Alma Thomas at the Whitney Museum in 1972 | Smithsonian Archives of American Art

 

TODAY IS THE FIRST DAY OF FALL and the 130th anniversary of the birth of Alma Thomas (1891-1978), an occasion for celebration. The pioneering artist known for her vibrant and rhythmic abstract paintings was born Sept. 22, 1891. Inspired by space and nature, her color-rich works include “Autumn Drama” (circa 1969), “Autumn Leaves Fluttering in the Breeze” (1973), and “Before Autumn” (1974).

Thomas was a pioneer on multiple fronts. Born in Columbus, Ga., she spent most of her life in Washington, D.C., where she was the first student to earn a degree from Howard University’s newly formed art department in 1924. Late in her career, Thomas gained national recognition when she was the first Black female artist to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1972). Posthumously, she became the first Black female artist to have her work enter the White House Collection (2015).

Currently, “White Daisies Rhapsody” (1973), from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is displayed in the Office of Vice President Kamala Harris. Thomas’s paintings are featured in several notable group shows as well, including the traveling exhibitions “The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse” and “Supernatural America: The Paranormal in American Art,” in addition to “There Is a Woman in Every Color: Black Women in Art” at Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. Her work also appeared in “Women in Abstraction,” the recent survey that closed last month at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

A major traveling exhibition now on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful,” explores the spectrum of her creativity and has generated a new wave of interest in her life and work. A fully illustrated catalog was published to accompany the show. There’s a new short documentary and public programming. Today, Thomas’s adopted hometown of Washington is launching a citywide tribute to the artist with a virtual symposium hosted by the National Gallery of Art with First Lady Michelle Obama opening the main program.

A selection of new and forthcoming books, exhibitions, events, and products celebrates and recognizes 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

 
EXHIBITION | “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” @ Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Va. | July 9-Oct. 3, 2021

Co-organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art and The Columbus Museum, this landmark exhibition celebrates the full spectrum of the Alma Thomas’s creativity, from her critically recognized abstract paintings to lesser-known aspects of her life and work, including her interests in fashion, gardening, and marionettes. The traveling exhibition opened at the Chrysler in Norfolk, Va. on July 9, 2021, and will travel to three additional venues: 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, 2022–Sept. 25, 2022).

 


Clockwise, from top left, First Lady Michelle Obama, Ross Gay, Jonathan F. Walz, and Seth Feman. | Courtesy National Gallery of Art

 
SYMPOSIUM | John Wilmerding Symposium on Alma Thomas @ National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. | Sept. 22-23, 2021

A virtual event, the National Gallery of Art’s annual Wilmerding Symposium is dedicated to Alma Thomas this year. Part of a citywide celebration of Thomas, the gathering opens today with a video premiere. 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, highlight their connections to the artist’s life and work. Headlining the symposium, First Lady Michelle Obama will introduce Seth Feman and Jonathan F. Walz. The co-curators of “Everything is Beautiful” are giving a virtual tour of the exhibition, followed by panel discussions featuring Steven Nelson, dean of NGA’s Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, and several other curators, scholars, and historians.

 


“Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful,” Co-edited by Jonathan F. Walz and Seth Feman with 17 contributors (Yale University Press, 336 pages).

 
BOOK | “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful,” Co-edited by Jonathan F. Walz and Seth Feman. | Published Aug. 17, 2021

Published to coincide with the exhibition “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful,” this catalog is fully illustrated with essays by co-curators Jonathan F. Walz and Seth Feman, and a host of other scholars and curators, including Tiffany E. Barber, Aruna D’Souza, Melanee C. Harvey, Nell Irvin Painter, Jacqueline Francis, and Kimbberli Gant. The writings explore Thomas’s expansive interests and connections from gardening, teaching, marionettes, fashion and self-presentation to Howard University, hometown of Columbus, Ga., and St. Luke’s Espiscopal Church, as well as her painting techniques and issues of race and age.

 


“Miss Alma Thomas: A Life in Color,” Directed, Written, and Edited by Cheri Gaulke, Produced by Jon Gann/Reel Plan (20 minutes). | Video by Reel Plan/Jon Gann

 
FILM | “Miss Alma Thomas: A Life in Color,” Directed by Cheri Gaulke. | Released April 16, 2021

This short documentary was commissioned in conjunction with the exhibition “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” and is shown in the final gallery of the show at the Chrysler Museum of Art. The film provides an overview of Alma Thomas, emphasizing her biography, historic achievements, and the beauty and techniques of her work. Throughout the film, interviews with the exhibition co-curators Jonathan F. Walz and Seth Feman and additional curators and scholars (Tiffany E. Barber, Lisa Farrington, Melanee C, Harvey, and Melissa Ho), along with art dealer Aaron Payne and Charles Thomas Lewis, the artist’s great nephew, provide insights about her life and practice. Actress Alfre Woodard voices Alma Thomas in the film.

 


Puzzle Image: ALMA THOMAS, “Untitled,” circa 1968 (acrylic and pressure-sensitive tape on cut-and-stapled paper). | Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Donald B. Marron, 299.2015

 
PUZZLE | Alma Woodsey Thomas “Untitled” Jigsaw Puzzle (1,000 pieces, 13.4l x 38.6 inches). | Produced by Museum of Modern Art

A Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exclusive, this puzzle features Alma Thomas’s “Untitled” study (circa 1968), which was acquired by MoMA in 2015. In its description of the work, the museum notes that the “vibrant strips of color that appear in Thomas’s paintings and drawings, each made from clearly delineated brush marks, were often inspired by foliage moving in the light as seen through the window of the artist’s home, in Washington, D.C.”

 


Calendar Cover Image: ALMA THOMAS, “Resurrection,” 1966 (acrylic and graphite). | White House Collection/White House Historical Association

 
CALENDAR | Alma Thomas Wall Calendar 2022 | Published by Pomegranate with Michael Rosenfeld Gallery

This calendar features the abstract paintings for which Alma Thomas is best known. Bursting with color and rhythmic patterns, most of the works are from Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, as well as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark. (“Lunar Rendezvous—Circle of Flowers,” 1969) and the White House. The cover image, “Resurrection” (1966), is from the White House Collection. Acquired in 2015, during the tenure of First Lady Michelle Obama, the work is the first by a Black female artist to enter the White House Collection.

 


“Beneath the Holly Tree: The Story of Alma Thomas,” Illustrated by Lauren Lamb. | Part of Drawn to Art digital series commissioned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Debuted August 2021

 
COMIC BOOK | “Beneath the Holly Tree: The Story of Alma Thomas,” Illustrated by Lauren Lamb. | Published by Smithsonian American Art Museum

A new series of digital comic books, Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists explores the narratives of artists represented in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, including Alma Thomas. The museum commissioned student-illustrators from the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Fla., to work on the project. Lauren Lamb illustrated “Beneath the Holly Tree: The Story of Alma Thomas.” Elements of nature inspired Thomas, including the Holly Tree in the front yard of her home, which she could see through her living room window.

 


Puzzle Image: ALMA THOMAS, “The Eclipse,” 1970 (acrylic on canvas, 62 x 49 3⁄4 inches / 57.5 x 126.5 cm.). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1978.40.3

 
PUZZLE | Alma Thomas: The Eclipse Puzzle (1,000 pieces, 20 x 25 inches). | Manufactured by Pomegranate

Alma Thomas studied with artist and educator Jacob Kainen (1909-2001) at American University in the fall of 1958. “The Eclipse” (1970) was featured in the traveling exhibition “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of Paintings” (1998-2000), organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Fort Wayne, Ind. Kainen wrote about the work in the exhibition catalog. He said starting in the late 1960s, Thomas began a formulaic approach emphasizing the primary colors of the spectrum in context with intermediate colors that was of particular note when it came to her concentric circle paintings. “The Eclipse,” Kainen said, “was a daring, off-center painting that goes off the canvas, an arrangement of concentric circles with an unusually large dark-blue central orb that appears almost black against the other vivid red, yellow, and orange circles most of which are cropped sharply at the top and right framing edges.”

 


“Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas,” Written by Jeanne Walker Harvey, Illustrated by Loveis Wise (Harper Collins, 40 pages).

 
BOOK | “Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas” by Jeanne Walker Harvey with Loveis Wise. | Expected Feb. 8, 2022

This children’s book for ages 4 to 8 is forthcoming in February 2022. Exploring the life of Alma Thomas, the book is illustrated by Philadelphia-based Loveis Wise​. The publisher describes the story as “a stunning celebration of art and imagination” and, referencing the title, adds that “with her bold and vibrant abstract paintings, Alma set the world ablaze with color.”

 


Alma W. Thomas Boxed Notecard Assortment, Features five each of four images, 5 x 7 inches (20 notecards and envelopes). | Produced by Pomegranate

 
NOTECARDS | Alma W. Thomas Boxed Notecard Assortment | Published by Pomegranate

This set of blank notecards was produced on the occasion of the exhibition “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful.” Sourced from U.S. museum collections, four of Alma Thomas’s garden-inspired works are featured in the box: “Red Roses Sonata,” 1972 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” 1969 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), “Pansies in Washington,” 1969 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and “Air View of a Spring Nursery,” 1966 (Columbus Museum, Columbus, Ga.).

 


ALMA THOMAS, “Red Sunset, Old Pond Concerto,” 1972 (acrylic on canvas, 68 1⁄2 x 52 1⁄4 inches / 175.0 x 134.5 cm). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Woodward Foundation, 1977.48.5

 
EXHIBITION | “Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas” @ Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. | Oct. 6, 2023-April 21, 2024

The collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) includes 28 works by Alma Thomas, more than any other institution. The acquisitions began in 1970 and continued until her death eight years later, with 13 paintings came into the collection posthumously by bequest. Showcasing the museum’s extensive holdings, this exhibition will “offer an intimate view of Thomas’s evolving practice during her most prolific period, 1959 to 1978. New research into her materials and techniques show how Thomas continued to innovate until the end of her life, at times changing her methods to adapt to her declining physical ability due to arthritis.” Following its presentation at SAAM, the exhibition is expected to travel nationwide to several additional venues. CT

 

TOP IMAGE: New York, N.Y., 1972: Alma Thomas at the opening of her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Curator Jonathan Walz of The Columbus Museum said Thomas commissioned a designer to make the bold-patterned dress she wore to the historic event. | Alma Thomas Papers, Smithsonian Archives of American Art

 

BOOKSHELF
In addition to the exhibition catalog “Alma Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” and forthcoming children’s book “Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas,” which are both mentioned above, 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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