Alma Thomas was born in 1891.
Keep this in mind as you look at her spectacular abstractions painted 75 years later.
Also understand that the popular narrative of Thomas’ career – that her “Alma’s Stripes” paintings magically appeared by an unknown artist who did not start serious practice until after she retired as a schoolteacher – is utter poppy seeds. This “fairy dust” scenario neglects her rigorous artistic training, which made her the first graduate in fine arts at Howard University in 1924. It neglects drawing, painting, sculpture, costume design, gardening and even puppetry for a lifetime – all possibilities for her enormously creative interests. It negates her networking with other Black Modernists in Washington, DC, including David Driskell, Loïs Mailou Jones, and Sam Gilliam. It tries to discredit a life’s work and a course of study, leading to one of the 20thNS Century most breathtaking artistic inspirations as a kind of coincidence.
Alma Thomas was no accident.
“Alma W. Thomas: Everything is beautiful” on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia through October 3, provides a comprehensive look at her extraordinary career, including 50 paintings from 1922 to 1977. Some of these works are little known or have not been seen for decades; many of her later paintings were never exhibited.
“When I walked into the art space, it was like stepping into heaven, a beautiful place, exactly where I belong” – Alma Thomas.
Thomas entered Heaven at Armstrong Technical High School at the age of 15 after her family moved from Columbus, Georgia to Washington, DC. For the rest of her life, Washington offered her artistic opportunities that would never have been possible in Columbus.
At 30, she enrolled at Howard University to study costume design. There she switched to studying art. In the 1940s she worked her way up to the position of vice president of Barnett Aden Gallery – perhaps the country’s first black art gallery. She later took art classes at American University. She has become a staple in DC’s thriving black arts community, a community connected to the trends and ideas of the broader art world. She was represented in galleries and visited the city’s numerous art museums.
Meanwhile, he taught art in the same room at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years.
“I not only taught children to draw, I also taught them to appreciate beauty.” She said.
The year she retired from the classroom in 1960, she had her first solo exhibition at the Dupont Theater Art Gallery. It was completely sold out.
Alma Thomas at the Whitney – 1972
The myth of Thomas’ spontaneous artistic arrival stems from her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, following the development of her now iconic Alma’s Stripes paintings in 1966. She was the first black woman to be so honored.
Given the overwhelming scale of this groundbreaking achievement, the cherished walls within which it took place, and the ability of the always isolated, always pre-eminent New York art scene to rewrite history through its provincial perspective, Thomas was “discovered” in 1972. but to New York she was. It was for the national and international art world. What had come earlier in DC has been largely left out to aid in this simpler origin story.
Her vibrant, intensely colored, broken brushstrokes full of energy, life and joy were a complete departure from everything she had created before – they were a complete departure from everything anyone had created before. “Alma’s Stripes” were immediately recognized and admired. They took her to The Whitney and completely overshadowed what she had done before.
Fortunately, “Everything is Beautiful” avoids this trap. The exhibition includes around 20 canvases that were created before 1966, as well as several works on paper from earlier years. You can also see marionettes, costume drawings, prints made with their students, and sculptures that were created well before their breakthrough in the mid-1960s.
“These works show Thomas’ drive for innovation as he follows beauty everywhere: in the theater, in the classroom, in her garden, and so on,” Seth Feman, assistant director of art and interpretation at the Chrysler Museum of Art and curator of photography who runs the exhibition co-curated, Forbes.com said. “You get a good idea of Thomas’ early artistic innovations in a section where we installed several paintings in a row – from a still life she painted around 1924; through a series of abstract still lifes she made in the 1950s while studying at American University; to non-representational paintings that she created in the early 1960s. Taken together, you see the artist who works through form, gives up representation in favor of abstraction, experiments with color theories and finally decides to structure her pictures entirely with color. “
While the exhibition highlights Thomas’ lifelong artistic commitment and how her creativity expanded to all facets of her life, it is a reminder of the undeniable importance of the Whitney Show. The Chrysler presentation begins with a partial re-staging of this exhibition, including seven large canvases and several works on paper, as well as a replica of the dress that Thomas commissioned to complement her art.
Thomas always had a new dress made for her exhibition openings.
“Light is the mother of color, light reveals the living soul of the whole universe through colors” – Alma Thomas.
Where does “Alma’s Stripe” come from?
While the previous decades of her career have produced a respectable and remarkable work for a local DC artist, it is hardly the stuff of sensation. Hardly the stuff of history at The Whitney. Hardly the type of painting that was the first black woman to make her way into the White House collection in 2015 resurrection Did.
Thomas described the moment the inspiration came after he was approached by Howard University in late 1965 for an exhibition. She decided to paint something new.
Feman takes up the story as it became known.
“She sat in her favorite red Eero Saarinen chair, looking out the window and watching the sun pour through the holly in her front yard, while speckled light fell through the leaves and surrounded her house. She said (to) an interviewer, ‘This tree changed my whole career, my whole way of thinking,’ ”he says. “I love the story of transformation and Ida Jervis ‘s photographs showing streams of light, although Thomas’ holly confirms her report.”
“But I think it’s important to add that Thomas didn’t just stumble upon a new idea,” recalls Feman. “For years she had devoted herself to artistic experimentation, studied art history and followed the latest developments in contemporary art and discussed her observations of optical and natural phenomena with other artists for years. Your innovation was inspired, but also hard-won. “
In more ways than one.
At the end of her career, Thomas, who died in 1978, soaked her hands in hot water to ease the stiffness caused by arthritis so she could continue painting. Keep producing their “stripes”. Keep sending beauty into the world.
Beauty has always been the focus for Thomas. In her Howard University yearbook, she rhetorically asked, “What is wider than beauty?”
After performing at the Chrysler Museum, Everything is Beautiful will travel to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC from October 30, 2021 to January 23, 2022, and to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee from February 25 to June 5, 2022, and the Columbus Museum July 1, 2022-25. September 2022.