Today marks the day in 1966 that renowned painter Alma Thomas finally had her first retrospective. It was held at the Gallery of Art at Howard University, with art historian James A. Porter serving as the curator. The exhibition ran from April 24th to May 17th.
Alma Thomas, who was almost 75 years old, had waited a very long time.
Guest Post by Lisa Siegrist
As a producer for WETA Arts (a half-hour magazine-style program on the arts and artists of Washington, DC), Judy Meschel routinely dives deep into archival research and doesn’t come up for air until she has all the facts. That’s how she discovered an error in an FF2 post about the Black artist Alma Thomas.
Judy wrote and produced the PBS show on Alma Thomas—who lived, taught, and pursued her art in our nation’s capital for most of her life—as part of WETA’s Black History Month programming.
During one of her deep dives into Alma Thomas’s past, Judy discovered that Alma Thomas taught art at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years, not 36 or 38 years, as some primary sources—including the artist herself—claim.
Why does this seemingly minor discrepancy matter? Because “it only takes one error to lose people’s trust,” Judy says. “If you’re sloppy with the facts, you’re not doing justice to the story. You’re creating an opportunity for people to claim the whole story isn’t true.”
Judy was bothered that most accounts of this esteemed painter give short shrift to Alma Thomas’s life before she introduced her signature abstract painting style (which eventually led to her solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum), “as though Alma Thomas emerged from out of nowhere in 1960 at age 70.”
Instead of Manhattan, Judy sought to place Alma Thomas’s story in DC…
Instead of Manhattan, Judy sought to place Alma Thomas’s story in DC, where she—as a Black woman artist and educator—had already overcome many barriers. “Alma Thomas had spent most of her life studying art in DC. This was a local art story” that had to address the “50+ years where she was prying open doors” in what was then a segregated city.
With her expertise in archival footage research—Judy worked in the film archive at National Geographic before working at WETA—she turned to primary sources to learn about Alma Thomas’s life prior to her fame. Judy discovered that one historian she interviewed on film had given her questionable information, prompting Judy to re-verify every fact presented in her video. This also posed technical issues because instances like these “create a problem for a producer.” “You’re going to have to snip a word out of a sound bite so as to be correct,” Judy cautioned. “Then suddenly you have a cut you need to cover.”
Even Alma Thomas was inconsistent in writing about her own life. “There are a lot of versions of a typed autobiography that she wrote,” now at the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. “If you think about it, it’s obvious that we’re all unreliable narrators of our stories.”
Throughout Judy’s video, the dramatized voice of Alma Thomas recalls aspects of her past—a device that Judy used at times because she could not factually verify Alma Thomas’s recollections enough to have the video’s narrator recount them. “When you are telling your own story, you believe that you’re telling the truth,” but the vagaries of memory can often blur the true story.
Judy often found secondary sources to be equally problematic. “When you look at someone else tell a historical figure’s story, you realize that they told it in fifteen different drafts, and they all contain different bits of information that don’t agree. Or they are leaving out a decade of time unaccountably, and for what reason, one has to ask?”
According to Judy, most biographies she found state that Alma Thomas only began painting in her retirement. But the WETA video created by Judy relies heavily on archival records and photographs to not only animate her narrative of Alma Thomas’s life, but also provide documentation of the artist’s participation in group shows in the 1950s (effectively debunking this often-repeated “only in retirement” claim).
I am an ornery person when it comes to accuracy…
When Judy worked at National Geographic, producers had to provide three sources to support each fact asserted in a script. That kind of rigor suits her just fine. “I have an obligation in my job to meet certain standards and practices. On top of that, I am an ornery person when it comes to accuracy.”
Not surprisingly, biographers who do superficial research by relying on one source inadvertently perpetuate inaccuracies. Judy uses the example of FDR’s famous Fala Speech: “You can find dozens of books that say that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Fala Speech was folded into one of his famous ‘Fireside Chats.’ But it was actually included in a speech that FDR gave at a Teamsters Union banquet, and this is very easy to prove because you can find the film.”
Research to verify facts using multiple sources, however, is not something that can be done quickly or easily. It took Judy took 14 months to produce her Alma Thomas video (which she did in addition to producing her usual half-hour episodes of WETA Arts).
“Sometimes there is no metadata to find materials.” One local broadcaster, for example, had archival programming and footage of Alma Thomas. “But all their archival materials got put into boxes and put into storage without any way of knowing what’s where,” Judy recalled. “So they just say, ‘It’s not findable.’”
If you know that it’s difficult to get visuals for important parts of the story, you need to plan and budget for motion graphics and recreations…
Locating archival photographs proved to be especially difficult because few 19th-century images include Blacks. So, Judy chose to substitute some photos that were technically inaccurate time-wise. Shots of Alma Thomas’s schools, for example, were not from the years when she attended. But, as a producer, “you have the choice between zero images or something that’s close. You need to decide if that kind of inaccuracy is going to distract the viewer or help further your narrative. There’s a problem in filmmaking of writing to the images that you have, rather than to the story that really exists. So, if you know that it’s difficult to get visuals for important parts of the story, you need to plan and budget for motion graphics and recreations.”
Then there are the time constraints imposed by a half-hour show. Judy’s deep dives often turned up intriguing questions that would have been exciting to pursue, but they often required further research time she couldn’t spare. Sometimes the decision to stop trying to find answers becomes agonizing: “Video is a medium with certain demands. Besides deciding what is important and relevant, a videomaker needs to entertain you so that you continue to watch.”
This viewer, for one, wouldn’t have dreamed of changing the channel!
© Lisa Siegrist (4/24/23) – Special for FF2 Media®
Editor’s Note: I was delighted to receive Judy’s email message alerting me to an error in our original post. Not only were we happy to correct our error (specifying that Alma Thomas had taught at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years rather than 38 years was such as easy change to make in the online context), but we were eager to learn more about Judy’s process, and that led to this excellent interview. Thanks to Judy for reaching out, and thanks to Lisa for following up.
We offer this post today (on the anniversary of Alma Thomas’s first retrospective). She died barely ten years later, on February 24, 1978, at age 86. But, in those ten years, she entered history with her greatest professional triumph: first Black woman to have a solo show at the Whitney! And her legacy was affirmed in 2015 when then First Lady Michelle Obama—in collaboration with the White House Historical Association—acquired her beautiful painting Resurrection, making Alma Thomas the first African American woman to be represented in the White House Collection. (JLH: 4/24/23)
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Click here to watch WETA Arts February 2023: Alma Thomas “WETA Arts celebrates Black History Month with a special episode about Alma Thomas, the remarkable Black artist and educator who helped shape the Washington, D.C. arts scene in the 20th century. Thomas’ art provided her nationwide acclaim. Yet even as her national recognition continues, it’s in her hometown where her impact as an educator, pioneer, advocate and role model can be felt daily.” (Also available on PBS Passport!)
Click here to read Julia Lasker’s first post about Alma Thomas from 2021 (the post that began FF2 Media’s relationship with Pomegranate), and click here to order pieces from the Alma Thomas collection on Pomegranate.
Click here to learn the basics about Alma Thomas’s life & work on Wikipedia. (But no guarantees from us that everything you read on Wikipedia will be correct!)
And, for more about Fala: “A statue of Fala beside Roosevelt is featured in Washington, D.C.’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, the only presidential pet so honored.” (Click HERE for photos.)
“I don’t resent attacks, and my family don’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I’d left him behind on an Aleutian island and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since.” (FDR: 9/23/44)
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Portrait of a Lady (Alma Thomas), 1947 by – Smithsonian American Art Museum. Public Domain per Wikipedia.
Lisa Siegrist is the former managing editor of American Art (a scholarly journal produced by the Smithsonian American Art Museum). She has written several articles on women artists, and has edited numerous exhibition catalogues for art museums in Washington, DC.
Lisa: We thank you for reaching out to us, & we hope you will pitch new posts to FF2!