Alma Thomas with her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. | Courtesy Archives of American Art
LARGELY KNOWN AS A WASHINGTON, D.C,-BASED ARTIST who dedicated herself to her practice full-time late in life, Alma Thomas (1891-1978) is recognized for her abstract compositions, exuberant works defined by rhythmic pattern and vibrant color. The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga., where Thomas was born and grew up, hopes to broaden this narrative and plans a major retrospective.
An accomplished and celebrated painter who was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1972, Thomas pursued many forms of creativity. The Columbus Museum and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., confirmed to Culture Type the co-organization of a solo exhibition designed to explore the arc of Thomas’s artistic practice and range of creative expression throughout her life.
The exhibition is expected to open at the Chrsyler in fall 2020 and travel to the Columbus Museum in fall 2021. Additional venues are being pursued with ambitions for adding a West Coast presentation to the tour. Thomas has never had a solo show beyond the Midwest.
Jonathan Walz, director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum, and Seth Feman, curator of exhibitions and curator of photography at the Chrysler Museum are co-curating the show. The exhibition will largely draw on the Columbus Museum’s virtually unexplored collection of Thomas materials.
In a statement, the Columbus Museum expressed its gratitude to the artist’s family and other donors who have contributed hundreds of Alma Thomas-related items to its collection over time, including works of art, family photographs, documents, and personal property.
Walz said in the statement that the co-curators “admire and respect” earlier exhibitions that have presented Thomas’s mature work, particularly the most recent show co-organized by the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College and the Studio Museum in Harlem. By contrast, he said the new show will present examples from her painting practice, but primarily will concentrate on other aspects of her life, including her teaching, community service, gardening, graphic design, puppeteering, and costume design.
The new show will present examples from her painting practice, but primarily will concentrate on other aspects of her life, including her teaching, community service, gardening, graphic design, puppeteering, and costume design.
ALMA THOMAS, “Vase with flowers and bibelot,” circa 1960s (watercolor on paper, 13 x 10 inches). | The Columbus Museum, Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas, 1994
Thirty-eight sketches and studies from the Columbus Museum’s cache were featured in the Tang/Studio Museum exhibition, but most of the objects and other Thomas materials will be presented publicly for the first time in the forthcoming exhibition.
“The main impetus is that the Columbus Museum has this cache of material… There’s a lot of stories that those archival materials can tell. The Columbus Museum has participated in tours of shows on Alma Thomas previously, but has never organized one itself. She’s from here and we have this amazing amount of material. We wanted to share it,” Walz told me.
“We owe it to her in a way. The museum feels a lot of accountability since we have this material. We really want everyone to know she is from here. We have this desire to tell the story from our perspective, the Columbus Museum… We feel a lot of energy around wanting to put our own stamp on the story.”
“The main impetus [for the exhibition] is that the Columbus Museum has this cache of material. There’s a lot of stories that those archival materials can tell. We owe it to her in a way. The museum feels a lot of accountability since we have this material. We really want everyone to know she is from here.”
— Jonathan Walz
WALZ LIVED IN THE WASHINGTON, D.C., AREA for 17 years. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Maryland College Park, where he earned a master’s and Ph.D. in art history, and worked for a year at the David C. Driskell Center for the Study of the Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora. Familiar with Thomas as a Washington artist, when Walz joined the Columbus Museum in August 2016, he was amazed by the breadth of Thomas material he found in the institution’s collection.
There have been two major touring exhibitions dedicated to Thomas, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978” (1981), organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art (now American Art Museum) and “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of Paintings” (1998-2000) organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Fort Wayne, Ind. The Columbus Museum was the final stop on both tours, but has never mounted its own exhibition.
Sitting on a cache of materials and the unplumbed stories it can tell, the museum is poised to present its take on Thomas’s life and work, positioning her as an acclaimed, imaginative, and technically rigorous 20th century artist, a lifelong creative with deep roots in the Columbus region.
Last year, the museum launched the Alma Thomas Society, a group focused on supporting the acquisition of art by African American artists. Another black female artist also calls Columbus home, portrait painter Amy Sherald, whose image of First Lady Michelle Obama was unveiled earlier this year at the National Portrait Gallery. Sherald recently spoke at the museum.
Installation view of “Alma Thomas” at the Studio Museum in Harlem (June 14-Oct. 30, 2016), smaller works, watercolors and drawings by Thomas from the collection of the Columbus Museum in Georgia, the artist’s hometown museum. | Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem
The Columbus Museum has a dual mission focused on American art and regional history and the Thomas exhibition will explore both, drawing on loans of art from other institutions, research at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, and the museum’s own extensive archive of materials related to the artist.
In 1979, the year after Thomas died, the museum acquired a major painting through a combination museum purchase and gift from the National Association of Negro Business Women. A cherished painting of her grandfather’s house came in 1982 from her sister John Maurice Thomas. For more than a decade, those were the only Thomas items in the museum’s collection.
The bulk of the holdings came from John Maurice following her death in 1994. There are dozens of sketches and paintings, student work from Thomas’s time at Howard University, five marionette puppets, many documents, a huge cache of family photographs, along with furniture and household goods. In 2011, Charles Thomas Lewis, Thomas’s grand nephew, gave 16 additional items to the museum on behalf of the family, including vases, a necklace, a photograph of Samuel Haggard, one of the artist’s “admirers,” according to a notation by John Maurice on the back, and more furniture.
Most of the objects related to Thomas are cataloged individually, but a couple of boxes are filled with countless photos that have not been logged separately. Accounting for this, Walz estimated, there are about 500 items in the museum’s holding.
In order to reflect her broader interests throughout her career and family history in the local Columbus community, the curators anticipate working with scholars beyond the discipline of art history to expand their curatorial vision and contribute to the exhibition catalog. Areas of focus may include horticulture, home studies, fashion/design studies, critical race studies, African studies, women and gender studies, social history of the Chattahoochee Valley, and theater/performance studies.
ALMA THOMAS, “Clown marionette,” circa 1930s (fabric and wood with paint and string, 22 x 10 x 31 1/4 inches). | The Columbus Museum, Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas, 1994
Walz said they envision an exhibition that is about two-thirds art, including paintings and items like her marionettes, and one-third historic objects. He expects it to be organized chronologically, but place-oriented themes—such as Columbus, Howard University, and Barnett-Aden Gallery—will be the overarching thread.
“I am especially excited to contribute to a show on Thomas because I think her story and her ideas about creativity are far more complex than most people think. A big part of my dissertation focused on Thomas and the relationship between her paintings, her innovative teaching at Shaw Junior High School, and the physical spaces of Washington, D.C.” — Seth Feman
THE CURATORS BECAME AWARE of their shared interest in Thomas years ago when they were both at the Smithsonian. Feman, who earned his Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary, was working in the education department at the American Art Museum and Walz was a fellow at the National Portrait Gallery. The museums are housed on opposite sides of the same building.
“Jonathan knew that I had been working on Alma Thomas… When he began thinking about a show based on the Columbus Museum’s collection of Alma Thomas’s works and related materials, he reached out to share ideas. I think he already knew about the Chrysler’s significant holdings by artists connected to the Washington Color School, but when we started talking about Thomas’s relationship with those artists, partnering up seemed like a great idea,” Feman told me via email.
“I am especially excited to contribute to a show on Thomas because I think her story and her ideas about creativity are far more complex than most people think. A big part of my dissertation (“District and Capital: The Art Of Modern Washington,”) focused on Thomas and the relationship between her paintings, her innovative teaching at Shaw Junior High School, and the physical spaces of Washington, D.C. Thanks to objects at the Columbus Museum, we’ll be able to integrate Thomas’s paintings, sculpture, fashion, puppets, and theatrical designs in the show, and I think people will enjoy learning about her as a multifaceted and endlessly creative artist.” CT
Accompanying the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, “Alma Thomas” features more than 125 vibrant, colorful paintings and works on paper, many published for the first time, a preface by Thelma Golden, scholarly essays, and responses to Thomas’s work by four contemporary artists. To further explore the life and practice of Alma Thomas, consider “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings,” published to coincide with a traveling exhibition organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998-2000). An earlier catalog, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978,” accompanied a Smithsonian exhibition (1981–1982).
ALMA THOMAS, “Spring Grass,” 1973 9acrylic on canvas). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 1980.36.12 – This work is featured as a representation of Thomas’s abstract paintings
ALMA THOMAS, “Atmospheric Effects II,” 1971 (watercolor on paper). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.140.4 – This work is featured as an example of Thomas’s works on paper
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