‘Alma’s Stripes’ and more, as Alma Thomas takes center stage at the Chrysler Museum of Art


Alma Thomas was born in 1891.

Remember this when you consider his spectacular abstractions painted 75 years later.

Also understand that the popular account of Thomas’ career – that his paintings “Alma’s Stripes” magically appeared from an unknown artist who only began practicing in earnest after retiring as a teacher. teacher – is a pure darling. This “fairy dust” scenario rules out her rigorous art education which saw her become Howard University’s first fine arts graduate in 1924. It rules out a life of drawing, painting, sculpture, design and art. costumes, gardening and even puppetry – all outlets for his enormous creative interests. This cancels his networking with other black modernists in Washington, DC, including David Driskell, Lois Mailou Jones, and Sam Gilliam. He attempts to discredit a lifetime’s work and study resulting in one of the 20e centuries of the most breathtaking artistic inspirations as a kind of luck.

Alma Thomas was no accident.

“Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful,” on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., Through October 3, provides a comprehensive overview of his extraordinary career, including 50 canvases covering the period 1922-1977. Many of these works are little known or have not been exhibited for decades; many of his later exhibited paintings have never been exhibited.

“When I walked into the art room, it was like entering heaven, a beautiful place, where I belonged” – Alma Thomas.

Thomas entered “heaven” at Armstrong Technical High School at the age of 15 following his family’s move from Columbus, Georgia to Washington, DC. For the rest of his life, Washington would provide him with artistic opportunities that would never have been possible in Columbus. .

She enrolled at Howard University in her 30s to study costume design. She moved on to the fine arts program there. She rose through the ranks to vice-president of the Barnett Aden Gallery – perhaps the first black-owned art gallery in the country – in the 1940s. She then took art classes at American University. She has become a staple of DC’s thriving black art community, a community connected to trends and ideas from the wider art world. She was represented in a gallery and visited the many art museums in the city.

While teaching art for 35 years in the same room at Shaw Junior High School.

“I wasn’t just teaching kids to draw, I was teaching them to appreciate beauty,” she said.

The year she retired from classroom teaching, 1960, she had her first solo exhibition at the Dupont Theater Art Gallery. It sold out entirely.

Alma Thomas at the Whitney-1972

The myth of Thomas’ spontaneous artistic arrival comes from her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972 following the development of her now iconic paintings “Alma’s Stripes” in 1966. She was the first black woman to be so honored.

Given the astonishing scope of this groundbreaking achievement, the esteemed walls in which it occurred, and the ability of the still insular and ever preeminent New York art scene to rewrite history through its provincial perspective, Thomas was “discovered” in 1972. Not really, of course, but in New York she was. For the national and international art world, she was. What had happened before in DC was mostly left out to support this easier origin story.

Her vibrant, intensely colored and shattered brush paintings, filled with energy, life and joy, were a complete change from anything she had created before – they were a complete change from anything anyone else had created. ‘one had created before. “Alma’s Stripes” were immediately recognized and admired. They took her to the Whitney and completely eclipsed what she had done before.

Fortunately, “Everything is beautiful” avoids this trap. The exhibition includes around twenty paintings made before 1966 as well as several works on paper from the early years. Also on display are puppets, costume designs, prints made with his students, and sculptures that predate his revolutionary mid-1960s style.

“These works show Thomas’s desire to innovate while following beauty wherever it has taken it: the theater, the classroom, its garden, etc. Seth Feman, assistant director for art and interpretation at the Chrysler Museum of Art and curator of photography, who co-hosted the exhibit, said Forbes.com. “You get a good idea of ​​Thomas’s early artistic innovations in a section where we installed several paintings following a still life she painted around 1924; through a series of abstract still lifes she made while attending graduate school at American University in the 1950s; to the non-objective paintings she made in the early 1960s. Overall, you see the artist working through form, abandoning representation for abstraction, experimenting with color theories, and ultimately deciding to structure her paintings entirely from color.

As the exhibition reinforces Thomas’ lifelong artistic commitment and how his creativity extends to all facets of his life, it is a reminder of the undeniable importance of the Whitney show. Chrysler’s presentation opens by partially reconstructing this exhibit, including seven large canvases and several works on paper, as well as a recreation of the dress Thomas commissioned to complement his art.

Thomas always had a new dress made for his openings.

“Light is the mother of color, light reveals the living soul of the whole universe through colors” – Alma Thomas.

Where does “Alma’s stripes” come from?

While the previous decades of his career produced respectable and remarkable work for a local DC artist, that’s hardly the makings of the sensation. Barely the story thing at the Whitney. Barely the type of painting that in 2015 would become the first of a black woman to enter the White House collection as her Resurrection do.

Thomas described when the inspiration came after he was approached by Howard University in late 1965 to organize an exhibition. She decided to paint something new.

Feman takes up the story as it is known.

“She sat in her favorite Eero Saarinen red uterine chair, looked out the window, and watched the sun pass through the holly in her yard as the dappled light passed through her leaves and spread around her house. She said to (an) interviewer, “This tree has changed my whole career, my whole way of thinking,” he says. “I love the story of the transformation and Ida Jervis ‘photographs showing the light streaming through Thomas’ holly confirm her story.”


“But I think it’s important to add that Thomas didn’t just stumble upon a new idea,” recalls Feman. “She had devoted herself to years of 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. Its innovation was inspired, but it was also hard won.

In more than one way.

At the end of her career, Thomas, who died in 1978, soaked her hands in hot water to relieve the stiffness caused by arthritis so that she could continue painting. Continue to produce his “Stripes”. Keep sending beauty to the world.

Beauty has always been at the center of Thomas. In her Howard University yearbook, she asked rhetorically, “What is bigger than beauty?” “

After its presentation at the Chrysler Museum, “Everything is Beautiful” goes to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, from October 30, 2021 to January 23, 2022, to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, from February 25 to June 5, 2022, and the Columbus Museum from July 1, 2022 to September 25, 2022.

“When I was a child, we couldn’t go to museums, let alone think about putting our photos there. Times have changed, look at me now ”, – Alma Thomas.

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