History is being made at The Chrysler this summer with Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful. The late artist and educator has arrived in Norfolk with the most extensive retrospective to date and honors the museum’s walls by being the first African American woman artist to have an entire exhibition. The collection covers the rich arc of Thomas’ long life by showcasing “fifty canvases by Thomas spanning 1922-1977, nearly sixty works on paper, several sculptures, numerous photographs, and a range of ephemera.” (Feman, 2021) The fact that a mere 57 years ago, Alma Thomas wouldn’t have been welcomed to acquire membership at The Chrysler showcases a milestone to celebrate.
“Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” -Alma Thomas.
Everything Is Beautiful begins with a comprehensive timeline of Thomas’s life set across from a stunning black and white portrait of the artist in action. The exhibit continues with several large, colorful canvases that exude delight and joy. It is a wonder to know that the artist, born in the segregated south of 1891, found beauty worth expressing during a time in America’s history rife with racial injustice. Her family moved to Washington, D.C., to escape racial violence and pursue better educational opportunities.
Thomas took her first art classes at Armstrong Technical High School. Her passion for the arts continued even as she pursued a teaching career. At the age of 30, she attended Howard University and became the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree in art. Alma would remain in D.C. for most of her life, serving as an art teacher for 35 years. It wasn’t until she retired in 1960 and decided to pursue art full time that she earned recognition for her work.
Chrysler does an excellent job showcasing the fullness of Thomas’s life. The exhibit presents her multiple passions and weaves together how they converged into a discernible artistic style and vision. Those unfamiliar with Alma will appreciate that the show is “organized thematically around spaces where Thomas expressed her creativity.” Though often recognized as an apolitical artist because she didn’t expressly create on subjects of race and gender, it is impossible to consider her achievements outside of the cultural impact that followed. She was the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the famed Whitney Museum of American Art, helping further integrate the space.
Thomas’s talent surpasses her time on earth as she continues to receive recognition today, decades after her death in 1978. Her artistic rendering of the March on Washington became a postage stamp in 2005. Her painting, Resurrection, was displayed in the White House during the Obama presidency, skyrocketing the value of her work and renewing her exposure in the art scene. Today Everything Is Beautiful is on tour for the masses to find inspiration through a woman who superimposed her beautiful, whole-hearted life over her craft. A lesson embedded in this exhibit is that a curious and open stance to the world can fuel creativity. Like Alma
Thomas, we can take hold of the courage needed to follow our passions, no matter the barriers, to live an inspired and beautiful life.
Feman, Seth. “Alma W. Thomas Everything Is Beautiful.” The Chrysler, no. 2021. Summer 2021.