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New exhibition and publication highlight the multidimensional creativity of Alma W. Thomas
Alma Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Untitled, 1922/1924. Oil on canvas. The Kinsey African American Art & History Collection.

NORFOLK, VA.- Renowned artist Alma W. Thomas’ (1891-1978) artistic journey took her from Columbus, Georgia, to international acclaim. Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful offers a comprehensive overview of her extraordinary career with more than 150 objects, including late-career paintings that have never before been exhibited or published. The exhibition debuts at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, July 9-Oct. 3, 2021. It will also visit The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., Oct. 30, 2021-Jan. 23, 2022 and The Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, Feb. 25-June 5, 2022, before closing at The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia, July 1, 2022-Sept. 25, 2022. The exhibition is co-organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art and The Columbus Museum.

Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful demonstrates how Thomas’ artistic practices extended to every facet of her life, from community service and teaching to gardening and dress. Unlike a traditional retrospective, the exhibition has been organized around multiple themes from Thomas’ life and career. These themes include the context of her Washington Color School cohort, the creative communities connected to her time at Howard University and the protests against museums that failed to represent women and artists of color.

The exhibition is co-curated by Seth Feman, Ph.D., the Chrysler’s deputy director for art and interpretation and curator of photography, and Jonathan Frederick Walz, Ph.D., director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum. Everything Is Beautiful includes a wide range of artworks and archival materials that reveal Thomas’ complex and deliberate artistic existence before, during and after the years of her mature output and career-making solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. She was the first African American woman to have a solo show at the famed New York institution.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Whitney show to Thomas’ career,” said Feman. “Yet the Whitney show wasn’t the be-all, end-all it is often made out to be. Thomas worked persistently to establish a successful artistic career in the decades leading up to the Whitney show, and she opened several new creative pathways in the years after. This exhibition looks at the long span of her creativity so as to celebrate a full lifetime of accomplishments."

The Chrysler’s presentation opens with a partial restaging of Thomas’ Whitney exhibition, including seven large canvases and several works on paper, as well as a recreation of the dress Thomas commissioned to complement her art. The section also includes several photographs and documents that put Thomas’ Whitney exhibition in the context of the curatorial exchanges and artist-led protests, particularly those led by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, which brought it about. The exhibition then unfolds thematically according to archetypal spaces in which Thomas moved and worked, including the studio, the garden, the theater, community sites like schools and churches and the art scene that extended from Washington to the wider world through the Art in Embassies program. The exhibition includes 50 canvases by Thomas spanning 1922-1977, along with nearly 60 works on paper, several sculptures, numerous photographs and a range of ephemera. Several of these works are little known to the public or haven’t been on view for decades. The show also includes 15 canvases by artists working in Thomas’ orbit.

This exhibition is built on a collaboration that began years ago. The Columbus Museum’s deep holdings in Thomas-related archives include her student work of the 1920s, marionettes from the 1930s, home furnishings, ephemera and little-known works on paper. These materials strongly complement the Chrysler’s longstanding interest in works made by mid-century Washington, D.C., artists. Drawing on these strengths, both institutions, working together, are able to offer a robust, but until now mostly untold, account of Thomas’ artistic journey.

In 2015, Alma Thomas’ Resurrection was added to the White House Collection. One year later, her work was on view in a two-venue exhibition at the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum Art Gallery at Skidmore College and The Studio Museum in Harlem. In recent years, her works have been acquired by notable public institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful aims to supplement this recent attention, ensuring new discoveries even for those familiar with Thomas’ creativity.
“Thomas is best known for the large canvases she produced during the decade of 1966-1976, and several posthumous exhibitions have focused on this body of work,” Walz said. “Everything Is Beautiful presents visitors with little known early- and mid-career work as well as several late canvases that have never before been exhibited or published. We anticipate that this material will be a revelation to scholars and the general public alike. The number of discoveries made during the exhibition’s research and development phase is truly remarkable.”

Taking cues from Thomas’ wide-ranging interests and her broad network of collaborators and supporters, the co-curators developed a scholarly approach that resonated with the artist’s own disregard for pigeonholes and subjective limitations. They assembled an advisory committee of more than 20 interdisciplinary scholars of diverse backgrounds and experiences and convened a two-day gathering at the University of Maryland Center for Art and Knowledge at The Phillips Collection in January 2020. Scholars included specialists in the history of gardening, fashion, African American religious practices, race and racial identity, women and gender studies, abstract art and art conservation. The discussions during the study days, along with the conversations that have continued since, have highlighted several underexamined facets of Thomas’ creativity: her relationship to the domestic and urban environments in which she lived; the expression of her intersectional identity through stage work and self-fashioning; her use of art as a form of educational and community activism; her ecocritical grasp of nature’s importance amid urbanization; and her remarkable studio practice, in which she worked through series and adapted to physical and technical challenges to open new creative pathways.

“In exploring how Thomas generated and nurtured her creativity, we begin to understand how Thomas employed it to transform her world,” says Feman. “Thomas’ quest for beauty had as much to do with art as it did with supporting her neighborhood and the wider community. We believe that the lessons she taught in her day might be a model for shaping public life today.”

“The seeming incongruity between the exhibition’s title and our current social crises is not lost on us,” Walz stated. “During 2020, when we were finalizing exhibition plans and catalogue content, the world experienced a global pandemic, stark economic disparity, eroded trust in democracy, intensified violence and confrontations over the disproportionate incarceration and killing of Black and Brown people. Beauty often seemed hard to find. This backdrop of global events confirmed for us the relevance of Thomas and her creative pursuits to the contemporary moment.”

In addition to more than 150 objects, Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful includes an array of interpretive material to make the show accessible and relatable. A timeline and short recording of the artist describing her work introduces the exhibition. Labels and text panels weave together Thomas’ diverse creative interests, and family-themed labels explore how to live a creative life today. A microsite, accessible on visitors’ smartphones, offers additional layers of content, including in-depth descriptions of works and multimedia content. Also accessible on web browsers, the site includes a virtual walkthrough, ensuring people can visit the exhibition and enjoy docent-led tours despite COVID-19 restrictions that may be in place.

A new documentary film, directed by Cheri Gaulke with cinematography by Tim Wilson and voiceovers by Emmy Award-winning actor and voice artist Alfre Woodard, will be released alongside the exhibition. Filmed at the Phillips Collection and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, Miss Alma Thomas: A Life in Color presents commentary by the exhibition co-curators along with scholars Tiffany E. Barber, Lisa E. Farrington, Melanee C. Harvey and Melissa Ho, as well as fine arts advisor Aaron Payne and Thomas’ grandnephew, Charles Thomas Lewis. With striking visuals and extended quotes from Thomas’ own perspective, the movie will enhance the themes of the exhibition and highlight the artist’s persistent search for beauty.

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