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Local quilter makes Alma Thomas piece for First Lady

“Splash Down Apollo 13, 1970” is what Columbus native Alma Woodsey Thomas titled the abstract painting of concentric circles of vividly colored rectangles emanating from a yellow center, with rings of blue, red, black, orange, aquamarine and other hues. Cathy Fussell chose the painting as the pattern for a quilt presented last month to First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Splash Down Apollo 13, 1970” is what Columbus native Alma Woodsey Thomas titled the abstract painting of concentric circles of vividly colored rectangles emanating from a yellow center, with rings of blue, red, black, orange, aquamarine and other hues. Cathy Fussell chose the painting as the pattern for a quilt presented last month to First Lady Michelle Obama. Special to the Ledger-Enquirer

The colors shine like the sun on the sea.

“Splash Down Apollo 13, 1970” is what Columbus native Alma Woodsey Thomas titled the abstract painting of concentric circles of vividly colored rectangles emanating from a yellow center, with rings of blue, red, black, orange, aquamarine and other hues.

Blue predominates, and that’s one reason Columbus quilter Cathy Fussell chose the painting as the pattern for a quilt presented last month to First Lady Michelle Obama, who so appreciates Thomas’ art that she has paintings on display in the White House. Fussell found the blue enticing.

Plus she did not want the quilt to be a reflection of a Thomas painting the Obamas already had, such as “Resurrection,” also a circular pattern, but with red, orange and yellow more prevalent. It hangs in the White House dining room

The quilt was not meant to replicate the artwork precisely, but to represent it. The quilt, which is 75 inches square, was not made to cover a bed but to hang on a wall. It has a canvas core and a top sleeve a dowel can run through for hoisting.

The canvas will ensure its durability. “It will last until it rots,” Fussell said.

Titled “Apollo Revisited: Homage to Alma Woodsey Thomas,” the quilt was presented to the First Lady at an annual luncheon hosted by the Congressional Club, an organization of spouses of those serving in Congress.

This year the event celebrated Georgia’s culture, and Fussell made the quilt at the request of Florene Dawkins, a friend of Vivian Creighton Bishop, wife of Congressman Sanford Bishop.

Fussell did not personally present the quilt to Obama, as she hasn’t seen it since it was packed in plastic and padding and shipped off in a giant cardboard tube.

But she and other Georgians contributing to the event did get to meet the First Lady before the luncheon began.

“She was gracious and energetic in a real noncontrived sort of natural way,” Fussell said. Obama made sure to speak to each guest, and tried in the time available to establish some rapport with each, she said.

In her luncheon speech, Obama spoke of the incivility evident in politics today, and told the 1,800 or so gathered in the Washington Hilton that spouses are uniquely positioned to temper that.

The Congressional Club in a way was founded on that idea in 1908, to nurture friendships among national leaders’ families in a nonpartisan setting.

Washington, D.C., became Alma Thomas’ home when her family left Columbus in 1907, when she was 14. The family home still stands today in Rose Hill.

Born Sept. 22, 1891, she as a child wanted to be an architect. Instead teaching became her vocation, and art her passion. She was the first to graduate from the Howard University art school in 1924, and later took classes at American University as she taught school.

Retiring in 1960, she devoted herself full-time to her art, and was influenced by the “Washington Color School” of abstract artists experimenting with shapes and colors. Thomas was the first African-American woman to have her own exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1972.

By then she was 80, having come late to making art her career, after teaching more than 30 years.

Fussell said she could relate to that, having started quilting in her 60s, after a career in public education, teaching literature at Hardaway and Columbus High School and Columbus State University.

Seeking a material that represented Columbus, she first tried to use denim to represent the deep-blue blocks circling within the frame. But cutting blue denim revealed what anyone with frayed blue jeans can see: white thread woven into the indigo.

She switched to cotton bunting, which cut cleanly.

Dawkins contacted Fussell about the Obama gift in June 2015. Through the following July, Fussell cut and sewed, usually for six hours a day, with breaks. She wore out a pair of scissors, but finished the work in four weeks.

In light of Thomas’ leaving here at age 14 and coming to prominence in her 70s and 80s, how much claim has Columbus to her fame?

Enough, Fussell said: “You’ve got a lot of sensory input by the time you’re 14.”

Some of Thomas’ paintings are based on nature, such as “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers” and “Hydrangeas Spring Song.” As a child in Rose Hill, Thomas would have grown up amid the flowering plants we know, and retained those early impressions.

In Washington, 10 years after she left teaching, she would have seen the Apollo 13 splashdown on TV. The troubled mission, later the subject of a Tom Hanks movie, got everyone’s attention as America waited to see whether the space capsule would burn up on re-entry.

What they saw, and you still can see on YouTube, was it float gently beneath three parachutes to a flat blue sea, where it came to rest peacefully atop inflated orange pontoons.

After a harrowing journey, the three astronauts in their gray-blue coveralls were home, safe and sound, plucked from the level sea on a clear, sunny day.

Like Thomas, they had come a long way.

Alma Thomas died Feb. 24, 1978, 72 years after she left Columbus as a teenager. Lately her art in a sense has been resurrected, as museums again open exhibits of her work and of other pioneering African-American artists, and honor their influence.

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