Museum Stories

Alma Thomas. The Tale of an Extraordinary Life at Columbus Museum

Carlotta Mazzoli 27 September 2022 min Read

This year, the Columbus Museum in Columbus, GA, USA, presented two major retrospectives. They shed light on Alma Thomas’ exceptional life and career. Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful was on view until September 25, 2022, while Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas is still running till October 2, 2022, so it’s your last chance to see it!

In times of great change, we need positive role models to look up to and be inspired by. Alma Thomas, with her extraordinary life and career, tireless work, and dedication is definitely one of those models. Throughout the years, Thomas achieved important milestones not just for her, but for both women and African-American artists. And with the two exhibitions on view at The Columbus Museum in 2022, we can now dive deeper into her personal life and upbringing and how these influenced her mature work.

Alma Thomas Teaching - Columbus Museum, GA

Alma Thomas with two students at the Howard University Art Gallery. Courtesy of The Columbus Museum, Columbus, GA, USA.

Born in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, Thomas worked for over 30 years as an art teacher, before becoming a full-time professional artist after her retirement. Much has been said about her post-retirement career and the artist is famous for her signature style, associated alternatively with the Washington Color School or Abstract Expressionism. Yet, her early life is just as interesting as her late-career and a fundamental pillar in her personal development. Now the exhibition Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas, on view at The Columbus Museum until October 2, 2022, will help to weave the story of Thomas’ remarkable life in Columbus.

The oldest of four daughters, Alma Thomas, was born in a stimulating and open environment. Her father was a businessman and her mother a dressmaker, and the Thomas family was an integral part of the local Black middle-class community. Despite their position, the family had to face the racial discrimination that affected all African Americans in the Deep South during Jim Crow, which eventually led the family to relocate to Washington, DC, in 1907, to allow Thomas and her sisters to attend better schools.

A photo from the archives at the Sand Unshaken exhibition at Columbus museum

Columbus’ Black public school teachers pose in 1905 at St. James AME Church. Elizabeth Cantey, Alma Thomas’ aunt, is in the back row just to the left of the doors. Image credit: Gift of a Friend of the Museum, Collection of The Columbus Museum, GA, USA.

However, the formative years in Columbus left a permanent trace on Thomas. For example, Thomas’ grandfather owned an expansive farm in the region and the juxtaposition of flower gardens and industrial landscapes near her home nurtured the young artist’s fascination with color. Her parents’ entrepreneurship and success as an in-demand dressmaker and Columbus’s first Black bar owner led to an elevated socioeconomic status, exposing the budding artist to civic organizations that helped build an understanding of community.

The exhibition draws from the Thomas family archives in The Columbus Museum’s permanent collection to showcase the Thomas family’s life in Columbus through artifacts and family portraits.

These crayon portraits of John and Amelia Thomas are based on a studio portrait of the couple taken by a Columbus photographer, likely shortly after their wedding in 1888:

Portraits of John and Amelia Thomas

Crayon portraits of John and Amelia Thomas. Image credit: Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas in memory of her parents John H. and Amelia W. Cantey Thomas and her sister Alma Woodsey Thomas, Collection of The Columbus Museum, GA, USA.

Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas on view only at The Columbus Museum, offers, for the first time, a comprehensive look at the lives of Alma Thomas and her family in the Chattahoochee Valley. We are excited to share rarely seen objects from the Museum’s permanent collection, donated by the Thomas family, that offer insight into their experiences in Columbus, Thomas’ hometown.

Marianne Richter

Director of the Columbus Museum.

Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful Exhibition view, The Columbus Museum

Installation view: Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, The Columbus Museum, Columbus, GA, USA. Courtesy of the museum.

Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful Exhibition view, The Columbus Museum

Installation view: Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, The Columbus Museum, Columbus, GA, USA. Courtesy of the museum.

The exhibition complements the previous exhibition, Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, a major retrospective of the artist’s late career. Comprising approximately 150 works, including rarely seen theatrical designs and beloved abstract paintings, the exhibition was presented in Norfolk, Washington, DC, and Nashville, before arriving at The Columbus Museum for a final stop.

The two exhibitions together offer an incredible insight into Alma Thomas’ life, career, and legacy. Thomas, who became a full-time, professional artist only in 1960 at the age of 69, quickly became a respected painter, leading to her first retrospective exhibit in 1966 at the Gallery of Art at Howard University. Later on, at the age of 81, she went on to become the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Nowadays, her work can be found in major collections, such as MoMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the White House, where her painting Resurrection (1966) was the first artwork by an African-American woman to enter the permanent collection.

Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful Exhibition view, The Columbus Museum

Alma Thomas, Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers, 1969, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth, NH, USA. Courtesy of The Columbus Museum.

The life of Alma Thomas was nothing short of incredible. She went against any common belief or practice: she never got married and lived her entire life in the same house her father purchased in 1907, making it her home as well as her workshop. She rose to fame at an old age, and although she spent all her life preparing, studying, and immersing herself in art, she was often criticized for embracing abstraction as opposed to the figurative and more symbolic painting that other African-American artists used at the time to denounce racial injustice and discrimination. Yet, her example, fiercely free and uncompromized, shines brighter than ever today.

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.

About the Exhibitions

Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful
July 1–September 25, 2022

Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas
May 21–October 2, 2022

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