Studio Visit with Barbara Campbell Thomas

by Maria Britton

On my way to Barbara Campbell Thomas’s studio in Climax, NC, I make a pit stop at a gas station for coffee. This is one of the nicest gas stations I’ve been to recently. Nice as in cozy, and cozy as in there’s a bunch of pickles and nut butters right outside the women’s bathroom. As I’m browsing the pickles, I feel eyes on me. The eyes are cardboard and belong to a cut out of Dale Earnhardt Jr, thoughtfully placed in the corner, perhaps to deter shop lifters. I pay for my coffee and pickled okra and head down the road to Barbara’s.

After a brief introduction to her new kitten, Twig, Barbara and I walk to her backyard studio. It’s a converted garage with the interior painted white. The exposed rafters, also painted white, echo the convergence of painted lines and strips of fabric in Barbara’s paintings. A large table, centered in the studio, is covered with colorful piles of fabric, a pile of blue jeans outgrown by her children, painting supplies, and a collection of sketchbooks full of collages and drawings. Each sketchbook has a funky, embroidered, patchwork cover made by Barbara’s mother, Ellen Herman Campbell, who is an avid quilter. 

A few years ago, Ellen, who lives in Pennsylvania, visited Barbara and insisted on teaching her to quilt. Since then, Barbara has been incorporating blocks of quilted squares machine sewn into her paintings. I ask her if she likes to iron. Yes! But only for art. Neither of us enjoys ironing clothes. Ironing for art is a different, though. Neither of us look forward to sewing functional items outside of the studio. While there’s a deep admiration and satisfaction found in piecing together strips of fabric, strictly following patterns for clothing or quilt blocks brings back that weight of expectation and limitation. 

Barbara’s method of working consists of collage and loose painting organized into flattened, condensed space. Her paintings are full of accumulated stuff. In these recent paintings, it seems as though Barbara is zooming out. The quadrants of her recent paintings function like rooms, each with their own business going on. The perspective seems to be from above, looking down on a structure, a house or a specific room within a house. Thin stripes of paint and neatly cut strips of collaged fabric mostly rest horizontally or vertically and occasionally diagonally. Small circles of fabric and paint call to mind plates on a kitchen countertop and a stove’s burners. Her paintings seem to be about organizing, or loosely arranging color and line and space to make room for being. Barbara describes her own work as “aggregating the colloquial in service of illuminating the transcendent.” It comes as no surprise to learn that Barbara’s first painting class was with Helen O’Leary!

Barbara mixes her paints on a palette, building rich, bold colors as well as subtle variations of earthy tones. She works with both fluid and heavy-body acrylics, which cooperate nicely with fabrics. Fluid acrylics have been a relatively recent addition for me in my own work, so we praise the watercolorish qualities that can be achieved with fluids. She is working on some larger paintings now, and the shift in scale opens up the opportunity to include more variety in paint quality and methods of application. Her larger works have more expansive washes of paint with crisp outer edges that rival the sewn and pressed seams of inset quilt blocks. 

Barbara collects fabric from her family and thrift stores. Old sports jerseys from her kids are cut up and included in some recent paintings. Paintings that teeter on failure have the old scrap pile to look forward to as a place of rebirth. I too work with used fabrics and sewing, and we speak about the experience of learning a passed down skill from our mothers, who in turn most likely learned from their mothers. Several times throughout our visit, we ride a wave of satisfaction in together disrupting notions of patriarchy in painting--that which disregards or devalues what is perceived as feminine, weak, or just wrong in the eyes of the dude. Barbara schedules studio time around her many roles, including that of mother. When thinking about all the roles that artists who are also mothers who also work jobs outside of the studio, I wonder if the quest for balance in life and work is mythical, but maybe that balance can be found in Barbara’s work itself. She does make it all work by building rooms of her own, over and over. 

For additional information on Barbara please check out her website or Instagram.