New Exhibition 'Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas' Reveals Striking Historical Background That Informed Artist's Work

  • June 01, 2022 15:16

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At the Columbus Museum in Georgia is the current exhibition "Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas."
image courtesy The Columbus Museum

A new exhibition highlights the life and work of renowned artist Alma Thomas, a native of Columbus, Georgia. Alma Thomas rose to fame in 1972 at 80 years old as 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 Columbus Museum in Georgia has opened Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas, an exclusive, historical exhibition that uses rare family artifacts to tell the story of one of the Chattahoochee Valley’s most famous and beloved artists. Sand Unshaken serves as an intriguing and informative opening act for Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, a collection of works that is set to come home to Columbus, Georgia, in July after stops in Norfolk, Washington, D.C. and Nashville.

Part of the traveling exhibition, "Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful," Alma Thomas (American, 1891 – 1978) Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, gift of Franz Bader, 1976

Art enthusiasts across the world have come to know and love the vibrant and inspirational works of the Columbus native, but few are aware of Thomas’s complicated and surprising history of growing up in the deep South in the decades following the Civil War. Sand Unshaken draws from the Thomas family archives in The Columbus Museum’s permanent collection to showcase the Thomas family’s life in Columbus through artifacts and family portraits.

Sand Unshaken reveals a far more complex story about Alma Thomas and her family than is usually told,” said Rebecca Bush, Curator of History and Exhibitions Manager at The Columbus Museum. “Thomas experienced the racial discrimination that affected all African Americans in the Deep South during Jim Crow, but her family’s unique social position and determination to build a Black middle class offered her more opportunities than most of her peers. This exhibition provides insight into how Thomas’s childhood and family legacy in Columbus shaped her lifelong creativity.”

Among the historic artifacts featured in Sand Unshaken are family portraits, books, musical instruments used by family members, furnishings from the Thomas home in the upper-middle-class Rose Hill community, and a locket purchased by Thomas’s grandfather for her grandmother while both were enslaved.

Pieces included in the exhibition help to weave the story of the Thomases’ unusual life in Columbus. For example, Alma’s grandfather owned an expansive farm in the region and the juxtaposition of flower gardens and industrial landscapes near her home nurtured the young artist’s fascination with color. Her parents’ entrepreneurship and success as an in-demand dressmaker and Columbus’s first Black bar owner led to an elevated socioeconomic status, exposing the budding artist to civic organizations that helped build an understanding of community.

To complement the Sand Unshaken exhibition, 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.

Family artifacts are included in "Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas."
image courtesy The Columbus Museum

"Sand Unshaken: The Origin Story of Alma Thomas, on view only at The Columbus Museum, offers, for the first time, a comprehensive look at the lives of Alma Thomas and her family in the Chattahoochee Valley,” said Marianne Richter, Director of the Columbus Museum. “We are excited to share rarely seen objects from the Museum’s permanent collection, donated by the Thomas family, that offer insight into their experiences in Columbus, Thomas’s hometown.”

The Sand Unshaken exhibition will complement the landmark art exhibition Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful, traveling to the Columbus 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 Sand Unshaken will be on view at The Columbus Museum from May 21 until October 2, 2022.

For more information on the upcoming exhibitions or to become a member of The Columbus Museum, visit

Tags: american art

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