The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia, has just announced the launch of Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas exhibition that highlights the life and work of renowned artist Alma Thomas, a native of Columbus. Alma achieved fame in 1972 at 80 years old for her bright and joyful paintings that resemble mosaic masterpieces. Alma was the first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum in NYC. She was also the first African American woman to have her work added to the White House Collection. The exhibition opened on May 21 and runs through Sunday, October 2, 2022.
As much of a historical exhibition as an art one, rare family artifacts are on display. Alma had a complicated life. She grew up in the deep South in the decades following the Civil War. Her family was in a unique social position and had the determination to build a Black middle class which offered Alma more opportunities than most of her peers. Among the historic artifacts featured in Sand Unshaken are family portraits, books, musical instruments, furnishings and more from Alma’s home in the upper-middle-class Rose Hill community. Among one of the sweetest artifacts is a locket that was purchased by Alma’s grandfather for her grandmother while both were enslaved.
The Sand Unshaken exhibition complements the landmark art exhibition Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, which opened at the Museum on July 1, 2022. The exhibition showcases a comprehensive overview of approximately 100 works from Thomas, including rarely seen theatrical designs and beloved abstract paintings.
The Columbus Museum has also developed a driving tour that includes 25 notable landmarks related to Alma Thomas and her family. Tour stops include the family home in Rose Hill, Lincoln Park, the historic site of St. John AME Church, Sixth Avenue School, John Thomas’s saloon and the passenger train depot, to name a few. A map detailing the full tour, including an eight-stop one-mile walking tour, can be found on The Columbus Museum’s exhibition website.
Curators Rebecca Bush and Dr. Jonathan Frederick Walz recently discussed the exhibition via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you initially get interested in the arts and how did you find your way into curation?
Rebecca Bush (RB): I first became interested in a career in museums during a trip to Greenfield Village near Detroit when I was 17 years old. I’d always loved learning about history, and when a seasonal interpreter mentioned that there were people who worked there year-round, it all clicked into place. During my studies to earn a master’s degree in public history, I explored working with collections, exhibitions, and programming. Curation proved to be the perfect mix for me – working directly with objects and using them to craft a research-based narrative that also encourages people to look at the world in a new way. If someone leaves an exhibition thinking, “I never thought about it like that before,” then I’ve done my job.
Jonathan Frederick Walz (JFW): My family was the kind that hit most of the cultural sites or museums in the general region of where we were vacationing that particular summer. My mama was a schoolteacher, so a certain openness to other cultures and curiosity about the phenomenal world were important threads in the fabric of my immediate family. I was lucky enough to attend public schools where art was part of the curriculum, from elementary through high school. I was more persistent than talented, but I was encouraged in my visual arts pursuits back then. As a kid, I collected stamps. I also loved books and going to the library. When I look back, I see a particular activity that relates pretty directly to what I do today as a curator: every month I came up with a “display” outside my bedroom door. This involved identifying a theme, gathering materials, designing a very basic layout, and putting the objects on the wall (masking tape was my best friend!). I can see where my maternal grandmother’s seasonal displays in her street-facing windows in Baltimore and my mama’s classroom bulletin boards provided important precedents.
MM: How did you land a job at the Columbus Museum?
RB: After graduating from the University of South Carolina, I continued working at Historic Columbia, a preservation advocacy organization that also operates historic house museums. I had the opportunity there to co-curate two small exhibitions, in addition to cataloging collections objects, and I’d gained experience working with all different types and sizes of objects. In looking for full-time employment, I cast my net in the Southeast and the Midwest (I’m a Kansas native), and the Columbus Museum caught my eye. Though I had never heard of Columbus, Georgia, the job description sounded exactly like what I wanted to do, and I was impressed by the facility and staff during my interview. That was in the fall of 2011, and I’ve now been here more than a decade.
MM: When did you first become aware of Alma Thomas and what inspired you to curate a show about her life and career?
RB: I became aware of Alma Thomas soon after my arrival in Columbus, though it took me a bit longer to realize we had such a rich archive of her life and her family’s history in Columbus, dating to the 1850s. When my colleague Jonathan Walz began developing the Everything Is Beautiful exhibition, it was an obvious choice to do a Columbus-specific companion show about her life here. Those who see both EIB and Sand Unshaken will come away with a rich, nuanced understanding of Thomas’ family, her time in Columbus and DC, and the ways her childhood in the Deep South influenced her creative endeavors throughout her life.
JFW: I would describe my awareness of Alma Thomas and her art as a gradual dawning that got brighter and brighter until I arrived in Columbus, Georgia, in summer 2016. I have memories from high school of encountering her work in reproduction at the National Gallery of Art, their painting Red Rose Cantata as an 11 × 14-inch print. In college I started to frequent other art museums in Washington, DC, like the Phillips Collection, Hirshhorn, and National Museum of American Art, where her work is commonly mixed in with the permanent collection. And then after college, I lived in the DC metro area. So, I had a general awareness and had definitely come across her work in person. In preparation for my on-site interview at The Columbus Museum, I was curious to learn if there were any visual artists of note from that part of Georgia. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the search hits turned out to be Alma Thomas.
MM: You collected so many artifacts from her life! How did you find them all and do you have any favorites?
RB: The Columbus Museum was fortunate to be the recipient of a monumental gift in 1994 from John Maurice Thomas, Alma’s youngest sister. Maurice outlived her sister by 26 years, and she spent much of that time documenting and promoting her sister’s legacy. That included putting her skills as a Howard University librarian to use in tracing the family’s genealogy and tracking down details about the Columbus she remembered from her childhood. Most of the objects in Sand Unshaken were donated by Maurice, including a bequest of the family’s furniture from their Columbus home. It’s so hard to pick a favorite object, but to me, one of the most evocative artifacts is a cash box used by John Thomas, Alma’s father. John was the only Black bar owner in Columbus in the 1890s, but he lost his business and was forced to declare bankruptcy because of racially motivated lawsuits. The cash box is faded and dinged now, but if you look closely, you can see the remnants of an elegant painted design. Looking at it, I can sense his entrepreneurial hopes and dreams embodied in it, as well as the pain and disappointment he must have felt when he was forced to put that dream away. I’m also partial to an early photograph of Alma and her sister Kathryn standing in front of their house when they were little girls. Though this family was exceptional, this photo is the kind that any proud parents might take of their children in front of their beautiful new home. If you look closely, you can even see the family’s dog Pomp on the porch.
MM: Can you tell us a little bit more about the story of Alma’s grandfather’s locket?
RB: Winter Cantey gave this goldplated locket to his wife, Fannie Simmons Cantey, around 1850. Each side contains locks of their hair. He purchased it in Saratoga Springs, New York, while on a trip with his white half-brother to evaluate horses for sale. Winter regularly traveled without supervision, an unusual privilege for an enslaved person. This locket suggests both the unusual privilege in the Canteys’ lives and the longevity of their love for each other. Winter and Fannie Cantey moved from South Carolina to Alabama, raised ten children, purchased their own land, organized a rural school, and become respected community members. Their lives were truly exceptional, and learning about them provides more context for the successes of their children and grandchildren.
MM: How did Alma get noticed by the NYC art world at the age of eighty?
JFW: Through a combination of hard work, knowing the right people, and being at the right place at the right time! The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s controversial 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind spurred direct-action demonstrations and coalition building. Protestors wanted changes in the New York art world: more Black curators, more Black group exhibitions, more Black solo shows, more acquisitions of work by Black artists. The Whitney Museum took at least one of these charges to heart and began offering African American artists one-person exhibitions. For well-informed advisors, Whitney curator Robert Doty looked to members of the African American community, one of whom was artist-educator David Driskell. Driskell had provided Alma Thomas a solo show at Fisk University (where he was working at the time) in fall 1971, so when Doty reached out, she was top of mind for Driskell. In a way, given Thomas’s seemingly apolitical stance, there is some irony that she benefited from the very politicized situation in Manhattan. But once the New York art world “discovered” an astoundingly sophisticated 80-year-old former public-school teacher who seemingly came out of nowhere, they couldn’t get enough.
MM: What most surprised and/or fascinated you about her life?
RB: There are so many myths about the Thomas family’s life in Columbus that just aren’t true. Sand Unshaken is organized around the idea of busting these myths one by one. Alma and Maurice loved to tell the story of their mother telling them to “shake the Georgia sand out of their shoes” when they crossed the Potomac River, but the influences of Alma’s childhood are evident throughout her work. She talked about the flower gardens at her home and the creek water nearby as early influences for her fascination with color, and she watched her parents, aunts, and uncles model what it meant to be involved in the Black community and work toward what was known as racial uplift. The metaphorical fingerprints of her time in Georgia are all over her life, and it’s been exciting to explore that more fully and share it with others.
JFW: There are so many aspects of her life to choose from, but I will let Thomas’s former student-turned-gallery director Harold Hart recount an anecdote that speaks to me: “Around the corner from [Thomas’s] house was a neighborhood, where [there was] a slum area [and there were] a lot of prostitutes and every Christmas, Alma would make a Christmas tree and give a party for all the prostitutes’ children, and have a present for each one . . . because she knew they didn’t have a home. . . . Everyone in the neighborhood knew her. It was a poor neighborhood [and they] had respect for her…A lot of [other] people thought she was strange.”
On the one hand, I suppose, critics might claim that Thomas’s interactions with the neighborhood sex workers and their children were patronizing, hollow, unhelpful. For me, this story evidences how Thomas believed that everyone had value, that privilege comes with responsibilities to others, and that if you have confidence in what you are doing, then the opinions of others don’t matter. Every day, Thomas lived large, subverting polite expectations, claiming space, and spreading beauty; she didn’t need anyone’s permission or validation, and I find that inspiring.
MM: How long did it take you to complete this exhibition?
RB: My thought process for this exhibition began in earnest in January 2020, when I attended a colloquium of scholars organized by Jonathan and his co-curator Seth Feman. By the time the weekend was over, I had scribbled down the basic outline of my essay for the EIB catalogue, which itself is the basis of Sand Unshaken. Selecting objects and images, conducting more research to write exhibition-specific text, and working with the museum’s incredibly talented design and installation team took the better part of a year.
JFW: Like producing a Broadway musical or publishing a novel, this exhibition, because of its ambition and scope, took many, many months to assemble and present. I began researching Thomas in earnest in late 2016, and I brought amazing co-curator Seth Feman on board in early 2017. Major phases included research and development of the content; fundraising for various aspects of the overall project; assembling an interdisciplinary team of advisors and engaging with them; working out legal agreements; shepherding the exhibition catalogue into production; consulting on the accompanying 16-minute film, two dress recreations, Web resources, and commissioned poem; determining how best to display the content in real space and time and to make content smart but accessible to visitors. It was a lot of work, but every time Seth and I started to burn out, Thomas and her creative pursuits—and our deep-seated desire to share what we had learned about them—reenergized us.
MM: What has been the highlight of your career as a curator so far?
RB: In addition to being involved with this large-scale Alma Thomas project, I’ve been fortunate to work with local community members on some wonderfully engaging projects. The most recent is Journey Toward Justice, which explores the Civil Rights Movement in Columbus. My museum colleagues and I collaborated with a community advisory group of 25 people, who generously shared their stories and gave us guidance on themes and objects to include. I’m proud that they have been the biggest supporters of this project, sharing it with their family and friends, and that visitors are especially connecting with content related to 2020 protests. Engaging with community members to tell stories relevant to their lives is vital for today’s museums, and the more I do so, the more I know I’m growing and learning as a curator and a person.
MM: What events, projects, or other exhibitions are coming up soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
RB: The Columbus Museum is currently preparing for a major renovation of its facilities that will result in, among other changes, brand-new permanent history galleries. I’m currently working with an outside design firm to finalize our plans, and it’s exciting to imagine how these more interactive spaces, designed with the goal of bringing all people’s stories to the forefront, will connect with our visitors. Throughout 2023, the museum is taking our permanent collection “on tour” to several other public cultural spaces in Columbus, and it will be fun to curate in other galleries and outdoor places around town. The next two years promise to be challenging but well worth it!
To learn more, visit The Columbus Museum, visit ColumbusMuseum.com.