Aug 25, 2022

Resurrection and Sparrows Do Not Fear the Sun

By: Alexandra Lane

Alma Thomas’s work Resurrection and Linda Rebeiz’s piece Sparrows do not fear the sun interplay through expression of form, color, and natural surroundings. The artists’ biographies and works also share many parallels with each interacting with technology, memories, and change. Both pieces are euphoric and energetic works that capture personal histories and journeys in non-traditional ways. 

Alma Thomas’s art career didn't hit full swing until she turned 75. She was part of the Washington D.C. art world, and her career had many incarnations. She was the first graduate of Howard University's art program in 1924, teaching and nurturing young art students at Shaw Junior High for 34 years, all the while furthering her own artistic pursuits by communing with fellow artists in starting the 1940s, taking classes at American University and exhibiting whenever possible in the '50s. She was able to focus full-time on her work after retiring in 1960.

Although she embraced abstraction in the fifties, her signature style was the result of her recovery after a debilitating arthritic attack and the desire for a different direction after Howard University asked to display a retrospective of her works in 1966. Resurrection was painted in that same year, incorporating her new vision. In this phase of her career, she stylized the ever-shifting light and color patterns observed from the branches of the holly tree and plants outside her home as she recuperated.  

Resurrection draws from the natural world. It could easily be a closeup or macro shot of a colorful flower, but it is also reminiscent of stained glass. The combination of nature and spirit evokes her rebirth as an artist and triumph over a physical ailment that could have easily stopped her physical movement and artistic expression. 

Thomas’s art also draws on mid-century artist movements like the Washington Color School. The Washington Color School was an affiliation of artists dedicated to using color over drawings to create forms like shapes and patterns. Later in her career, she incorporated the space race into her paintings. The technological marvels of this period produced NASA’s photographs of rocket launches, astronauts, and at the time, revolutionary views of earth, the moon, and the planets. These images permeated the American consciousness and created a renewed hope for the future. Thomas reimagined the natural world being viewed by an astronaut looking from space and presented an abstracted version of a Mars dust storm with light and dark blues peeking through the patterned strokes of red. 

Alma Thomas, “Mars Dust,” 1972 (acrylic on canvas). Mars Dust currently hangs at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, where it was purchased in 1972. Alma Thomas was the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum and “Mars Dust” was among the words displayed.
Alma Thomas, Atmospheric Effects 1, 1970. Acrylic and pencil on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Mezac. 

Like Thomas, Linda Rebeiz incorporates today’s technological advances – albeit in a direct way as opposed to representation. In her work Sparrows do not fear the sun Rebeiz uses artificial intelligence combining it with her meditative process and a love of nature. 

Her process involved hand painting 2,000 pieces using acrylic paint. Then she fed her massive body of work into a GAN model. 

A GAN (generative adversarial network) involves a generator and a discriminator. The generator acquires the ability to create credible data to teach the discriminator. The discriminator is trained to differentiate between the generator's false data from the actual data. 

After curating the output of this process, Rebiez takes this selection and feeds it into another model which resulted in about 500 pieces. Then she prints and cuts out each piece, arranges them into a collage, and scans it. Finally she returns to painting, recreating the piece on canvas, starting back at the beginning. 

The complex process results in a piece that is a mixture of a painting and collage. Most of the forms are created with vivid, almost neon colors in pinks, oranges, and yellows, and contrasting with the grey and off-white hues in the background. However, the viewer’s eye is most drawn to the chain of interlinking green branches that rise from the bottom to the top of the piece almost as if reaching for the sky. The green color is bright but more subdued compared to the brilliant colors in the background. 

The work is also infused with personal narrative and centered around the neem tree on her grandfather's millet farm, where she observed the dance of the sparrows who swooped down on the grain, fed, and then took flight again. The piece is also a dance of memory and machine learning, the interaction between color and form, inviting the viewer to meditate on new and old creation methods. 

Like Thomas, Rebeiz found new opportunities in switching from a career as a visual designer to a full-time artist. She remarked that her story might have been the same as Thomas's finding success much later in life. However, thanks to disruptions to the art world created by NFTs or Non-Fungible Tokens, she was able to find recognition and a career through cryptoart much earlier than Thomas did. 

NFTs are digital files encrypted on the blockchain, turning them into unique objects that are easily authenticated. This new technology allows artists to simultaneously sell their work as cryptoart in online marketplaces and protect it with a digital signature. The rapid adoption and interest in this new technology enable artists to present their work outside the traditional art world of galleries, museums, and critics. Artists can take their work directly to interested audiences instead of waiting on gatekeepers to provide a stamp of approval. 

Memory is etched into the fabric in the works of both artists. 

Rebeiz and Thomas take inspiration from places in their childhood. In a striking coincidence, both draw from memories of being on their grandfathers' properties and surrounded by nature's wonders. Rebeiz’s art came from her vivid recollections of communing with nature by watching sparrows from her shady perch in the neem tree on her grandfather’s millet farm. Thomas remembered her grandfather's plantation in Alabama, where she encountered a variety of birds, including peacocks, pigeons, and ducks, and "wandering through the plantation finding the most unusual wildflowers."  

However, metaphorically and physically, neither Thomas nor Rebeiz could go back to these places. Thomas's family relocated in 1912 from Columbus, Georgia, to Washington, D.C., to escape the brutalities of racist violence and find better opportunities for a new life.  Thomas recalled her mother saying to her sister “you take your shoes off and knock that Georgia sand out of them. Don’t ever go back there again”. Heeding her mother’s words, Thomas would remain in D.C. for the rest of her life interspersed with travel to New York for study. 

For Rebeiz, her grandfather could not compete against the ravages of climate change and was forced to sell the farm. She stated the land looks drastically different now from what she remembered as a child. These cataclysms in their family’s histories and personal recollections add to their artwork’s transformative and dynamic qualities. 

Each artist draws from challenges, experiences, and trends to create something familiar that defies any category, making their work remarkable. These extraordinary ties show the artist’s ability to create connections that defy time and space.