Thoughts on my recent trip to the Alma Thomas exhibit at the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.
Art and leadership are intimately bound like the brushstrokes in an Alma Thomas painting. Born in 1891 in Columbus, GA her family moved during her teen years to Washington, D.C. Multi-talented, she was the first graduate of Howard University’s Art Department.
Like many women of her generation, Alma was a public school teacher and taught for 35 years. She didn’t become a full-time artist until she was almost 70 years old, and her first national art show at the Whitney Museum of Art was only just a few years before her death. She is inspirational because she created her home, volunteerism, and work around her passion. Her entire life spoke to her interest and talents, and allowed her to be her best self. This is all even more remarkable when we consider that she did so during a time of rampant gender and racial discrimination and segregation.
In the incredible recent exhibit at the Phillips Collection, Associate Curator Renee Maurer shined a spotlight on Alma’s life through examples of her clothing, letters, furniture, art tools, and magnificent paintings to tell an important story that I believe is a case study for leaders of all backgrounds.
I collaborate with scores of individuals and teams across a variety of sectors trying to help them discern their style, strategy, tools of their craft, and the most appropriate benchmarks to monitor their progress. Our work isn’t critical because it sells more products, but it has always been, much like Alma, so vital because each of them is trying to make their community better.
One of my favorite Alma Thomas paintings is titled “Ruth Kainen’s Amaryllis.” The painting of a simple but beautiful flower was completed in 1976, and it is one that I am moved by, not because it is her most famous, but because of its backstory. Alma suffered from terrible arthritis since the early 1960s. It is reported that she soaked her hands in butter to loosen them and found ways to prop her art tools to ensure her pain wouldn’t stop her from painting. However, in 1974, she broke her hip and for the next two years experienced almost complete inactivity. Her friend Ruth Kainen came by with the amaryllis to cheer her up. Alma made a painting of the flower.
It seems she made a decision that neither her age nor her illness would take away her painting or her passion. She found a way to recalibrate her expectations and she proceeded to get to work. The painting went on to be prominently featured in her 1976 solo show at Martha Jackson West in NYC.
As leaders, we are constantly having to adapt to change. Alma teaches us that, with your passion firmly identified, any of us can gracefully move our way through to renewal. I am privileged that my work is linked to my passion—leadership development. I spend my time developing and delivering an infrastructure design process and products that makes it possible for individuals, teams, and institutions to perform at their highest level. I love it when our corporate, government, nonprofit, and philanthropic partners are successful. Whether we are working with established leaders to help them think through how to manage their teams or creating programs that are customized to help the newest entrants into the workforce, Gen Z, ready themselves for fast-paced global complexity, we know how lucky we are to stand at the center of creativity, inspiration, and action.
Thank you Alma Thomas for leaving us with an amazing legacy and for reminding us that everything is beautiful.
Tammy Dowley-Blackman Group, LLC is a certified National Supplier Development Council Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Small Business Administration (SBA) Woman Owned Small Business (WOSB), and Women’s Business Enterprise Network Council (WBENC) woman-owned company. The company is comprised of a suite of brands, including TDB Group Strategic Advisory, a management consulting firm, as well as Looking Forward Lab, which offers a full-service learning engagement model focused on Gen Z workplace development and support for their managers.