Creative art is for all time, and is therefore independent of time. – Alma Thomas
Until 2009 Alma Thomas had been forgotten by most of the world.
In her time she had been critically acclaimed by her peers. She had even been the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1971. But after her death in 1978, her work steadily slipped from the mainstream canon.
She had her steady advocates. The Smithsonian organised an exhibit in 1981, a museum in Indiana put on a retrospective in 1998, and she has been loyally represented by the Michael Rosenfeld gallery for over 25 years. What did they see, that for so long no one else could?
Her series of paintings Space, Snoopy and Earth, gives us an idea. The series was inspired by the 1969 moon landing and many of the paintings include orbs made of vertical blocks of colour. In Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset, the orb is made of red, orange, and yellow brushstrokes and sits on an orange background. The circle seems to float off the page, the effect of the round shape and the vertical lines makes it seem like you are floating too. The painting’s vibrant use of colour was a fixture of Alma’s later work. These paintings are a joyous expression of Thomas’s belief in the world. Alma was not naïve. She was not blind to the world’s shortcomings, she was well aware of the problems her community faced. Having lived most of her life in the Jim Crow era, Alma had not even been allowed to enter museums as a child. Let alone exhibit in them. But the beauty in her art allowed her to express a more hopeful vision. As she said, ‘Through colour, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than man’s inhumanity to man’.
In 2009 the world began to see, through Alma’s colour, the same beauty and happiness once again. When the Obama’s entered the White House, Michelle Obama chose Alma’s work to be exhibited. In 2015, they chose one of her pieces to hang in their dining room. Since then, several museums have put on retrospectives of Alma’s work and she has re-entered the public consciousness.
Alma saw an unusual beauty in the world. Her paintings remain an invitation to see this beauty again, even if we forget how to once in a while.