Barbara Thomas is a Hamptons-based artist whose paintings include landscapes, house and garden portraits, sports paintings, animals, and more. Part of a family of talented artists, her father, Fritz Siebel, was a successful commercial and children’s book illustrator, whose credits include the 1958 Dr. Seuss-edited classic A Fly Went By as well as the Amelia Bedelia series. Barbara has had many gallery shows in the East End and in New York City as well as in other galleries around the country. Her work has been written about in major magazines including Architectural Digest, Town and Country, Forbes, and others. Hamptons Monthly was honored to speak with her recently…
Was there a creative allure in the Hamptons that brought you here after leaving your career as an advertising art director in the city?
My family started coming out to East Hampton for the summers in 1968. So from an early age I began to appreciate the artistic history of the area. It was much later, in 1986, that I moved out here full time and had the opportunity to become part of the artistic community of the East End, meeting some of the greats of that time—some who are still the artistic mainstays of the East End as well as my good friends and colleagues. I had always painted, but the beauty of the area, along with the inspiration of the artistic community, gave me a thrilling impetus to make art full time.
Much of your artistic focus is on the natural world and “creating a story” for yourself based on what you see in these natural forms. Can you give us an example of this in a particular work?
Last year I worked on a project called The Sunflower Diary, which was a series of paintings, as well as an earthwork project and video. My connections to nature have deepened. I went back to my childhood memories of the magical properties of the natural world; a more personal landscape of dreams and imagination. I paint the faces of flowers and animals, like human faces, expressing feelings of the moment but also holding all the lines and shadows of their past.
What are some of your most memorable Hamptons exhibits?
Making art is an intensely personal, vulnerable act. When you get to the commercial stage it can be tricky. I used to show with the late, great Elaine Benson at her indoor/outdoor gallery in Bridgehampton. Elaine was a real champion of artists famous and not famous, and an enthusiastic promoter of my early work. One year I brought my paintings over, and several days later arrived at the opening. In the central garden area was the sculpture/installation of Suse Lowenstein commemorating the Lockerbie Pan Am flight bombing in which her son died. The lawn was covered with humongous sculptures of hulking naked bodies, in every kind of position of horror or grief imaginable. It was the opposite of absolutely any philosophy I had whatsoever about using art to symbolize existence. It hit you over the head, whereas I preferred a quiet, more pensive approach. There was nothing my paintings could possibly do to have a voice in this sculpture’s midst. So that was a memorable exhibit! On a better note for me, at another show, former US Secretary of Commerce and financier Pete Peterson loved one of my paintings, and commissioned several paintings of his property in Water Mill, and that began my long and fruitful international career as a house, garden, and property portraitist.
One of your paintings, a rooster called ‘Big Daddy’, was recently bought by fellow East End resident Alec Baldwin. How did that transpire?
This painting was part of a show at Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor that owner Colin Ambrose invited me to do. Alec comes in to the restaurant often to have breakfast, and he loved the painting. I actually think of Alec Baldwin as a sort of a Big Daddy in the East End; He’s incredibly talented and involved. I’m thrilled to be in his collection.
What’s ahead for you?
A few years ago I returned to school and got my MFA in visual arts. I am so proud to have added this to my artistic accomplishments. I teach a lot of painting, in my studio and at the Parrish Art Museum. I give talks and write about artistic processes. Lately, I have to keep rather copious notes of my project ideas. I hardly know where to begin I have so many! I am planning to make art that goes beyond painting. I want to work directly outdoors with garden and land projects. I would like to work more with video. In the meantime, I am painting away.