fortunate to have had mentorships with Michael Spafford and Jacob Lawrence who have both influenced her work. She will tell you that these two men were not only supportive but crucial friends in her life.


Hailed by The Guardian as “a cellist of power and grace” who possesses “mature artistry and willingness to go to the brink,” Grammy Award-nominated cellist Seth Parker Woods has established his reputation as a versatile artist and innovator.

This season, Woods premieres a new version of his Difficult Grace at 92NY, UCLA, and Chicago’s Harris Theater; curates and performs a program honoring George Walker at the Phillips Collection; premieres Freida Abtan’s My Heart is a River with the Seattle Symphony; and performs a premiere by Anna Thorvaldsdottir at Carnegie Hall, part of Claire Chase’s Density Series. The Great Northern Festival in Minneapolis presents Woods’ performance installation, Iced Bodies, and he also joins national tours with pianist Andrew Rosenblum and the Chad Lawson Trio. Woods released a new solo album on Cedille Records and contributed to the soundtrack of the 2022 Ken Burns PBS documentary, The U.S., and the Holocaust. He is nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award with new music ensemble, Wild Up.

Seth Parker Woods is on the faculty of the Thornton School of Music at USC. He is a Pirastro Artist.

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