TOMORROW, SEPT. 22, would have been the 129th birthday of artist Alma Thomas (1891-1978). The announcement today of a major traveling exhibition co-organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., and the Columbus Museum in her hometown of Columbus, Ga., is a wonderful way to celebrate her life and legacy.

“Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” provides a comprehensive overview of Thomas’s creativity, exploring her painting practice, as well as her teaching, gardening, community service, and fashion. Featuring more than 100 works, the exhibition will showcase the abstract paintings for which Thomas is known, rarely seen marionettes, and a variety of archival materials.

Opening in July 2021 at the Chrysler Museum of Art, “Everything is Beautiful” will also be presented at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and Frist Art Museum in Nashville, before closing at the Columbus Museum.

The exhibition is co-curated by Seth Feman, Chrysler’s deputy director for art and interpretation and curator of photography, and Jonathan Frederick Walz, director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum

“Since her passing in 1978, several exhibitions have highlighted the extraordinary paintings Thomas made in the last 10 or 15 years of her life. This exhibition offers a much broader view,” Feman said in a statement. “It demonstrates how her enduring interest in painting as well as gardening, music, theater, fashion, teaching and community service complemented and reinforced every facet of her creative work.”

“Everything is Beautiful” will be presented at four museums:

  • Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. | July 9-Oct. 3, 2021
  • The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. | Fall 2021
  • The Frist Art Museum, Nashville, Tenn. | Spring 2022
  • The Columbus Museum, Columbus, Ga. | Summer 2022
 


ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891 – 1978), “Air View of a Spring Nursery,” 1966, acrylic on canvas, The Columbus Museum purchase and gift of the National Association of Negro Business Women, and the Artist, G.1979.53

 

BORN IN COLUMBUS, GA., Thomas spent nearly her entire adult life in Washington, D.C. She was the first student to earn a fine arts degree from the art department at Howard University (1924) and taught for 35 years at Shaw Junior High before retiring from teaching in 1960. At age 68, she concentrated on her painting practice full time. A dozen years later, in 1972, Thomas became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 2015, “Resurrection” (1966) was the first artwork by an African American woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House and enter the permanent collection.

The forthcoming exhibition presents a deep dive into her early life, family background, and broader creativity made possible by resources at the Columbus Museum.

“The Columbus Museum’s holdings include extensive archival material and works of art by Alma Thomas that the artist’s family, notably her sister Maurice Thomas, generously donated. We are excited to work with the Chrysler Museum of Art to share them with a broader public through ‘Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful.’ By drawing on this collection of material from the artist’s long career, we will offer a new, comprehensive look at her life and impact,” Columbus Museum Director Marianne Richter said in a statement.

The exhibition will consider multiple themes, connections, and communities, from her Washington Color School cohort, ties to Howard University, and contemporaries who protested major museum fighting for access and representation for Black artists.

“Since her passing in 1978, several exhibitions have highlighted the extraordinary paintings Thomas made in the last 10 or 15 years of her life. This exhibition offers a much broader view.”
— Chrysler Museum of Art Curator Seth Feman

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Clown marionette,” circa 1930s (fabric and wood with paint and string, 22 x 10 x 31 1/4 inches). | The Columbus Museum, Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas, 1994

 

CULTURE TYPE previously reported on plans for the exhibition. Today’s official announcement introduces the name of the exhibition, additional venues, and details about the catalog accompanying the show. The volume will feature a variety of essays and findings from first formal technical analysis of Thomas’ work, which was conducted by conservators at the Smithsonian American Art Museum..

Contributions to the exhibition catalog include a range of new scholarship:

  • Historian and artist Nell Painter on the perception of Thomas’ age
  • Anthropologist Grey Gundaker on Thomas’s garden
  • Art historian Melanee Harvey on Thomas’ involvement with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church
  • Art historian and Chrysler curator Kimberli Gant on Thomas’ international reception
  • Africana scholar Tiffany Barber on Thomas and performance

The essay selections emphasize the multifaceted life of Thomas whose paintings were inspired by the flowers and trees in her yard and the mysteries and possibilities of space travel. She studied in Europe and was active in Washington’s artistic community, her neighborhood, and church.

“Even with recent acquisitions and attention, Alma Thomas’ long career is most known for the late paintings from the mid-1960s and 1970s,” Walz said. “Everything Is Beautiful, which includes several works that were not included in previous exhibitions, offers the opportunity to present deeper insights into Thomas’ art and an inspiring look at how to lead a creative and beautiful life.” CT

 

“Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” debuts at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. July 9-Oct. 3, 2021

 

TOP IMAGE: Alma Thomas with her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. | Courtesy Archives of American Art

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Vase with flowers and bibelot,” circa 1960s (watercolor on paper, 13 x 10 inches). | The Columbus Museum, Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas, 1994

 

BOOKSHELF
A comprehensive exhibition catalog will accompany “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful.” Previously published volumes have documented and explored the work of Alma Thomas. “Alma Thomas Resurrection” coincides with a recent exhibition at Mnuchin Gallery in New York City. “Alma Thomas” was published to accompany the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem. “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings,” documents the traveling exhibition organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998-2000). An earlier catalog, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978,” was published on the occasion of a Smithsonian exhibition (1981–1982).

 

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