The Strange Case of Alma Rumball

14 mins read

“YOU JUST HAVE TO ALLOW FOR THE MYSTERY,” Wendy Oke told me this past summer as we looked at the art of Alma Rumball. I was visiting the Huntsville home of Wendy and Colin Oke because I had seen Jeremy Munce’s new film The Alma Drawings at the 2005 Hot Docs Festival. Awarded Best Direction in the Canadian Spectrum’s short to medium length category, this creative documentary put me back in touch with old friends and a strange story that I hadn’t followed in about 25 years.


I knew Wendy and Colin before they married, back in the 1970s when we all taught at a north Toronto junior high school. Alma Rumball, who lived in Huntsville, was Colin’s aunt, and I remember seeing her unusual art in his Richmond Hill home. Later, in 1978, I met Alma and saw her exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University. But I’d lost touch with the Oke family and what had become of Alma’s drawings until Hot Docs programmed the Munce film.

Born in 1902, Alma was a quiet Christian woman who lived her most of adult life in near seclusion on a dairy farm, in a small cottage by Huntsville’s Fairy Lake. She had limited training in art, but early on decorated ceramics and produced very conventional paintings of flowers and birds. Sometime in the early 1950s her art changed dramatically. Wendy told me that “She had a vision of Jesus and he said to her, ‘You must draw and you must write.’ She said, at that time, her hand just started to move by itself.”

Alma quickly produced hundreds of drawings on paper with strange hieroglyphics and brilliantly coloured figures. Her pencil and wax crayon images, outlined with black ink, were busy with text, arabesque shapes and detailed patterns that covered the entire surface. Later, when coloured and metallic inks became available, her drawings became filled with brilliant fluorescent palettes with gold and silver markings. Sometimes her images even extended beyond the paper as she continued, drawing up the walls and onto the furniture. Most of her furniture was wrapped with yarn and the fabrics were stitched with bright colours, covering her tiny living space with the same intensity as her drawings.

But as Wendy explained, Alma said none of this art was “her” doing. “Alma would say, ‘I can’t take credit for them. You see, I don’t do them.’ She explained to me that the ‘hand’ does them. She said, ‘I’m as excited to see what the hand will do as you are!’”

Alma Rumball completed hundreds and hundreds of drawings, all of equal vibrancy and energy. In addition to not understanding the source of her work, Alma started to include references to eastern cultures with which she professed to have no previous knowledge. Tibetan symbols and deities, images of Atlantis and Joan of Arc started to appear, as did mysterious texts and references to Alma’s name.

In the film, Munce interviews Mexican artist Carmen Cereceda in her San Miquel studio. An assistant to Diego Rivera when she was a younger, Cereceda was living in Toronto in the 1970s and taught at the Ontario College of Art. She hosted studio salons and introduced Alma’s drawings to many from the arts and spiritual communities including Buddhist followers. When the Dalai Lama visited Toronto in the 1970s, thanks to Cereceda, Wendy was able to show him Alma’s drawings. He invited her for a private audience with his spiritual advisor, the man who helped raise him, the Venerable Kalu Rinopoche.

Through his interpreter, Rinopoche told Wendy that “there is no such thing as free art in Tibetan art. It’s all religious art, and you have to render these deities in the proper mantle, the headdress and mudra (position) and Alma had done that! He named seven deities, including the male and female aspects of the god, Indra; the Guardians of the Directions (North, South, East and West) and the Supreme God of all Gods.”

In 1978, Michael Greenwood, then Curator of Art at York University and faculty Professor of Art History, arranged a solo exhibition of Rumball’s work at the gallery and wrote in the catalogue essay on the notion of “automatism.” In it, Greenwood compares Alma’s phenomenon to William Blake who saw the “inner eye” and surrealist André Breton and his writings on pure psychic automatism. “In Alma Rumball’s drawings the phenomenon on psychic automatism is manifested in its purest form…What is also remarkable about the drawings, considering how effortlessly they came into being, is their formal consistency. Not matter how intricate and densely woven, they still preserve an organic lucidity and shapeliness and possess an undeniable existence of their own as works of art. We are given plain evidence that the unconscious processes of the mind are not so entirely anarchic after all.”

When she died in 1980, most of Alma’s works were left to the Ontario Heritage Foundation and are now housed at the Art Gallery of York University. Though the Okes have travelled
to France and England, Australia, Mexico and the United States to share the drawings and interpret their meaning, not many beyond her immediate family know about the phenomenon of Alma Rumball.

Jeremy Munce, a Huntsville native grew up hearing about “Aunt Alma” and seeing her art because he and his father were good friends of the Oke family. However, it wasn’t an obvious choice for Munce to make this film, until he returned home in 2002, upon the sudden death of his father.

Munce completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts at Ryerson University in 1999, and the following year began to work at Shadow Shows with Bruce McDonald, Canada’s renegade director. Munce edited two small projects, a low-budget Head Stones music video (with band member Hugh Dillon, star of McDonald’s Hard Core Logo) and a Bravo!FACT spoken word video of Lynne Crosbie’s poem, Fort Goof. Munce was also the co-editor and multi-frame designer of the notorious and highly jinxed feature Picture Claire, and editor of Claire’s Hat, the doc “confessional” about the film, both directed by McDonald.

I met Jeremy at his Parkdale studio on a hot August day, a few weeks after my visit to Huntsville. ” I learned more from Bruce in the first few months than I did from film school. It turned into a real world experience. He’s a real player in the industry. But working for Bruce took all my energy and all my creative juices.” After four years at Shadow Shows, Munce was ready to develop his own project.

“I realised I had a deep desire to create something of my own and to see my own vision come to life. That all coincided at the same time with the death of my father. I retreated from Toronto and…I started spending a lot of time with Wendy and Colin.

“I started to get really intrigued with the Alma Rumball story. The subject matter is from my hometown and it felt like this was the perfect project for me. The family had a copy of an audio tape of Alma being interviewed. The clincher was the listening to Alma’s soft gentle voice, exclaiming ‘My hand just flies like the wind, just flies like the wind.’”

Jeremy retreated to Huntsville, spending much of his time there, from writing the proposal in 2002 to post production in January 2005. The film was shot on super 16 millimeter, and transferred to video. “I really did want a visceral vivid quality and a real flow of imagery. I wanted it to really push the form of documentary. It could not be a talking head documentary at all, for it to be creative and as informed as the drawings are, for it to be an investigation.”

Actor Clair Dorsey portrayed Alma, sitting at her desk, drawing, always drawing, surrounded by walls with coloured lines and patterns. Munce narrated the film because “I began to think of the drawings as an archeological exploration of another plan.”

He approached the subject matter as more than a local mystery and got absorbed in the connectivity of these drawings with other religions and cultures. As he says in the film, “We all yearn for a glimpse of the eternal.” Munce explained to me, “I decided to suspend people in this mystery, and show the viewer the sense of the phenomenological aspect. I didn’t want to just play the skeptic, with an analytical role…it had to be, I felt, told by a personal envoy taking us through the story…The subject and being based in Huntsville, there were times when it felt sort of spooky, almost like I was in the same situation as Alma was. I was secluded and working on this grand artistic project.”

In the film, Alma’s art swirls and turns, filling up the screen just like her drawings filled the pages. “I used a program called ‘after effects,’ where you can manipulate the drawings. It’s like a virtual camera that you can control to make camera moves and motions through the drawings themselves. I would construct movies out of the drawings and incorporate them into the cut.

“In most eastern cultures, the creative act is seen as a really inspiring, beautiful thing. It is revered and deemed as something important and mystical in most cultures. To me, I was really proud that this older woman had taken this risk and made these extraordinary artifacts. That’s why I wanted to validate them, give them respect and view them as being visionary and important.”

Funded in part by Vision TV, The Alma Drawings had its first broadcast on the station this January. Before that occurred, the documentary was chosen to be the inaugural film screened at the new Algonquin Theatre in Huntsville. Wendy Oke was pleased: “The place was jammed and the audience loved it as most of the local audience discovered an enchanting woman and story amongst their town.” For Jeremy Munce, the film “is my love story to Huntsville.”

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