New Exhibition and Publication Highlighting the Multidimensional Creativity of Alma W. Thomas Premieres at the Chrysler in July
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 will offer 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 will demonstrate 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 will be 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 will include 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 will include an array of interpretive material to make the show accessible and relatable. A timeline and short recording of the artist describing her work will introduce the exhibition. Labels and text panels will weave together Thomas’ diverse creative interests, and family-themed labels will explore how to live a creative life today. A microsite, accessible on visitors’ smartphones, will offer additional layers of content, including in-depth descriptions of works and multimedia content. Also accessible on web browsers, the site will include 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. The film is supported by a grant from Washington, D.C.’s Film Office (OCTFME). More information is available at missalmathomas.com.
A full-color, 336-page hardcover catalogue published by the organizing institutions and distributed by Yale University Press will feature a large collection of new scholarship by multiple contributors, incorporating an array of perspectives on Thomas’ life and art. Longform essays include Africana scholar Tiffany E. Barber on Thomas and performance and self-fashioning; historian Rebecca Bush on Thomas’ upbringing and family history in Jim-Crow-era Georgia; art historian Aruna D’Souza on Thomas’ significant place in the controversies surrounding the display of African American art in the 1960s and 1970s; curator Jonathan F. Walz on the importance of motion to Thomas’ art; and a team of conservators from the Smithsonian on the way Thomas resourcefully modified her materials and artistic processes to adapt to, and even incorporate, aging and impairment. Shorter essays by 11 interdisciplinary scholars will emphasize how close looking from diverse vantage points can reveal surprising and illuminating interpretations. These include an exploration of Thomas’ classroom activities, her church life, perception of her age and gender, the cultivation of her garden, the context of environmentalism, the international display of her work and more. Essayists include Seth Feman, Jacqueline Francis, Kimberli Gant, Grey Gundaker, Michael D. Harris, Melanee C. Harvey, Amy M. Mooney, James Nisbet, Nell Irvin Painter and Rebecca VanDiver. The eclectic approach to the catalogue follows from Thomas’ own disregard for silos, borders and other arbitrary boundaries, echoing the artist’s insistence on collaboration and interdisciplinarity. Together, these insights add dimension and complexity to our understanding of Thomas and her world. The catalogue will be available for purchase from the Chrysler Museum of Art and The Columbus Museum.
Aflac is proud to sponsor Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful. The exhibition has also been made possible in part by major support from the Henry Luce Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Local sponsorship at the Chrysler Museum of Art is provided by the Presenting Sponsor Dollar Tree.
Chrysler Museum Member Preview Day
Thursday, July 8
10 a.m.-5 p.m. │ Free
As a benefit of membership, all current Chrysler Museum members are invited to enjoy a first look at Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful before the exhibition opens to the public. To register, visit chrysler.org.
Virtual Members’ Exhibition Preview
Thursday, July 8
7 p.m. │ Free
Tune in for an exclusive live interview and Q&A with exhibition curators Seth Feman, Ph.D., deputy director of art and interpretation and curator of photography of the Chrysler and Jonathan Frederick Walz, Ph.D., director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art of The Columbus Museum. After registering, Museum members may submit questions for the panelists in advance or during the webinar-style event. RSVP by Thursday, July 5. Media and VIP guests who wish to register should contact the Development Department by calling 757-333-6251 or emailing email@example.com.
Exclusive Members-only Hours
Fourth Wednesdays, July-September
5:30-9 p.m. │ Free
Join us in the galleries after-hours for an exclusive private viewing of the exhibition. Members enjoy special access to the Alma W. Thomas exhibition and complimentary snacks. The 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. time slots include a docent-led tour. In-person. Face coverings will be required. Space is limited. To register, visit chrysler.org.
Camp Chrysler: Color Splash
July 12-16 for ages 4-6
10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. │ $90 for Museum members, $120 for non-members
July 19-23 for ages 7-10
10 a.m.-4 p.m. │$180 for Museum Members, $225 for non-members
Make a splash with us this summer in our Color Splash art camp! Take a closer look at the vibrant artwork on view in Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful and create marvelous masterpieces inspired by the artist’s use of repetition, pattern, rhythm and color. Experiment with a variety of materials and a rainbow of colors while you paint, sculpt and weave a world of color for five art-filled days! In-person. Face coverings will be required. Space is limited. To register, visit chrysler.org.
Everything Is Beautiful! Bunny and Perry Morgan Family Day
Saturday, July 24, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. │ Free
Enjoy a day of fun-filled activities that will highlight the many facets of Alma W. Thomas’ life and interests. Explore several themes, including I Am Beautiful, My Community Is Beautiful and the World Is Beautiful. In-person. Reserving timed tickets at Chrysler.org is recommended. Sponsored by Dominion Energy.
Summer Teacher Institute
Cultivating Alma’s Garden: Growing Ideas for the Classroom and Beyond
July 27-29 from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. │ Free
K-12 educators can find inspiration for their students in the exhibition. Join community-based artist and Old Dominion University education professor Natalia Pilato, Ph.D., for three days of in-person professional development. Investigate the foundation of Alma W. Thomas’ work as an educator and artist and cultivate creative ideas for curriculum building through individual and collaborative artistic investigations. Learn to use visual art, puppetry, gardening and poetry in the classroom, and discover how to infuse your teaching practice with principles that Thomas embraced in her artmaking and more than 40 years of teaching. In-person. Face coverings will be required. Space is limited to 20 participants. To register, visit chrysler.org.
An Evening with Ross Gay
Thursday, Aug. 12 at 7 p.m.│ $5 for Museum members, $10 for non-members
Join us for an evening with renowned poet Ross Gay, the author of four books, including Be Holding: A Poem and The Book of Delights. Gay will give a reading of one of his works, and discuss poetry, art, and the work of Alma Thomas with Seth Feman, Ph.D., the deputy director of art and interpretation and curator of photography. The event will be virtual. To register, visit chrysler.org. Only one registration is required per device. The Zoom link will be sent on the day of the event.
John Wilmerding Symposium on American Art and Community Celebration
Wednesday-Thursday, Sept. 22-23 (virtual symposium) │Free
Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 25-26 (virtual community activities) │Free
Celebrate the 130th anniversary of Alma W. Thomas’s birthday with the National Gallery of Art. Join us for a two-day virtual symposium exploring Thomas’ life in depth, with particular focus on her place in the artistic world of the nation’s capital. Participants include the exhibition co-curators; painters, poets and professors; DC-based curators and scholars; garden and church historians; and several special guests. The Community Celebration extends throughout the weekend with art-making activities inspired by Thomas’ diverse creative interests. Made possible by a grant from the Alice L. Walton Foundation. Free. Webinar registration is required. Visit nga.gov for more information.
ABOUT THE CHRYSLER MUSEUM OF ART
The Chrysler Museum of Art is one of America’s most distinguished mid-sized art museums, with a nationally recognized collection of more than 30,000 objects, including one of the great glass collections in America. The core of the Chrysler’s collection comes from Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., an avid art collector who donated thousands of objects from his private collection to the Museum. The Museum has growing collections in many areas and mounts an ambitious schedule of visiting exhibitions and educational programs each season. The Chrysler has also been recognized nationally for its unique commitment to hospitality with its innovative gallery host program.
ABOUT THE COLUMBUS MUSEUM
Founded in 1953, The Columbus Museum is one of the largest museums in the Southeast and is unique for its dual concentration on American art and regional history, displayed in its permanent collection, temporary exhibitions and educational programs. The Museum strives to be a cultural leader, distinguishing itself through an approach that engages visitors, stimulates creativity, inspires critical thinking, sparks conversations and brings art and history to life. www.columbusmuseum.com
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