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Photo from the Chrysler Museum of Art

Sounding Alma Thomas

Jonathan Frederick Walz

Perspicacious art historian Melissa Ho—who, in her role as curator of twentieth-century art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, oversees the largest public collection of Alma Thomas paintings on canvas—describes the artist’s output as “sensorially rich work that engages sound and touch as well as vision.” Vivid, sense-based memories pepper Thomas’s recollections of childhood, suggesting that she developed a phenomenologically attuned engagement with the material world at an early age. Thomas’s mother, Amelia Cantey Thomas, modeled such behavior to her four daughters, demonstrating sensual delight in even the most mundane of activities. An accomplished seamstress, Amelia employed her talents and skills to create apparel, for her immediate family and for others in the community. Alma later reminisced about her mother’s sophisticated design sense, stating that she was “outstanding in colors. Everything she made was like a painting.” Amplifying that account, Alma reported how her mother’s production process incorporated an aural component as well. “She sat at the sewing machine, and at night we would hear her singing as she sewed,” she told interviewer Eleanor Munro. “That’s why I am as I am.”

The very personal artist statement that Alma Thomas submitted for what would be her last one-person show in New York during her lifetime (at Martha Jackson West in 1976) corroborates the close alliance that sight and sound held in her imagination. (Despite any speculation to the contrary, she did not, however, experience synesthesia.) From a certain regard, Thomas’s artist statement is an understated riposte to any critics who believed her paintings ignored—or worse, undermined—the efforts of the Black Arts Movement, which promulgated images of African Americans with clear, even propagandistic, messages of self-sufficiency. Thomas’s poetic text relates biographical snippets from her childhood in the Jim Crow Deep South, underscoring her lived experiences as an African American, even if her non-objective imagery seemed illegible to Black Power partisans. “[W]hen I was a little girl in Georgia,” she recounted in her artist statement, “I heard singing, talking sounds in all things. … I would stretch out and these sounds of my childhood affected me.” At a different juncture, Thomas added more specific details: “[O]n the hillsides [near our home] there were such interesting trees, the poplar tree, as I think it was called. From there I got music when the wind blew. Lovely yellow flowers in summer.” Thomas consistently claimed that she derived her imagery from “impressions” that she received from just such encounters, whether direct or recollected (à la William Wordsworth). Her titles were a different matter. Thomas frequently employed the terminology of classical music in her paintings’ identifiers (Amelia played the violin and Alma took lessons as a girl), but just as often she utilized sounds from nature, like “rustling” or “babbling.” When asked point blank, “Where do you get your amazing titles?” Thomas replied, “Singing and dancing to rock ‘n’ roll music!”

As my co-curator Seth Feman and I hope that we make plain in the exhibition Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful and its accompanying catalogue, Thomas envisioned her kitchen-cum-workspace as the correlative site of many creative pursuits, among them marionettes, gardening, astronomy, lesson plans, and costume design. To facilitate and energize her own production process, Thomas played LPs and the radio, and, at some point, cassette compilations that fellow teacher Norma McCray carefully assembled (one was themed “Earth” and the other “Space”). Meant to aid and abet Thomas in her relentless search for beauty, what the artist listened to ranged widely. Notes in her papers at the Archives of American Art, eyewitness accounts, and painting titles confirm Thomas’s eclectic playlist, from dance-craze hits like “The Watusi” and R&B anthems like The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” to Dean Martin’s version of “In the Misty Moonlight” and soundtracks from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Hair. Other pieces of music associated with the artist include hymns (“Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?”), folk-inflected classical compositions (Johann Strauss II’s “Tales from the Vienna Woods”), ragtime numbers (“Darktown Strutters’ Ball”), and jazz standards (“Sweet Georgia Brown”), as well as a spoken word/found noise recording (National Geographic’s “Sounds of the Space Age from Sputnik to Lunar Landing” narrated by Col. Frank Borman). On regular rotation was what her great-nephew Charles Thomas Lewis remembers as her favorite song, the Ray Stevens Grammy winner “Everything Is Beautiful (in Its Own Way),” which inspired our project’s title.

In summer 1971, photojournalist Ida Jervis published a profile on Thomas in the local Washington, D.C. magazine The Art Scene. The article is one of the most thoughtful texts on the artist published before her death, and its complementary photographs of Thomas in the studio remain some of the most revealing extant images of the senior painter and her work habits. As an artist herself, Jervis knowingly probed her friend’s conceptualization methods, painting practices, and even a particular exhibition design intent. “She would like to have sounds,” Jervis reported, “such as she listened to while working, accompany [her autumn 1971] exhibition [at Fisk University].” We cannot substantiate whether Thomas’s aspiration became a reality in Nashville—though it is unlikely—and we were unable to incorporate this element into the physical form of our own Thomas retrospective. Thus, it seems all the more appropriate to encourage readers of Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful to create their own “Earth” and “Space” digital playlists to enjoy, or to make use of this one by my co-curator Seth Feman, while perusing the pages of the richly illustrated exhibition catalogue. Thomas, who “love[d] the change, love[d] the new,” and “live[d] well with technology,” and who advocated for “buy[ing] all the art magazines, and many of the new books,” “go[ing] to exhibitions,” and “feel[ing] part of this day in time,” would surely approve.

Jonathan Frederick Walz is director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum.

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