Barbara Campbell Thomas refers to her art studio as a self-generating system, where failed paintings get cut up and pieced into new works. But the North Carolina artist (and associate art professor) also keeps another category of scraps that could be more accurately described as ‘mother-generated’: pieces of fabric that represent a turning point in her art following a visit from her mom in 2014. The avid quiltmaker had arrived with a singular goal in mind, to teach her daughter how to quilt. Armed with a bin of secondhand fabric scraps, she quickly threaded Campbell Thomas’ unused sewing machine, and by the end of the day the two of them had completed a colorful little quilt. Over the next few months, as Campbell Thomas spent her evenings dutifully piecing together quilt blocks, she noticed that the visual thinking at work as she sewed together color and pattern was deeply linked to the paintings simultaneously underway in her studio. Curiosity compounded and she felt propelled to keep quilting after having a visceral realization: “Had I lived just 150 or 200 years ago, I would likely not have been a painter, because such an identity would not have been readily open to me as a woman,” explains Campbell Thomas. “Instead, I understood with eerie clarity, I would have made quilts. I started to see quilting as the flip side of painting, and immediately a new strain of influence and possibility opened up before me.”
“Over my years of living and making art, I’ve come to understand that there is no one way to be an artist, no one path, no one-size-fits-all approach to having a sustainable life as an artist. Every artist makes their own way.”
It wasn’t long before Campbell Thomas began incorporating pieces of quilted fabric machine sewn into paintings that seem to buzz with a current of modernist abstract energy. Getting pulled in by the vibrant colors and dynamic shapes — at turns repeating, concentric, clustered or independent — the casual viewer at first might not notice that certain parts are not paint but fabric that’s been sewn in and collaged so that it appears to be part of the canvas.
But Campbell Thomas considers her work to be less about optics and more about the presence of physicality. Materiality is vitally important to her, and so is independent thinking. If invoking quilt making in her art goes against the grain — according to a narrow definition of abstract painting canonized in Western art history — so be it. (And don’t even ask her to get into a debate about art vs. craft.) She sees the medium of painting as an open space of thinking and of contemplation, where a conception of reality outside of notions of time, space and conventional norms can exist.
In the service of locating and staying true to her own artistic voice, amidst endless distractions and the constant barrage of images and information that flood into our daily lives, Campbell Thomas’ work capitalizes on fragmentation while also focusing on the serendipitously unpredictable interplay between different materials commingling on the canvas. Because, at a certain point, it seems wasteful not to experiment and explore on your own terms. “Why would you walk in a straight line when you can meander back and forth and see all there is to be seen?” muses Campbell Thomas. “There’s something beautiful about building the whole piece by piece as you go. It’s a logic that resonates with living a life.”
How has quiltmaking changed your art?
“Learning how to make a quilt gave me new tools to take to my paintings. I did make two quilts, but I think it's important to state that I am not a quilter. I’m a painter who uses facets of the quilting process in her paintings, and I do so to expand the definition of painting. (There are so many remarkable artists out there who are quilters, and it's important to me to not claim that I am a quilter.) Specifically, I use piecing in my paintings. Essentially the bottom layer of my paintings is like the top layer of a quilt. I then add collage and paint to that layer. Learning how to quilt gave me critical new tools to take to my paintings, and I believe these tools have carried my paintings to a more complete, fuller expression.”
Who or what influences your work?
“My work is very inspired and influenced by the writings of mystics from pretty much every faith tradition. The poetry of Rumi and Hafiz inspire me, as do the writings of St. Teresa of Avila, Thomas Merton, Cynthia Bourgeault (who is a contemporary Episcopal priest and mystic), the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr and the Buddhist monk Thich Naht Hanh.”
Tell us about a teacher who had a positive impact on your art.
“I am a painter because of my college-level beginning oil painting teacher, Helen O'Leary. She is an extraordinary artist AND an extraordinary teacher who showed me that ANYTHING is possible with paint. She was also incredibly gifted at being able to discern what was unique about the artistic voice of each of her students, and her way of teaching was to locate that uniqueness and draw it out through praise and astonishment. It worked! But the thing is, Helen was and is genuine...she is astonished by the world and she is astonished by her students. She is a person of such openness and generosity that she is able to see value and possibility in her students. Her belief in me and in what I had to say validated me deeply, and her work continues to inspire me.”
Tell us about your first time…
“Ok, how about the first time I went to Italy? I was 19 years old, a young, VERY earnest art student, and Italy just bowled me over. I could not believe such a place of stunning beauty existed on this planet. The way Italians revered art and culture and food was so thrilling. I am addicted to Italy as a result, and I visit whenever I can. I even created a summer study abroad program to Florence so I can be sure I get back at least every other year. The thrill of being in Italy, of soaking in its generosity and zest for living NEVER gets old.”