The spirit drawings of Alma Rumball


Even though I describe outsider art as a non-genre, I do see similarities from time to time. I discovered, for example, that both Madge Gill and Guo Fengyi took direction from the spirit world in their automatic drawings (see previous blogs). I was recently introduced to the work of Alma Rumball (1902 – 1980), a Canadian artist who produced work of the same description.

Alma Rumball was from a family of Muskoka pioneers who settled there in the 1870s. She spent a lot of time drawing as a child, and eventually left the farm to work as a painter in a ceramics factory in Toronto. By all accounts she enjoyed a typical social life there. She returned to Huntsville, Ontario in the 1950s and her life took a dramatic and unexpected change.  She lived the life of a recluse and did not venture out except for family functions. About that time, Jesus appeared, with a panther, and commanded her to draw and write in order to help humanity. She understood there were other levels of spiritual existence and began to communicate with a “genius”, who was a turbaned spiritual guide named Aba. (Interestingly, the panther totem represents spiritual knowing and is said to present itself to those who are intuitive, psychic, and artistically inclined.)

Alma referred to her spiritual guide as the “Hand”. She watched as it chose art materials and drew detailed drawings and images on its own. Alma said: “I’m as excited to see what the Hand will do as you are. I can’t accept credit for them (the drawings); you see, I don’t do them.” She watched as the Hand drew images of unfamiliar forms and faces, as well as Joan of Arc, Tibetan gods, and images of Atlantis. Her drawings are intricate and beautiful.

Automatic drawing was a technique used by the surrealists as a way to connect with their unconscious. It was an intentional act, performed to reveal something of the artist’s psyche. The artist’s hand was allowed to move “randomly” across the paper, thus removing any rational control of the product.  Andre Masson started the method and it was taken up by Joan Miro, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, and Jean Arp.

Surrealist automatic drawing is different than the mediumistic drawing experience of artists like Rumall. In her experience, something (like a spirit), took over her conscious self and produced the drawings. The spirit, not the artist, is the source of the message. The drawings are intended to activate something in the viewer that raises consciousness. In surrealistic automatic drawing, the artist learns something about his or her own psyche. In mediumistic drawing, the spirit intends to communicate something to the viewer and cause a shift in consciousness.

Alma’s work is now in the careful hands of her nephew and his wife – Colin and Wendy Rumball. The collection has been exhibited in Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Glastonbury, Beijing, France and Australia. A documentary film, The Alma Drawings, created by filmmaker Jeremy Munce examines the mystery of Alma’s life and art. The film won the award for best direction – Short to Mid-Length, 2005 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. I look forward to seeing the film and the collection of drawings later this year, and will report back on that event.

The entire collection of Alma Rumball’s drawings can be seen on this Facebook page.