“Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art

 

A NEW FOUR-CITY traveling exhibition offers an expansive look at the life and work of Alma Thomas (1891-1978). A pioneer in post-World War II abstraction, Thomas is arguably the earliest example of a highly regarded African American female artist working in abstraction. Best known for her radiant abstract paintings and the masterful use of color, pattern, and rhythm she employed to produce them, Thomas was inspired by a panoply of interests, including nature, space, and even the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which she attended.

Born in Columbus, Ga., Thomas moved with her family to Washington, D.C., when she was a teenager and spent nearly her entire career in the nation’s capital. About five years ago, she began receiving renewed and broader critical recognition focused on her painting practice. “Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” follows this attention offering an alternative lens through which to view the artist’s career.

The exhibition showcases her abstract paintings and also explores the full spectrum of her creativity and lesser-known aspects of her life and work, including her interests in fashion, gardening, and marionettes; her Georgia roots, ties to Howard University, and church connections; and her international exposure, commitment to teaching, and what conservators have discovered about her techniques and methods.

Featuring more than 100 works, the exhibition is co-curated Seth Feman, deputy director for art & interpretation and curator of photography at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., and Jonathan Frederick Walz, director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga. The show opened July 9 at the Chrysler Museum.

“I have been swamped since the opening with constant tours, which I am very happy to give. It’s just a delight to see people in the galleries enjoying Thomas’s work!” Feman told Culture Type. “Every day since we’ve been open I’ve seen people in the gallery seeking solace and finding encouragement and refocusing their energies on what lies ahead. Without a doubt, beauty is necessary for the work of making the world a better place. This was Thomas’s faith, and it is made real every time people interact with her art.”

Culture Type asked Feman, Walz, and scholars and curators who contributed to the exhibition catalog to share their thoughts about Thomas and their experience with the “Everything is Beautiful” project. They explained why they were compelled to participate, what they learned along the way, and what new insights they wanted to bring to light through their contributions:

 


Installation view of “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. (July 9-Oct. 3, 2021). | Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 
Seth Feman on Finding Beauty in the World

Jonathan approached me in about 2017 because he had been at The Columbus Museum for around a year and wanted to develop an exhibition from their extensive holdings of Alma Thomas materials. He wanted to see if I would potentially write for the catalogue since I had written a large part of my dissertation on the artist, but I immediately asked if I could help with the show. I knew that Columbus had substantial Thomas materials, but I hadn’t accessed them when working on my dissertation, relying instead on materials in Washington, D.C., particularly those at the Smithsonian. I was excited by the opportunity to dig deeper into the archive and to share the research through an exhibition. The Chrysler had just begun a program of developing and touring exhibitions developed inhouse, and this was a great opportunity to work collaboratively with another great organization and colleagues.

I suspected the materials in the archive would flesh out some of my assumptions about Thomas, two related ideas in particular: that her creative interests spanned many disparate fields (gardening, teaching, church activities, theater, etc.), and that she wove them together with her devotion to beauty. As we found when exploring the Columbus collection, this was entirely true. I had argued in my previous scholarship that Thomas’s teaching went hand in hand with her development as a painter—I felt these were inextricably linked, really part of the same project—even though Thomas is often described as becoming a painter after she retired from teaching. What surprised me is just how far her creative interests spanned. Her dedication to marionettes, for example, was no mere fleeing interest, and her mastery in the garden or as a seamstress wasn’t short lived. These were all part of her constant and ongoing effort to engage and improve the world through beauty.

The project busts a series of myths, and I hope people will see that too: she was an artist for most of her life, not simply after she retired, and conversely, she continued to teach after she retired from formal classroom teaching; although she has been described as a “late-blooming artist” and her Whitney show is often cited as a singular accomplishment, her development as an artists was long developed and hard-won, and her efforts should be as celebrated along with her sheer talent; and despite the idea that Thomas looked to other artists for inspiration, this project leaves no doubt that Thomas was in fact a central player in a series of art worlds, inspiring others just as often as she was inspired by them.

The myth busting aside, and to say nothing of the amazing new insights offered by the amazing authors in the catalog (the technical analysis blows my mind), I still think the message I want people to walk with when they see the show is how Thomas’s practice of finding and amplifying beauty in the world is a mode of political engagement that, for Thomas, changed the lives of everyone she encountered and the shape of the world around her, and for us is a tool we can use to transform our world today.

Seth Feman is deputy director for art & interpretation and curator of photography at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va. He co-organized “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” and co-edited the exhibition catalog

 

“The Columbus Museum had never itself organized a traveling exhibition about the Columbus-born painter and educator. This became one of the motivating factors for ‘Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful.’ We wanted to tell our version—a Columbus-centric version—of the story.”
— Jonathan Walz


ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), Untitled, circa 1968 (acrylic on cut, stapled, and taped paper). | Steve and Lesley Testan Collection, as curated by Emily Friedman Fine Art, Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 
Rebecca E. Bush on Georgia Roots

Alma Thomas’s story has long fascinated me. As a historian of African American life in the South during Reconstruction and Jim Crow, I recognize many familiar narratives in her childhood: limited educational opportunities, fear of racial violence, a family move north in search of a brighter future. A deeper dive into her early years reveals a more complex experience, however—one that was nearly singular in her hometown and launched her on a path separate from her peers.

I hope that readers come away with a sense of how Thomas’s Columbus origin story deeply influenced her outlook and creativity: the nuances of her upbringing in a white suburb with summers spent on her biracial grandfather’s expansive farm, the flower gardens and industrial detritus that nurtured her fascination with color, the cultural salons her parents hosted, and involvement in civic organizations that built her understanding of community.

I am especially thrilled to offer the first detailed examination of her father’s family and entrepreneurship in Columbus, which led to his becoming the first Black bar owner in the city. His lineage played a crucial role in the family’s unheard-of choice of neighborhood and is a story every bit as fascinating as that of Thomas’s oft-discussed maternal family, which itself includes a father owning his son, bravery at the Mexican border, and a classroom’s worth of Tuskegee-educated teachers. Above all, though Thomas has proudly and rightfully been claimed by Washington, D.C., audiences, I hope people recognize the prevalence of her Georgia roots throughout her life and art.

Rebecca E. Bush is curator of history and manager of exhibitions at The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga. She contributed the essay, “Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas,” to the exhibition catalog

 


Unknown Photographer, Alma Thomas with two students at the Howard University Art Gallery, 1928 or after (black-and-white photograph). | Alma W. Thomas Papers, The Columbus Museum

 
Melanee Harvey on Howard Connection

Since my arrival to Howard University’s Department of Art in 2013, Alma Thomas, the department’s first graduate, has been a cornerstone of the history of art at Howard. Across all American art history classes from general education courses like Art Appreciation to advanced seminars such as Topics in Art Criticism and Black Women in Visual Culture, Thomas’s contribution to art education and contemporary art practice is discussed in Howard classrooms.

When Seth and Jonathan approached me a few years ago about the retrospective, we all understood that Howard University needed to have a role in telling her story. The staff of the Howard University Gallery of Art as well as art scholars Dr. Lisa Farrington, Dr. Gwendolyn Everett and Dr. Elka Stevens have all participated in some way to prepare for this retrospective and its iteration at the Phillips Collection this fall. In my contribution to the exhibition catalog, it was important for me to explore religion in the life of Alma Thomas through her lived experiences.

It was an honor to mine her personal papers at the Smithsonian Archive of American Art in order and contextualize her experience with St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., the historic religious community she was affiliated with for the majority of her life. Examining Thomas through her engagement with her religious community revealed evidence of her artistic impact on St. Luke’s Church and the youth in the surrounding community, reiterating the multitude of ways that art and beauty saturated all sectors of her life.

As the Department of Art prepares to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Alma Thomas’s graduation in 2024, this exhibition provides an important opportunity to reflect on the legacy and future artistic influence of our art alumni.

Melanee C. Harvey is an assistant professor of art history at Howard University. Her essay, “St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in the Life of Alma Thomas” is published in the exhibition catalog

 
Amy M. Mooney on Power of Portraiture

My contribution to the catalog considers how Thomas presented herself to the world through portraiture and how these images were used to consciously promote her artistic and political legacy. Working with her friends, such as photographer Ida Jervis or painter Laura Wheeler Waring, Thomas was ever aware of the power of the portrait. Through pose, prop and expression, she collaborated with her colleagues to generate images that seem self-assured and formidable, demonstrating the values that she held for herself and for others.

In her portraits, there’s a compelling tension between how the artist knew herself and how she wanted to be known by others—we can see her negotiation of the politics of respectability as well as the tenacity of an individual who thwarted the constraints of sexism and the subjugation of Jim Crow. In short, her vision—be it the integration of African Americans into art’s history or the possibilities of developing a new aesthetic language—provide an urgent and inspiring model of modern Black subjectivity for our contemporary moment.

Amy M. Mooney is an associate professor of art history and visual culture at Columbia College, Chicago. She authored the catalog essay, “As She Sees Herself: A Portrait of Alma Thomas”

 


Installation view of “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. (July 9-Oct. 3, 2021). | Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 
Tiffany E. Barber on Self-Fashioning

“Everything is Beautiful” is groundbreaking in that it dispels long-standing myths about Alma Thomas’s art career and sheds new light on how she approached beauty and creativity beyond painting. My essay for the exhibition catalog focuses on Thomas’s self-fashioning in relation to her painting practice, a phenomenon largely undiscussed in the scholarly record. Much of the existing literature focuses on her vast art historical knowledge, the books in her collection, and the veiled racial consciousness of her paintings. Yet Thomas lived through many historic moments and was at the forefront of a new era for thinking about identity and abstraction, in general, and what we expect Black women’s art to do, in particular.

I highlight how she lived a vibrant life unbound by narratives imposed by American society’s limited conceptions of Blackness and womanhood as solely sites of resistance. Thomas instead pursued formal innovation and subtle yet cutting-edge performances of the self that ultimately rejected social and aesthetic norms of the time. In looking to space, skyscrapers, musical theater, puppetry, and nature, she routinely pushed the material limits of fine art.

For exhibition openings, she often designed her own outfits to complement her paintings. Being called a “Black artist” rankled her, as did social dogma about her gender. She never married and never had any children. She was vividly aware of the publicness of her presence in the art world, and her sartorial choices articulated her middle-class sensibilities and aspirations. For Thomas, I believe, the act of painting—like her self-fashioning—was an act of performance.

Tiffany E. Barber is an assistant professor of Africana studies and art history at the University of Delaware. Her essay, “In Quiet Pursuit of Art and Life on the Edge,” appears in the exhibition catalog

 

Alma Thomas lived through many historic moments and was at the forefront of a new era for thinking about identity and abstraction, in general, and what we expect Black women’s art to do, in particular.
— Tiffany E. Barber

Nell Painter on Mark of Age

From the moment she arrived in the New York City and hit the big time in 1972, Alma Woodsey Thomas’s age was a source of wonder—never disregarded, always worthy of remark. Her gorgeous, astonishing, and accessible art opened her way to visibility, but her age defines the person and is almost as central to her image as her unique and colorful abstraction.

I’m hardly in her league as a painter, but as an old artist, I recognize this fascination with a woman’s age, a phenomenon that she and I share. Her age, the geographies and chronologies of race, and successive eras in art history have all influenced how she pursued her art and how her art has been received. Her persona carries the mark of her age, even when she has been characterized as youthful, as well as old.

As an old woman, I also recognize the freedom that age brings women: freedom to spend your money as you please, because you’re more likely when old than when you were young to have money; to do what you want to do, even if other people don’t see your point in wanting to keep on doing it your own way.

Nell Painter is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita at Princeton University and a practicing artist. She authored the catalog essay, “Alma W. Thomas (1891–1978): Old/Not Old Artist”

 


Installation view of “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. (July 9-Oct. 3, 2021). | Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 


Installation view of “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. (July 9-Oct. 3, 2021). Shown, far left, “Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music,” 1976 (acrylic on three canvases). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 1980.36.2A-C. | Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 
Sydney Nikolaus on Surface Evidence

My participation began in 2019 when I started working as paintings conservator for the Alma Thomas Research Project at the Smithsonian American Art Museum with conservators Amber Kerr, Gwen Manthey, and curator Melissa Ho. Working with this incredible team and investigating Thomas’s luminous paintings and her evolving studio practice has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my career.

Our technical examinations revealed how rich and varied her painted surfaces are, and how she carefully planned out her compositions and color arrangements before painting. Thomas often added additional passes of paint to either intensify or modulate a single color, or to add interplay between different colors. Multispectral imaging techniques have also revealed complex preparatory drawings and color annotations that Thomas applied in pencil to the primed canvas in many of her paintings of the 1960s.

Thomas was an extraordinary artist and her perseverance to continue painting despite numerous obstacles and health issues is an inspiration on many levels. Throughout the project, my colleagues and I were fascinated to discover evidence of Thomas continually adjusting her paint application, methods of construction, and her working techniques to accommodate her increased impairment as she aged. She didn’t let anything get in the way of her creativity!

Sydney Nikolaus is an independent paintings conservator based in Connecticut. She co-wrote the catalog essay, “Composing Color: The Materials and Techniques of Alma Woodsey Thomas,” with Gwen Manthey, Melissa Ho, and Amber Kerr

 


ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers,” 1968 (acrylic on canvas). | The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., Gift of Franz Bader, 1976; Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 
Kimberli Gant on Exposure Abroad

Alma Thomas was an artist whose work I had always known about, but had never known her full story. In learning about how she had such a rich legacy, as not just an artist in her later years, but throughout her whole life, and her evolution with arts as a teacher and patron of the Barnett Aiden Gallery. What I loved learning the most was how much her work traveled throughout the world through organizations such as the Art & Embassy program and want to understand more about its reception outside the U.S. I want to further research locations of where her images ended up and how it was presented. Did the audiences know she was an African American woman? Was that promoted through the Arts & Embassy literature? Also who were the audiences themselves? This aspect of her art life needs much more scholarship and I hope I get to expand on that area, because learning how others perceived her and her practice may give us a better understanding on goals of how art was used as an aspect of international diplomacy.

Kimberli Gant is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Chrysler Museum of Art. In the exhibition catalog, she authored the essay “Alma Thomas: Circulating Americanness Abroad”

 

“Between 1970 and 1975, Alma Woodsey Thomas exhibited at least a dozen paintings in Department of State offices and official reception rooms, as well as U.S. embassies around the world. Her paintings traveled to Rome, Italy (Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers); San Salvador, Nicaragua (Tiptoe Through the Tulips); and Lagos, Nigeria (A Fall Garden of Mums), among other locations.” — Kimberli Gant, From ‘Everything is Beautiful’


ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), “Sketch for March on Washington,” circa 1963 (acrylic on canvas board). | The Columbus Museum, Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas in memory of her parents, John H. and Amelia W. Cantey Thomas and her sister Alma Woodsey Thomas, Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 
Jonathan Walz on Dispelling Myths

In late December 2015, Ian Berry and Lauren Haynes—the co-curators of the 2016 exhibition “Alma Thomas”—visited The Columbus Museum, specifically to look at Thomas works on paper and materials in the museum’s Alma W. Thomas Papers. (This was before I started at the museum in late summer 2016.) As a result of this visit, The Columbus Museum became the project’s most generous lender, with 38 loans to both venues—Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and the Studio Museum in Harlem.

As most good exhibitions do, Alma Thomas provoked more questions than it answered. Soon after the 2016 project closed and our loans were returned, the museum’s director, Marianne Richter, observed that despite having hosted Thomas-centered projects in the past (including the Smithsonian’s 1981–82 show and the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s 1998–2000 retrospective), The Columbus Museum had never itself organized a traveling exhibition about the Columbus-born painter and educator. This became one of the motivating factors for “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful.” We wanted to tell our version—a Columbus-centric version—of the story.

Early in the research and development phase of “Everything Is Beautiful,” my co-curator Seth Feman and I developed several goals for the project, including our hope to dispel several persistent myths about Thomas and her work. One, that didn’t make our short list, but that still hovers around the edges of Alma Thomas studies, is that the artist was a quaint and decorous old lady who happened to naively stumble into fame as an octogenarian. What I learned from this project is that nothing could be farther from the truth.

What the archive corroborates is how intellectually focused Thomas was and how carefully she planned her career steppingstones. To those unfamiliar with her backstory, her very first solo show in 1960 (which sold out) and her career-making one-person exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, might seem as if Thomas unexpectedly burst Athena-like onto the Washington and national art scenes, respectively. In fact, Thomas had been teaching junior high 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, while also honing her painting skills in her free time—first, via the Little Paris Studio group in the 1940s and then through formal graduate-level coursework at American University in the 1950s.

There’s no other way to say it: Alma Thomas paid her dues. All the reading, looking, networking, discussing, and painting that she practiced from her student days at Howard University in the 1920s onward prepared her to hit the ground running as a full-blown professional artist at 68 years of age. Given how determined she was and how hard she worked, it would actually seem more surprising if she hadn’t—somehow—succeeded, but she did—and brilliantly at that.

Jonathan Frederick Walz is director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga. He co-curated “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” and co-edited the exhibition catalog
CT

 

TOP IMAGE: Installation view of “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. (July 9-Oct. 3, 2021). | Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 

“Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” is on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., from July 9-Oct. 3, 2021. The exhibition will travel to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (Oct. 30, 2021–Jan. 23, 2022); Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tenn. (Feb. 25–June 5, 2022); and The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga. (July 1–Sept. 25, 2022), Thomas’s hometown museum

 

FIND MORE A short documentary, “Miss Alma Thomas: A Life in Color,” was produced to coincide with the exhibition and is on view in the show.

 


Installation view of “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. (July 9-Oct. 3, 2021). | Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 


ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), “Grassy Melodic Chant,” 1976 (acrylic on canvas). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 1980.36.5, Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 


ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), Untitled, 1922/1924 (oil on canvas). | The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection, Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 


From left, Unknown photographer, Costumes designed by Alma Thomas for Howard University Players, 1923-24 (black-and-white photograph). | Alma Thomas Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; and ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), Sketch for Giant marionette, 1935/1938 (graphite on paper). | Alma W. Thomas Papers, The Columbus Museum

 


ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), “Snoopy Sees a Sunrise,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas). | Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 


Installation view of “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. (July 9-Oct. 3, 2021). | Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 


ALMA THOMAS (American, 1891–1978), “Horizon,” 1974 (acrylic on paper). | Henry H. and Carol Brown Goldberg, Bethesda, Md., Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 


Installation view of “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. (July 9-Oct. 3, 2021). | Courtesy Chrysler Museum of Art

 

BOOKSHELF
A comprehensive, fully illustrated exhibition catalog has been produced to accompany the exhibition. “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” is forthcoming in August, with contributions from the authors above and several others. Previously published volumes have documented and explored the work of Alma Thomas. “Alma Thomas Resurrection” documents an 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,” coincided with 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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