a black papercut silhouette of a woman playing a cello. more abstract figures pass in the background

“A Joyful Noise” (2022), paper cut with hand-printed color. Photo by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios, courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York. All images shared with permission

Barbara Earl Thomas reminds us that darkness—and the absences and omissions it conceals—are part of the stories we’ve adopted as truth. Her pieces gravitate toward the inextricable relationship between light and dark, with warm colors and soft glows emanating from floral motifs.

Working in paper and Tyvek, Thomas makes poetry of nature as it envelops the human body, carving intricate narratives that can be read as beautiful and apocalyptic. She’s interested in illuminating the choices society makes, whether it be deciding to cloister ourselves in climate-controlled spaces safe from the elements or cling to baseless prejudices.

“We create a kind of a story for ourselves that gives us the opportunity to not be scared to death every day, and then we live inside that story. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s what it is,” she says during a conversation with Colossal. “In the cuttings, I’m focusing on moments that both seem comforting and terrifying, ones where you get eaten, where the landscape engulfs you.”

Thomas’ works prompt viewers to recognize that these stories offer the illusion of control and “that things aren’t exactly what they appear to be.” She references Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s treatise “In Praise of Shadows” as informing much of her thinking.

The essay, which describes the electric lightbulb’s influence on Japanese aesthetics, considers what it means to take something “part and parcel from one culture into another culture,” particularly when it degrades the richness and potential of the culture already there. Both Tanizaki and Thomas point out that adopting new technology, like preserving incomplete histories or privileging some lives over others, isn’t compulsory.


a detail of a carving of a man shouting

Detail of “The Transformation Room”

Thomas works out of a basement studio in Seattle that she’s occupied since 1988. On the walls are paper-cut portraits with long sheets of Tyvek draped over tables. She knows all of her subjects and sees each body of work as a sort of community, one she won’t split up even to send a piece or two to her gallerist in preparation for an exhibition. For the artist, the community and the individual, like humanity and nature and light and dark, are co-constitutive. Their unity is what allows them to exist.

The first traveling exhibition of Thomas’ work, The Illuminated Body, debuted about a year ago at the Chrysler Museum of Art before heading to The Wichita Art Museum and making its final stop at Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania this month. Comprising nine portraits and an immersive installation called “The Transformation Room,” the show emphasizes human creativity while celebrating Black icons like playwright August Wilson and cellist Seth Parker Woods along with the artist’s friends and acquaintances. Referencing portraiture traditions, the pieces are equally elegant and subversive, questioning how we present ourselves, recognize others, and what shapes those perceptions.


a silhouette of a woman reclined with a cloud behind her

“Girl with Flowers II” (2022), paper cut with hand-printed color. Photo by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios, courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York

Each iteration of “The Transformation Room” has been different, with children helping to cut additional panels of white Tyvek in Wichita. When the exhibition opens this week at Arthur Ross Gallery, the piece will include color and a sculptural addition. The space also has gothic windows into which Thomas has fitted cuttings, allowing natural light to combine with the artificial to illuminate the suspended sheets of material.

Casting elegant shadows throughout the gallery, the installation invites viewers to reflect and see themselves and each other anew. The artist intends to “create a community gathering experience where my vision is filtered through sound and light, while being anchored in the historic familiar, poised for transformation.”

The Illuminated Body runs from February 17 to May 21 in Philadelphia. Find more by picking up a copy of the accompanying monograph and visiting the artist’s website.


cut tyvek backlit by soft light cloaks a gallery

Installation view of “The Transformation Room,” Arthur Ross Gallery

a black papercut silhouette of a girl sitting in a window with a globe near the bottom right. blues surround her while reds and oranges emerge on her body

“Girl and the World” (2022), paper cut with hand-printed color. Photo by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios, courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York

left: a portrait of a man in a suit covered in flowers holding a book in his hand that says "two trains running." right: a woman seated in a library holding a book on her lap with the word "art" on the bookshelf behind her

Left: “Two Trains” (2022), paper cut with hand-printed color. Right: “Lady in the Library” (2022), paper cut with hand-printed color. Photos by Spike Mafford/Zocalo Studios, courtesy of the artist and Claire Oliver Gallery, New York

cut white tyvek cloaks a window and room

Installation view of “The Transformation Room,” Arthur Ross Gallery

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