There’s More to Alma Thomas Than Colorful Abstractions, an Eclectic Show of the Artist’s Marionettes, Still Lifes, and Other Work Proves

Jul 15, 2021

A long overdue retrospective for the late artist Alma Thomas has touched down at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

The exhibition, titled “Everything Is Beautiful,” showcases little known aspects of the artist’s life and career, such as her interests in gardening and fashion, and her early student works. It was co-organized with the Columbus Museum in the artist’s hometown of Columbus, Georgia.

“One of the goals of the show has been to have a Columbus-originated story,” Jonathan Frederick Walz, the Columbus Museum’s curator of American art, told Artnet News. “There seems to be this received wisdom that Thomas only became an artist after she stopped teaching in the classroom in 1960, but the material that we had at the museum made us realize that, in fact, she had been making art all along.”

“Her late abstractions kind of end up standing for her entire career,” Walz added. “Our project with this show is to show that Thomas was multifaceted.”

Alma Thomas with students at Howard University Art Gallery (1928 or after). Photo courtesy of the Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia.

Born in 1891, Thomas spent the first nearly 16 years of her life in Columbus before her family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1907. After spending several years teaching in Delaware out of high school, she enrolled in Howard University in 1921 and became the first graduate of its art department.

The earliest painting in the show dates to her college years, likely from 1924. By comparing works from throughout her life, “you can really see how she’s exploring different styles and techniques before she arrives at what she focuses on as her signature style,” said Seth Femen, curator of photography at the Chrysler Museum and co-curator the exhibition.

Thomas hit upon that style—the colorful dabs of paint arranged in strips and rows—in the mid-1960s.

Alma Thomas, Blast Off (1970). Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

“This is a moment where the New York art world is being highly contested by African Americans and other BIPOC folks and women about the lack of representation in New York museums,” Walz said.

In response, the Whitney began a series of solo shows in a one-room, ground-floor gallery, and Thomas was one of the artists invited to participate.

It was a watershed moment in her career. “It was so important, since Thomas was the first Black woman to be given a solo show at the Whitney and it’s really where her career skyrockets from that point onward,” Walz said.

But like so many women artists, Thomas returned to relative obscurity after her death.

“She and her work just kind of lost currency for quite a long time,” Walz said. “It really wasn’t until 2009, when the Obamas hung the painting Skylight in their private residence apartments in the White House, that suddenly she became a thing again.”

Despite growing interest in Thomas in the last decade, large swaths of her career have received little attention. In the 1930s, she became deeply interested in marionettes, sculpting figures that she brought in as teaching guides to her classroom at D.C.’s Shaw Jr. High School, where she taught from 1925 to 1960.

Alma Thomas, Clown Marionette (ca. 1935). Photo courtesy of the Alma Thomas, Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers (1969). Courtesy of the Columbus Museum.

“Marionettes were a teaching tool that she could use to communicate teaching concepts, but also as the framework of a year-long project where her students learned all different kinds of things—language arts, music, electrical engineering, color theory, history of theater, design,” Walz said. “At the end of the year, the class would produce a version of Alice in Wonderland.”

The only time a Thomas marionette has been exhibited was at the artist’s posthumous 1981 show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Columbus Museum owns five of them, and is also displaying a large architectural drawing for a collapsible marionette stage.

Alma Thomas, Sketch for Giant marionette (1935/1938). Courtesy of the Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia.

“It is an engineering feat,” Femen said, noting that Thomas had studied draftsmanship at the technical high school she attended. “She’s figuring out how the components will all work together.”

“That engineering and architectural interest really comes through in the late paintings,” Walz added. “They are very considered. They’re somewhat architectonic. Even though they are nature based, there’s a very significant structure behind them.”

Of the more than 150 objects on view in the current presentation, about two dozen have never (or only rarely) been in the public eye.

Alma Thomas, Untitled (1922/1924). Courtesy of the Kinsey Collection, Pacific Palisades, California.

“You can’t do good scholarship on an artist unless you know the range of material,” Walz said. “The same range was being reproduced over and over and people were saying the same things. By broadening the selection, we are hoping to add texture to how people can understand her and her work.”

As Thomas neared the end of her teaching career, she began redoubling her efforts in the studio, and took art classes at American University from 1952 to 1957.

“That’s why, in 1960, she was able to hit the ground running—she didn’t come out of the blue. She was paying her dues all along,” Walz said.

Alma Thomas, Grassy Melodic Chant (1976). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Thomas remained dedicated to her craft until her death, in 1978.

“There are works from 1977 that really show her grappling with physical impairments and adapting to them—you can see it in the work,” Femen said. “She reportedly brought materials with her to the hospital when she went in for the surgery that ultimately was the end of her life.”

See more works from the show below.

Alma Thomas, Untitled (1968). Courtesy Steve and Lesley Testan/Emily Friedman Fine Art.

Alma Thomas, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976). Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Alma Thomas, Horizon (1974). Courtesy of Henry H. and Carol Brown Goldberg, Bethesda, Maryland.

Jan van RaayAmerican, Faith Ringgold and Michele Wallace at Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) protest at the Whitney Museum, New York, January 31, 1971. Photo courtesy of Jan van Raay, Portland, Oregon.

Alma Thomas, Snoopy Sees a Sunrise (1970). Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

Unidentified youths in theatrical costumes at Howard University (ca. 1927). Photo courtesy of the Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia.

Alma Thomas, Babbling Brook and Whistling Poplar Tree Symphony (1976). Courtesy of the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York.

“Alma Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful” will be on view at the Chrysler Museum of Art, One Memorial Place, Norfolk, Virginia, July 9–October 3, 2021. It will travel to the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St NW,  Washington, D.C., October 30, 2021–January 23, 2022; the Frist Art Museum, 919 Broadway, Nashville, February 25–June 5, 2022; and the Columbus Museum, 1251 Wynnton Road, Columbus, Georgia, July 1, 2022–September 25, 2022.