A Major Alma W. Thomas Retrospective at the Frist Art Museum Examines the Artist’s Vast Creative Life
The Frist Art Museum presents Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, a comprehensive overview of the artist’s long and dynamic life (1891-1978) and his multi-faceted career that was defined by constant creativity.
Featuring more than 150 works, including his cheerful and colorful abstract paintings and many objects that have never been exhibited or published before, the exhibition shows how Thomas’ artistic practices extended to all aspects of his life, from community service and instruction in gardening and clothing. Co-hosted by the Chrysler Museum of Art and the Columbus Museum, Georgia, Everything Is Beautiful will be on view February 25 through June 5, 2022.
This major retrospective follows the pioneering artist’s journey from Columbus, Georgia to Washington, D.C., to becoming the first black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1972, when she had eighty years. It includes thirty-eight canvases covering the period 1922-1977, over sixty works on paper, four puppets and a range of sculptures, photographs and ephemera. “The Columbus Museum collection includes an extraordinary body of material related to Thomas, thanks to donations from his family, in particular his sister John Maurice Thomas,” said Jonathan Frederick Walz, PhD, director of conservation affairs and curator of the American art at the Columbus Museum. . “By sharing a selection of these objects, many of which have not been seen outside of Georgia, we hope to offer new insights into Thomas’ diverse oeuvre.”
“All Is Beautiful not only provides a more complex understanding of Alma Thomas, but also offers an inspiring example of how to lead a creative life today,” said Seth Feman, PhD, one of the curators of the Exhibition and Chrysler Assistant Director for Art and Interpretation and Curator of Photography. He noted that although Thomas had long been adored by collectors and scholars, his talent remained unrecognized by the general public for more than three decades after his death until 2009, when President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama included his work among the paintings they installed in the White House.
The exhibit explores Thomas’ relationship with the Washington Color School, creative communities tied to Howard University, and his peers who protested museums that did not exhibit artists of color. “Throughout his career, the art departments and galleries of historically black colleges and universities provided Thomas with vital support,” said Frist Art Museum Senior Curator Trinita Kennedy. “Her closest ties were to Howard University, her alma mater, and the place where she debuted her abstract style – what she called the ‘Alma Stripes’ – in 1966. This exhibition has marked the beginning of his meteoric rise in the art world.”
Walking through the galleries, guests will encounter the archetypal spaces where Thomas expressed his creativity, including the studio, garden, theatre, community sites such as schools and churches, universities, and the arts scene that spanned from Washington, DC, to New York and beyond through the Art in Embassies program. Thomas’ presence will also be invoked through recreations of her distinctive dresses with bold geometric patterns, a new documentary about her life and career, and the music she listened to while painting. An accessible playlist at the start of the exhibit lets visitors hear the artist’s favorite songs, including Ray Stevens’ hit “Everything Is Beautiful,” recorded in Nashville in 1970. The audio tour was written by The Phillips Collection, and there will also be an interactive touchscreen that offers guests the opportunity to explore Thomas’ past historical exhibits.
The Frist is one of four museums presenting this tribute to Thomas. “Particular attention here in Nashville will be given to Thomas’s 1971 exhibition curated by David C. Driskell at Fisk University’s Carl Van Vechten Art Gallery,” Kennedy said. “It was Driskell who brought Thomas to the attention of the Whitney Museum, and the two exhibits have much in common.” Everything Is Beautiful begins with a partial revival of the 1972 Whitney show, including a recreation of the dress Thomas commissioned to complete his art and worn at the opening.
4 The success of Thomas’s remarkable final years tends to overshadow her previous decades of dedication to various local organizations, her diverse creative interests, and the way she viewed the natural world as an enduring source of inspiration. The titles and shapes of Thomas’ beloved abstract paintings demonstrate his interest in flora and fauna, music, space travel and spirituality.
“Thomas rose to fame in the art world, but considered teaching art to be her greatest legacy,” Kennedy said.
The Frist will highlight Thomas’ thirty-five-year tenure at Shaw Junior High in Washington, D.C., by presenting a concurrent exhibit titled Nashville Art Teachers: Beyond the Classroom that salutes our own community’s extraordinary art teachers and their heroic efforts. during the difficult circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic. It features the work of elementary, middle and high school art teachers working in Davidson County, Tennessee and will be on view March 4 through August 28, 2022.
“Half a century after Alma Thomas exhibited at Fisk University, this retrospective gives Nashvillians a new opportunity to revel in all the beauty Thomas recognized in our imperfect world and left behind,” said Kennedy.
Details of additional programs will be posted on FristArtMuseum.org.