Film Review: by Ramon Kubicek, BA, Dip.Art, Dip.Film, Cert.Ed, MA, Instructor, Langara College and Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design, Vancouver, British Columbia; and
Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC, Director of CME and Professional Development, Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia
Canada, 2005 Director: Jeremiah L. Munce
Alma Rumball was born in Huntsville, Ontario in 1902. Raised as a devout Christian, she lived a quiet and unremarkable life in rural Canada until she was about 50 and spent the next 25 years of her life obsessively and single-mindedly creating thousands of intricate line drawings and paintings.
Adding to this bizarre tale, Alma denied conscious knowledge of her artwork and denied authorship—and even stranger yet, she received critical acclaim for her talents.
The story of Alma and the mystery behind her art have now been explored in a documentary by director Jeremiah Munce.
Munce utilizes images of her work, family interviews, dramatic reenactments, but most helpfully, a single recovered audio interview in which Alma speaks about her strange gift.
Alma matter-of-factly attributes the onset of her drawings to a vision she experienced of Christ with a panther at his side. She explains she was instructed to draw and “she retreated like a sage to a cave to honour her task.”
And draw she did—producing thousands of what she viewed as “automatic drawings.” Alma simply watched her hands move.
It was an unfortunate stroke that ended her prodigious output.
Psychic or psychotic?
For many, the real question arising from Alma’s life and art seems to be whether Alma was—as one newspaper headline of an early review of her works rather indelicately described—“psychic or psychotic.”
It is clear the director of The Alma Drawings is sympathetically aligned to the ‘psychic’ perspective. Great emphasis is placed on the presence of representations within Alma’s work that were beyond her personal experience—such as detailed and accurate depictions of Tibetan Buddhist symbols prestigiously identified by such individuals as Kalu Rinpoche, the spiritual advisor to the Dalai Lama.
The film explicitly implies Alma had somehow spiritually and mysteriously accessed Carl Jung’s conceptual world of the collective unconscious.
However, it is hard to ignore brief references in the documentary by family members to Alma as distracted and disconnected, as well as their acknowledged awareness of Alma’s descriptions of people in the corner of the ceiling who provided guidance.
Too emotionally unstable to sustain a brief attempt at teaching, she was sheltered by her extended family for virtually the rest of her reclusive life—for many years living alone in a small lakeside cabin.
The viewer also learns Alma was not completely inexperienced as an artist. While she may have had no formal artistic training, she is reported to always have drawn as a child and, at one point, drew a series of precise and repetitive religious drawings.
The proficiency of her later drawings also becomes less mysterious when considered in the context of Alma’s early work experience.
She was employed at a Toronto pottery factory where her job involved decorating vases in endless repetitive patterns prescient of her subsequent art.
Are there other explanations?
The documentary mentions Alma’s work has been recognized as an example of ‘psychic automatism’.
Even after a century of seeing various efforts described that way, the exact nature of psychic automatism remains unclear.
The terminology is derived from Freud, whose influence on the poet Andre Breton and his artist friends helped create the surrealist movement—which was so strong in the early 1920s that salons were held to explore the influence of trance on artistic production.
Spiritual art Artists Andre Masson and Max Ernst believed the relaxed state simply allowed serendipitous discoveries in free-form drawing to be made, especially since the hand seemed to be free of a limiting censor.
Other artists, like Austin Osman Spare and Aubrey Beardsley, tried to connect psychic automatism to a kind of spiritual medium-ship, whereby the artist was able to invoke magical forces—perhaps even ’beings’ that could communicate through the artist’s hand by means of what believers saw as potent symbols.
Belief in “magical art”—art composed under the tutelage of spiritual beings—is stronger in traditional cultures.
Such authorities as Ananda Coomaraswamy and Ajit Mukherjee have written seminal works on the spiritual art of India and Tibet—where not only the representational figures, but also the patterns in paintings and drawings are often believed to have both sacred and ceremonial significance. Creating such work is often seen as a meditative act placing the artist in touch with divine realms.
In the West, we have little experience with such traditions of spiritual art—other than the example of William Blake who was regarded skeptically by many of his contemporaries.
Although there are many artists who create work under the influence of spiritual beliefs, they do so in isolation.
It is not insignificant that Alma Rumball’s work is praised by Chilean artist Carmen Cereceda—a spiritual follower of Kirpal Singh—rather than in the skeptical, secular context of mainstream art.
Such testimony increases the mystery of Alma Rumball, but there are omissions of detail that make it difficult to fully assess her situation.
We do not learn enough of Alma’s past, nor of her family.
We are not given an indication of how unusual it is to have untrained artists suddenly emerging in middle-age to produce “inspired” art.
As a result, Alma Rumball is sympathetically portrayed as a curiosity rather than as a significant example of an “inspired” artist, or as someone whose unexpected calling could help us achieve contemporary understanding of what inspiration in art might mean when so many deny the relevance of the concept.
Regardless of the true impetus for Alma’s artwork, it is clear Alma’s mid-life transition may have been different were she alive today and
living in a large urban centre.
There are strong suggestions Alma was experiencing a chronic psychotic disorder associated with marked social withdrawal.
Today, it is hard to imagine that Alma would not be offered (and that’s being polite) an antipsychotic medication.
If medicated, would Alma still have been driven to produce such interesting artwork, or—perhaps more importantly—to have been so apparently meaningfully occupied and satisfied in her later years?
For psychiatrists viewing this film, perhaps that’s the greater mystery and more challenging question.
The Alma Drawings was screened at the Rendezvous with Madness Film Festival in 2006—an always thought-provoking event presented by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) Workman Theatre in Toronto. The official movie web site is www.thealmadrawings.com.