WASHINGTON, D.C., is gearing up for a citywide celebration of artist Alma Thomas (1891-1978) this fall. Honoring her contributions to the city’s cultural heritage, the events coincide with the traveling exhibition “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” opening Oct. 30 at The Phillips Collection.

Institutions throughout Washington are participating in the celebration, including the National Gallery of Art, Howard University, the Smithsonian, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and American University, along with The Phillips Collection. The robust schedule of programming is largely virtual with some in-person activities.

 


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

 

At the National Gallery of Art, the annual Wilmerding Symposium is dedicated to Thomas (Sept. 22-23). The virtual event kicks off on Sept. 22, which would have been the the artist’s 130th birthday, with a conversation between Elizabeth Alexander, author, poet, and president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. The discussion focuses on their connections to the artist’s life and work. Among them, Golden and Thomas share the same birthday.

First Lady Michelle Obama is headlining the Wilmerding Symposium and will introduce the opening session with Seth Feman and Jonathan F. Walz, co-curators of “Everything is Beautiful.”

American University’s virtual Feminist Art History Conference (Sept. 24-26) will consider Thomas. The Phillips Collection, the host institution for the “Everything is Beautiful” exhibition, is collaborating with Howard University on a four-part virtual program (Nov. 13) exploring the friendship and connections between Thomas and David Driskell (1931-2020).

In addition, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is announcing a major traveling exhibition dedicated to Thomas, launching in fall 2023. “Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas” will draw on the 30 paintings and drawings in the museum’s collection and “offer an intimate view of Thomas’s evolving practice during her most prolific period, 1959 to 1978.”

Institutions throughout Washington are participating in the celebration, including the National Gallery of Art, Howard University, Smithsonian, National Museum of Women in the Arts, and American University, along with The Phillips Collection.

A PIONEER IN POST-WAR ABSTRACTION, Thomas is known for her large-scale, rhythmic-patterned, color-driven paintings. “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” explores the full spectrum of her creativity—her paintings, as well as her love of fashion, gardening, teaching, performing arts, and more. The exhibition also focuses on her roots in Columbus, Ga., where she was born.

In 1907, when she was a teenager, Thomas moved North with her family to Washington, where she lived for the rest of her life (save for a short stint working in Somerset County, Maryland, and six years in Wilmington, Del.).

The artist’s adopted hometown figures prominently in key aspects of her biography, including historic firsts. Her graduation from Howard University was groundbreaking. In 1924, Thomas became the first student to earn a fine arts degree from the HBCU. When Obama included Thomas’s “Resurrection” (1966) in her redesign of the Old Family Dining Room in 2015, the painting was the first artwork by an African American woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House and also first artwork by an African American woman enter the permanent collection.

Thomas taught for 35 years in the D.C. public schools at Shaw Junior High (1925-60), organizing the school system’s first art gallery in 1938. In 1943, she helped found D.C.’s Barnett-Aden Gallery, one of the first Black-owned galleries in the United States, where she served as vice president. Thomas took painting classes at D.C.’s American University in the 1950s and was associated with Washington Color School artists.

Alma Thomas’s adopted hometown figures prominently in key aspects of her biography, early on and posthumously.

Washington was also central to her artistic vision. While the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was an inspiration, her natural surroundings proved to be a more enduring influence. The leaves that rustled on the trees outside her home, the graphic patterns in the flower beds at the National Arboretum, the lush terrain of Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, and Washington’s renowned cherry blossoms, all sparked her creativity.

After retiring from teaching in 1960 at the age of 68, Thomas continued to hone her practice and was finally able to dedicate herself full time to her painting. She showed in local galleries and had a solo exhibition at Howard University Gallery of Art in 1966, a survey of works dating from 1959-66.

A dozen years after focusing solely on her practice, Thomas landed a groundbreaking show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1972, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the New York museum. Later that year, a retrospective of Thomas opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and then-Mayor Walter Washington declared Sept. 9 “Alma W. Thomas Day.”

 

The forthcoming events in Washington echo the citywide pride expressed toward Thomas half a century ago. Selections include:

  • Sept. 14, Virtual: NMWA x Change: Virginia Treanor and Adrienne L. Gayoso of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, speak with art historian Adrienne L. Childs about Alma Thomas and the Little Paris Group

  • Sept. 22, Virtual: National Gallery of Art Wilmerding Symposium, Video Premiere: The Infiniteness of Almas Thomas: Elizabeth Alexander and Thelma Golden in Conversation. Followed by Session I: An Evening Celebration of Alma Thomas, with introduction by First Lady Michelle Obama, poetry reading with Ross Gay, and Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful exhibition tour with co-curators Seth Feman and Jonathan Frederick Walz (Shown at right, Clockwise from top left)
  • Sept. 23, Virtual: National Gallery of Art (NGA) Wilmerding Symposium, Session II: Alma Thomas’s Studio Practice and D.C. Cultural Institutions, moderated by Steven Nelson, dean of NGA’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, with Renee Maurer of The Phillips Collection; artist and scholar Nell Irvin Painter; and Vanderbilt University’s Rebecca VanDiver.
  • Sept. 23, Virtual: National Gallery of Art (NGA) Wilmerding Symposium, Session III: The Nation’s Capital in the Time of Alma Thomas, explore her aesthetic and social environment, moderated by NGA’s Charles Brock, featuring Howard University’s Melanee Harvey; artist and scenic designer Margie Jervis; independent curator and scholar Marya McQuirter; and Thaïsa Way of Dumbarton Oaks
  • Sept. 26, Virtual: American University Feminist Art History Conference: Feminist Issues in Art Museums, a discussion among curators Lauren Haynes of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Brooklyn Museum’s Catherine Morris, Baltimore Museum of Art’s Asma Naeem, Christine Sciacca of Walters Art Museum, and Christina Yu Yu of MFA Boston, moderated by NGA’s Mikka Gee Conway
  • Dec. 8, Virtual: National Museum of Women in the Arts: Alma Woodsey Thomas: Beneath the Surface, Gwen Manthey, paintings conservator at Smithsonian American Art Museum, leads a conversation about the Smithsonian’s research examining Thomas’s artistic process
  • Jan. 20, 2022: The Phillips Collection is hosting an live, in-person Alma Thomas Staged Reading of a one-act play by local playwright Caleen Jennings, which was commissioned by the museum
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    See full list of programming offered by institutions citywide here (scroll down to Events)

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Pansies in Washington,” 1969 (acrylic on canvas). | National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Vincent Melzac), 2015.19.144

 

Following the National Gallery of Art symposium, the museum will host an in-person community celebration (Sept. 24-26), honoring Thomas in a variety of ways throughout the building. Highlights include a horticultural installation in the East Building Concourse replicating Thomas’s concentric composition “Pansies in Washington” (1969) and, inspired by “Red Rose Cantata” (1973), a special gelato offered at a discount from NGA’s Espresso & Gelato Bar.

Both paintings are in the museum’s collection. “Red Rose Cantata” is currently on display in the East Building and “Pansies in Washington” is featured in “Everything is Beautiful” (at the Chrysler Museum of Art and Phillips Collection only).

“It is an honor to join this special collaboration among D.C.’s cultural and educational institutions,” NGA Director Kaywin Feldman said in a statement. “Alma Thomas’s dedication to finding the beauty in the everyday is something we should all aspire to, and we are delighted to help bring her creative spirit—much of it lived in our city—to life this fall.” CT

 

IMAGE: Above left, Portrait of Alma Thomas, 1976. | © Michael Fischer, Courtesy National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Above right, Clockwise, from top left, First Lady Michelle Obama, poet Ross Gay, curator Jonathan Frederick Walz of Columbus Museum, curator Seth Feman of 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 The D.C. Public Library created an Alma Thomas D.C. Heritage Tour

FIND MORE The Smithsonian Art Museum commissioned a new online series “Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists” by women student-illustrators. From the series, “Beneath the Holly Tree: A Comic About Alma Thomas” was drawn by Lauren Lamb, a student at Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla.

 

FIND MORE The National Gallery of Art’s 2020 Wilmerding Symposium was dedicated to David Driskell

 

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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