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Barbara Earl Thomas speaks at the opening of "The Illuminated Body" art exhibition at the Arthur Ross Gallery in the Fisher Fine Arts Library on Feb. 16. Credit: Chenyao Liu

The Arthur Ross Gallery held a reception on Feb. 16 to celebrate the opening of a new art exhibition featuring works by Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas. 

"Barbara Earl Thomas: The Illuminated Body" showcases large-scale portraits crafted from hand-cut paper. The exhibition, which marks Thomas' debut in Philadelphia, will be on view from Feb. 17 to May 21, 2024. 

Thomas' work as an artist ranges from prints and paintings to public art and immersive environments. The pieces in "The Illuminated Body" pay homage to both personal friends and influential Black cultural icons such as August Wilson, Seth Parker Woods, and Charles Johnson. 

“I wanted to honor that common, everyday existence where we make our mark,” she said. 

The artist, who is known for her use of light in large-scale installations, created a "Transformation Room" in the Arthur Ross Gallery. The immersive installation is composed entirely of illuminated paper-cut murals, inviting viewers to step into Thomas's world and experience her art from a more dynamic perspective. 

“My work is pretty grounded, and I think anyone can relate,” Thomas said. “I hope Penn students can take what they learn here and put it out to the world."

Last year, the Arthur Ross Gallery received a $240,500 grant from the The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to support the display of "The Illuminated Body" and a series of related community programs. 

Emily Zimmerman, interim director of exhibitions and programs at the Arthur Ross Gallery, spoke in conversation with Thomas at the reception on Feb. 16. Zimmerman expressed her excitement for the exhibition. 

"I am honored to have Barbara over here with us tonight and to see this exhibition come to fruition after two years of work and many, many hours," she said. 

Sarah Usandivaras, College sophomore and co-chair of the Arthur Ross Gallery Student Advisory Board, said that she believes that visiting the gallery is an educational experience. 

“I enjoy coming and learning something new, and a lot of pieces come from Penn’s collection,” she said.  

Usandivaras encouraged students to visit the exhibition, noting the gallery's free admission and convenient location in the Fisher Fine Arts Library. 

In addition to the exhibition, the Arthur Ross Gallery is organizing a performance by two-time Grammy-nominated cellist Seth Parker Woods. Woods is one of Thomas' close friends and a subject of her artwork, “A Joyful Noise," in which he is pictured playing the cello. The performance — scheduled for April 11 at the Zellerbach Theater at Penn Live Arts — aims to enhance the immersive experience of "The Illuminated Body" and celebrate the enduring bonds of friendship and artistic collaboration.

Thomas' recent commissions include windows for a Yale University building and a mural for the Central Courthouse of Multnomah County in Portland, Oregon.