Woman of Substance


When Alma Thomas (1891–1978) was just fifteen years old, she moved with her family from the Jim Crow South to Washington D.C., where she cultivated a life as an artist and educator. A traveling retrospective exhibition, “Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful,” is touring the country, revealing the striking evolution of Thomas’s work throughout her career. The show was put together by cocurators Jonathan Frederick Walz, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Curator of American Art at The Columbus Museum (Columbus, Georgia), and Seth Feman, Deputy Director for Art & Interpretation and Curator of Photography at Norfolk’s Chrysler Museum of Art. “We wanted this exhibit to expand people’s understanding of her life, her connection to community and artists, as well as her amazing work,” Walz says, who adds, “In Columbus, we have a permanent display about her family who lived here.”

Thomas is somewhat of a hidden figure in the art world. She was considered a “painter’s painter,” at least until two famous art lovers raised her profile after her death. In 2015, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama had two of her paintings, including the much-talked-about Resurrection, installed in the White House, the first painting by a Black woman to be included in its permanent collection. 

This traveling exhibition, which makes its last stop this summer at The Columbus Museum (located in the Georgia city of Thomas’s birth), has been a landmark aesthetic labor of love that the curators started piecing together back in 2016. The show features 150 objects, many on loan from a variety of American museums and private collections. The co-curators also produced a detailed catalogue that tells the story of Thomas—as Black woman, as artist, but also as a public schoolteacher committed to her community in Washington, D.C., where she taught art at the Shaw Junior High School for thirty-eight years.

This story appeared in the Spring 2022 issue of MILIEU. To read the complete story or to see all photos, visit the MILIEU Newsstand to purchase this issue in print or visit Zinio.com to purchase this issue in digital format.