Discovering Collections: The Automatic Drawings of Alma Rumball (1902-1980)
I recently had the pleasure of seeing the drawings of Alma Rumball, a Canadian mediumistic artist who created thousands of automatic drawings whilst living a reclusive life in rural Huntsville, Ontario. Wendy Oke is married to Alma’s nephew and for nearly 50 years has devoted herself to looking after Alma’s legacy, researching the symbolism in the drawings and introducing her work to new audiences. I would like to thank Wendy for sharing some fascinating insights into Alma’s world which reveal just what an incredible artist she was.
What was Alma like as a person? Can you tell us a little bit about her background and family?
Alma was very simplistic, almost child-like in her demeanor, not at all worldly. Her father and mother, both from Anglican Christian pioneering families in Muskoka in Ontario, ran a local tourist resort from 1908 to 1911, and then operated the first Huntsville Dairy. Her four sisters were either nurses or teachers and Alma’s father wanted her to become a school teacher, so in 1923 she attended Teacher’s College. The occupation did not suit her and she lasted only two years in the rural country schools in Huntsville. Alma’s mother died in 1939 followed shortly by her father in 1941, after which she inherited the family house on the river and she lived there until 1948.
Did she have any formal artistic training or work using her creativity?
Alma never had any formal art training, but drew most of her life, as she had good genes. Her grandfathers were both artistic, one was Charles Rumball, an author (two novels in British Museum), playwright, actor and artist, winning first prize in the Royal Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in the late 1800’s, for his drawing of Lady Godiva. The other, William Henry Morgan, was a skilled craftsman and circular staircase specialist, creating many churches, ceilings, altarpieces and one baptismal font which was exhibited in the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. He represented Canada, as he used pieces of every kind of wood available in the country.
In 1948 Alma sold the family home and moved to Toronto to work in a ceramics factory called York China. It was here that she found an outlet for her creativity by decorating vases for several years before returning to Huntsville in the early 1950s. Up until this time, she had led a relatively normal social life, by all accounts and her art was conventional in style.
Like many other spirit inspired artists was there a particular moment or event that inspired her to draw automatically? Did she think it was her subconscious or was she convinced in the belief that it was from another realm?
In the early 1950’s, when Alma was around 50 and working at the ceramics factory, she had a vision of Christ with a panther at his side. He did not look like the man Jesus, but identified Himself as the Christ, and He said, “You must draw and you must write.” Following that vision, she became clairvoyant and ‘The Hand’ began to do the drawing, separate from Alma’s consciousness. She was very accepting of her visions and compulsion to draw and write, believing she must follow the instructions of the Christ/Jesus entity. She also was introduced to her spiritual guide, who identified himself as a ‘genius’ (genii plural, jinn in Islam). He was a black turbaned man, named Aba Pasha. I have asked a Sufi Sheik what Aba Pasha means, and he said, “Messenger of God”. It may also be known as a ‘daemon’, or source of inspiration, as with William Blake and Socrates.
Alma’s process was Psychic Automatism which is the pure state sought by visionaries who simply stay out of the way, and ‘allow’ inspiration to flow freely, uninhibited by the left brain or dogma. Michael Greenwood, curator for Toronto’s York University Art Gallery, who held Alma’s first major, one-woman show in 1978, told me he had not seen a more pure case of psychic automatism since William Blake and wrote in the press release: “History records many instances of the phenomenon of automatism in the production of art works, though seldom found in so pure a form as in Alma Rumball’s drawings. The ideal of an entirely spontaneous creative activity without conscious control was greatly prized by the Surrealist movement, many of whose members went to considerable lengths to induce by various artificial means and devices a total suspension of consciousness in order to release what their leader Andre Breton termed ‘pure psychic automatism’. However well they may succeed in concealing their psychological origins, these extraordinary works leave no doubt as to the compelling power of symbol formation that lies in the depths of the human personality, only awaiting the kind of catalytic episode that accompanied Alma Rumball’s visionary revelation to be released in a torrent of creative activity.”
Within the Edgar Cayce community, automatic drawing is considered a process that may be directed by lesser beings outside the Self, so I do not use that term in presentations at the Association for Research and Enlightenment (A.R.E.) I use the term ‘Inspirational drawing’, which implies a direct connection with the Creative Forces and the Christ energy. Alma was in communion with the Christ energy on a regular basis and says in the documentary film, ‘The Alma Drawings’, “That’s Christ. I’ve seen his face many times; he isn’t wearing his whiskers though you know.”
Alma certainly disclaimed the authorship of her drawings, saying, “I can’t accept credit for them; you see, I don’t do them.” She said there was a ‘power that pushes her own hand, and she called it ‘The Hand’ which was a spiritual force translating messages and images from Spirit/Christ/The Other Side/Holy Ghost for Alma’s physical hand to record. She told me she was as excited as I was to see what was coming next.
You have mentioned that interest in the spiritual was found in other family members such as her sister, Gertrude, being a Rosicrucian. What did they think of Alma’s creativity?
Most of the relatives had died before Alma had her vision. Her great grandfather was a member of the Swedenborg Church and wanted her grandfather to be baptized as such. Her father’s brother, Sir Alfred Hearsey, was a Spiritualist/Mason/Knight of the Eastern Star, but he lived far away and did not know Alma. Her sister, Gertrude, died of consumption, but spent years bed-ridden, communicating by mail with East Indian Brahmans, as a Rosicrucian Order member. Alma had also been suspected of having TB and spent three months in a sanatorium.
My husband’s mother, Edna Oke, was Alma’s sister, and she was fascinated by her artwork and the process of automatic drawing. She provided reclusive Alma with the paper and inks needed to complete her task. One seer said Edna had a pure white aura. Other family members viewed Alma as the ‘crazy aunt’ and treated her as the black sheep of the family. Her father must have appreciated her ‘difference’, as he left her the family home and she lived off the sale of the house in her cabin built by Edna’s husband on the Oke property.
Alma lived in a beautiful setting near a place called Fairy Lake. Do you think she drew energy from her surroundings? You have said that she lived reclusively when she returned to Huntsville after her vision, was this place her refuge and why did she turn her back on the community?
The area known as Muskoka is a magical place, sought out by tourists as a vacation spot, two hours north of Toronto. The powerful ancientness of the Canadian Shield can be felt as soon as you enter the terrain of huge rock cuts, pristine lakes, towering forests and clean, fresh air. It has always been a healing place, bringing peace and respite from the busyness of the world. Alma came into resonance with this environment, as did Canada’s most renowned painters, ‘The Group of Seven’. The Cavalcade of Colour created by the fiery maples in autumn draws visitors with cameras from all over Europe and Asia, and the renderings of artist Tom Thomson have put Huntsville and Algonquin Park on the cultural map. The ‘Power of Place’ delineated by geomancer Paul Devereaux, from England allowed Alma the portal necessary for the steady stream of inspiring beings and elementals she saw with her inner eye. E.g. fairies, elves, angels.
I don’t think Alma turned her back on her community. I suspect she just became so immersed in her inner world that she saw everyday life as a distraction from her mission. Someone pointed out once, that if she had in fact ‘come to Earth as Joan of Arc’ as The Hand wrote, she was burned at the stake for her visions. She may have had cellular memory of those times, and knew intuitively that she must be reclusive about her experiences. In the 1950’s, she would likely have been institutionalized, and some of the information went against her Anglican church teachings (reincarnation, multiple holy ghosts, herself having Holy Ghost power and communing with Christ directly), so she was aware of charges of blasphemy. She burned some of the messages, but was compelled to draw. “I just had to keep going, that’s all. I hardly had time to finish one picture and my Hand started another one.”
You met Alma for the first time in the 1970s. Do you remember that meeting and how you felt when you saw her drawings? Did she mind people watching her while she worked? Did she appear to be working in some kind of altered consciousness?
On my first date with my husband, Colin, I saw a drawing of a cat on his wall, and was intrigued by the fact that behind the feline fur was a human face. I inquired “What’s with the cat? It has a human face.” Colin replied, “Oh, my aunt did that.” Before I could self-edit, I heard myself ask if I could meet his aunt. I didn’t even know if I liked him or not, let alone his aunt, but I guess I was expected, and we had to get on with it!
The first time I met her, and saw the drawings I was awe-struck, complete with shivers and electricity that I came to recognize when Spirit was afoot. When I said they were beautiful, albeit lying all over the cottage, on furniture and floors, she responded, “Oh thank you dear, but I can’t accept credit for them; you see, I don’t do them!” Alma’s cottage was decorated with artwork all over her bedroom walls, wood furniture painted, and even yarn with gold threads woven into her drapery. The scenes in the documentary replicate the photos we took of her actual walls.
Colin had grown up watching her draw, but by 1972, she had already had her stroke, and she had stopped drawing. I never saw her at work. Apparently, she never went into any altered state or trance, and she could talk to Colin, and The Hand seemed to just keep on drawing, very rapidly, no matter what the detail required.
What was her creative process and the materials she used?
At first she drew in pencil crayon, occasionally wax crayon or oil, but this stage was built upon when she discovered pen and ink. Her grandfather had been a pen and ink artist as well. She could render the layers of minute detail with the straight-nibbed pen, and the brilliant, pure coloured inks elicited the effect sought. She always worked on paper, not canvas or board.
As time progressed she used only pen and ink for new ones, but many of the 5,000 drawings were re-worked pencil crayon pieces, with the ink overlay of imagery. What is interesting, is that she never worked on one piece from beginning to end. She continually grabbed different pictures, and worked on one section, and then discarded one and picked up another one. They seemed to always be in a state of ‘unfinishedness’ and seemed to grow and develop over time. In some, like Joan of Arc, the face remains mystically blank in the midst of such detailed, layering of ‘arabesques’. Would it have been her face if finished…?
How did Alma describe her art and did she title or date the drawings? Can you tell us more about your research into the spiritual themes that are evident and about your audience with the Dalai Lama which must have been an incredible experience?
Some might suggest that Alma suffered from a split with reality, but she was not psychotic. She too thought the phenomenon was ‘strange’. She understood she was not really Joan of Arc and she marvelled at what The Hand was doing with transcription of her visions. The Dalai Lama saw them in the 1970’s and told me, “It’s simple. She’s drawing what she sees.” She simply “let the Hand do the drawing, and it did.” She had no cognitive understanding of what was happening, and she told me she was being ‘shielded’ from having to know too much about it, so she could continue her mission unimpeded.
She never bothered to date or name the drawings. I had to get her to sign many before I took them to Toronto and once I had to title a selection for insurance purposes. When I told her she simply said, “Don’t worry dear, they’ll tell you who they are!” She never dreamt of showing them or selling any.
The second time I saw Alma, I walked in as she was channeling some crucial information. I believe Aba Pasha, her guide, was like her ‘control’, whereby he would offer her guidance, stepping down the highest vibrations of the Christ energy, to a more manageable and understandable level. As I entered her cottage she said, “Just a minute… they’re talking to me….they’re telling me that you are the one, who is divinely inspired, to be the one to take the drawings to the world…” I was stunned and did not truly grasp the implications of such a mission. It was the 70’s and I was only 25, so I just responded “Cool”. I guess that was when I signed on to my life-long mission. It was up to me to learn from Masters, gurus, Ascended beings, seers, dowsers, religious leaders and spiritual teachers. It was up to me to try to find contexts and meanings of the symbolism inherent in the swirling nests of lines. Having created presentations for both the spiritual groups and art enthusiasts, and releasing a documentary film, globally through the Spiritual Cinema Circle, and hosting online websites, interviews and podcasts on YouTube and Facebook, I feel I have completed my mission.
As for spiritual themes, certainly the 100 page Atlantean writings are uniquely informative. The writings accompany abstract drawings at the top of each page. There are hard to read bubble letters in purple pencil crayon, continuing a story of Alma having been Queen of Atlantis, and describing life at that time, on each successive page.
Importantly, I have been told by Ascended Masters, that the description is interesting, but it is only there to keep the Left Brain occupied, while the activation from the image happens. The Masters said I must market Alma’s artwork as ‘The Sacred Language of Light, activation drawings, with codes embedded in them, for the elevation of humanity, at this time.” This element is what gives the drawings such import. They apparently have some healing energy that is elevating the Collective Consciousness, perhaps in keeping with our original Divine Blueprint, or unlocking of seals put on gnostic knowledge we have all been privy to, as the inhabitants of Atlantis were. It has been suggested they are ‘keys’ to unlock our highest potential in order to make a significant shift into a New Age and a New World, perhaps the New Atlantis described by Francis Bacon.
I have become aware that depending on what lens one is looking at the drawings through, e.g. Tibetan, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Mayan, Pagan, Hindu, New Age, Scientific, one can locate images or symbols to represent that path. The collection identified by the spiritual advisor to the Dalai Lama as Tibetan gods and deities is an example.
My presentations on Edgar Cayce’s readings reflect the Sleeping Prophet’s lens of the Akashic Record. Winged serpents are evident when looking through the Mayan lens. Indra relates to the Vedic Tradition. The Tree of Life and Healing Set writings relate to Kabbalistic teachings, while the predominant faith reflecting Alma’s contact with Christ is Christianity. Many of the Atlantean writings speak to the coming of a New Age and asks humanity if we are ready for such a Golden Age, similar to the Atlantis epoch. They come with warnings to humanity, to avoid the same fate of the lost civilization, due to misuse of atomic power.
Do you think Alma was aware of how unique she was? Was she interested in the history of art or any artists in particular?
Alma was not self-reflective at all, to my knowledge. She took herself out of the equation, allowing Source to dictate. She never showed any interest in art movements or artists. It never occurred to her to exhibit or sell her work. She was a recluse, with no interaction with the outer world, except through her TV. She told me she saw her visions on a blank TV screen, and the alternative plane of existence was as real as my sitting talking with her.
How did the art world in Canada react to Alma’s work? Was she seen as an outsider? Was she overlooked which was the fate of so many artists like her in other countries? Do you think that in light of the recent interest in spirit inspired art with artists such as Hilma af Klint that now is the right time for Alma to receive the recognition she deserves
I was very discouraged by the reception from the Toronto art world, and it didn’t take long to pick up on an arrogance, and elite ‘insider’ mentality that permeated most galleries. The drawings were called ‘very busy’ by one curator. At the time, a blue line and red dot abstract graced the hallowed halls of Ottawa’s National Art Gallery! I wasn’t going to cast pearls before swine. I focused on the spiritual groups, hungry for depictions of a world beyond the 3D reality. For decades I avoided the closed, hierarchical art galleries, where they just wanted to sell originals. I found in the University settings an openness of mind unhampered by commercial interests. Here we met Prof. Carmen Cereceda from the Ontario College of Art who became a great champion of Alma’s art and her colleague, the outsider art expert, Prof. John MacGregor who likened Alma’s work to Henry Darger. Wilfrid Laurier and York Universities, held one-woman exhibitions of Alma in the late 1970’s.
Duncan Farnan was instrumental in identifying Alma as one of Canada’s foremost Outsider artists, and included her drawings in the Toronto exhibition, ‘Outside Coming In’. Recognition of untutored art as a valuable segment of ‘Insider Art’ is increasing, and Dr. Elmar Gruber, European collector of Mediumistic Art and renowned author on the subject has become crucial in the raising of awareness of Alma Rumball by lending a selection from his collection to the exhibition, Flying High: Women Art Brut Artists at the Kunstforum Wien in Vienna in 2019.
The general public is much more comfortable with The Mystery nowadays, and Psychic Phenomena have become familiar due to television shows and books on the subject. There is no longer the fear of the Unknown within the populace, and people are looking for something to help heal our human condition at this time.
Did Alma ever discuss with you what she would like to see happen to her art after she died? I know she saw you as the person who would be instrumental in looking after her legacy and to explore ways for them to be seen.
In hindsight, I wish I had discussed many more things with Alma, but she died in 1980, and I lived in Toronto, while she lived in Huntsville. We never discussed philosophies or the future, as I was busy raising a family. She gave me my mission to ‘take the drawings to the world’ but I was left to discover what that would look like, on my own. All she said was ‘They’re for people to see, and the more the merrier!”
She left her estate collection to the Ontario Heritage Foundation, and they accepted them as having heritage value, but I had to find a custodian for them. I approached Michael Greenwood, curator at York University, and they were delighted to keep 4400 pieces from her estate in their permanent collection.
You have done so much to help Alma’s ‘voice’ be heard. It must feel like you have gone on your own spiritual journey with these drawings. What else would you like to see for them and for Alma’s reputation in the future?
My entire life has been centered around my mission to create awareness of Alma Rumball and her art and writing. At an early age, I was spared the ‘existential angst’ of many young people, questioning their purpose on the planet. I knew what I was to do, and I became a life-long seeker, reading and now writing books, taking courses, learning to meditate, visiting power spots, doing ceremonies, becoming ordained as a Spiritual Peace Minister with James Twyman and his Beloved Community.
Following a decades long teaching career, and time spent as a high school Guidance Counsellor, I studied, trained in Transpersonal Psychology through the Bioenergetic Psychotherapy Institute, and have now become a wedding officiant.
I’ve had my own visionary experiences within the Feminist Spirituality movement and Goddess teachings. I’ve become a social activist when my Joan of Arc warrior rises to fight injustice. I’ve held the focus of Women’s Healing Circles and written a Wise Woman Ways column in a local newspaper. Always, my focus has been to raise consciousness and awareness. My involvement with Alma’s work has given me a foundation of certainty and trust that I have been guided every step of the way.
My own Gnostic experience involved communion with the Creatrix, Sophia, who took me beyond the Christian church dogma and patriarchy I ran from. Knowledge of the Divine Mother, Mother Nature, Mother Earth helped me understand the Divine Feminine Holy Ghost power alluded to in Alma’s writings. Since ‘alma’ means ‘soul’ in many languages, I can accept that indeed, ‘Alma Matters’ are matters of the soul. In this context, Alma is the Holy Ghost could make sense. The piece of the Divine Feminine, Sophia, that was white-washed in the Bible to become the quality, Wisdom, may just be the piece of Christ Light, our own Divinity, within each and every person. In this regard, our Collective Soul may be The Holy Ghost. I am so grateful for my spiritual quest, triggered by my journey with Alma, and I continue to share the knowledge, hopefully turned into Wisdom.
Alma and I both devoted our lives to our missions. We are to help humanity at this time, by raising Consciousness, so that we may survive the fate of Atlantis. Alma saw with her inner vision, the battle between The Light and the dark forces, so immediate right now. I believe we are at a turning point in our destiny as a human race. Alma’s drawings are to be seen as tools of The Light and they are needed by ‘the blind’. I try to step out of the way and allow people to experience what they need, letting individuals experience the code activations their souls call forth.
I welcome any patrons or mentors who might help manifest an appropriate location to house some of our collection for the future, offering Alma and her Source the respect due. To quote one of the writings in the Christ Voice, “I am your Lord. This is what I wish. Give your love and devotion to me. Give your assistance to Alma, who is trying to save you from the fate of the people of Atlantis.” The Hand also wrote “A Tale of the coming of Christ. You know I have given you some hard times. This was for the good of your souls. People of the Earth do not think.”
All images unless otherwise stated are Courtesy of Wendy & Colin Oke and form part of the Collection of Wendy & Colin Oke – Copyright © Wendy & Colin Oke
For more information on Alma Rumball see Wendy’s website almamatters.ca and her facebook page: The Alma Rumball Drawings. A must see is the fantastic documentary: The Alma Drawings directed by Jeremy Munce and produced by Firewatch Films and Vision TV in 2005. Visit cultureunplugged.com to see the film. To hear Wendy talk about Alma’s drawings and her spiritual journey check out this youtube recording and also the latest podcast of the Psychedelic Suitcase (Episode 12).