An Artistic Pioneer:  Alma Rumball, Pioneer In Art And In Spiri
Article by Wendy Oke
Courtesy of Muskoka Magazine, April 2004


When one thinks of artwork that has been deemed by the Ontario Heritage Foundation to have heritage value, and the artist is from a Muskoka pioneering family, one might expect tranquil landscapes with water, rocks and trees.

Alma Rumball’s landscapes may be scenes depicting heaven or Atlantis; the figures are more like Tibetan deities than woodland pioneers. Alma is one of Muskoka’s most hidden treasures, and her artwork is born of an inner landscape, available to her as a recluse, living on the shores of Fairy Lake, in Huntsville.

When I first met Alma in 1972, I was about to marry her nephew, Colin Oke. She shared her incredible story of “the Hand” that drew and wrote by itself, separate from her consciousness. Alma told me I was to be the one “divinely inspired to take them to the world,” and I have spent the last 30 years attempting to understand and share her works and her story. Her family history can be traced back to early Muskoka settlers and her art, which has had recent showings around the globe, could be seen as pioneering work in its own right – perhaps in the realm of the spirit.

Alma’s paternal grandfather, Charles Rumball, immigrated to Canada from England in 1844. He married Catharine Sanders in 1863 at Port Talbot. They lived in Haysville and Petersville (London area) until they came to Muskoka in the early 1870s, with Sydney Smith, and settled on Mary Lake. In Alma’s own words, “He (Charles Rumball) was a man of many artistic gifts, being a first-class amateur actor, a rare narrator, a splendid pen and ink cartoonist, and an author of some local repute. These gifts are not much in demand in a pioneer community, and his lack of business ability caused loss of fortune.”

Catharine Rumball died in childbirth, as was often the fate of pioneering women. Charles remarried Florence Moody, who acted as stepmother to the many Rumball children, in addition to raising two of her own. She and two of the children died, sadly, of diphtheria in 1887.

Alma’s maternal grandfather was a Welshman, William Morgan, who pioneered in Muskoka with his wife, Matilda Wiles. Both the Morgans and the Rumballs knew Sydney Smith previously and he convinced the families to come to Port Sydney. William became an accomplished architect cabinet maker, wood carver and carpenter. He built and managed the first Port Sydney Hotel, which served as a resting place for travelers, when they changed from horse- drawn stage to steamer, on the way to Huntsville. It was eventually destroyed by fire.

The Morgans settled first in the village of Port Sydney, then moved to Newholm. They became the Rumballs’ closest neighbors there, since their lands were adjoined. >From his home in Newholm, William Morgan became the chief craftsman in construction of the Deerhurst Inn and Bayview Hotel in Huntsville, and the Trinity Anglican Church in Newholm. His work is featured in the Newholm church pulpit, a baptismal font displayed at the Chicago World Fair, and in the wood carving of All Saints Church Anglican, Huntsville. His design for the Eiffel Tower was among the top five designs chosen from around the world.

Reginald Rumball, Alma’s beloved father, was born in Petersville, which is now a part of the City of London, in 1865. When his father, Charles Rumball, began homesteading his 100 acres of virgin Crown forest in Brunel Township, he met the Morgan family’s daughter, Francis. Her mother, Matilda Morgan, frequently left food for the plague-stricken Rumball family.

Young Reg had to work to help provide for the family, so he took a job, at 16 years of age, as a cook in Robert Dollar’s logging camp, studying a cookbook by night to gain his first understanding of baking. He became an accomplished cook and maintained his skills throughout his life. Ultimately, he won the heart of Francis Ellen Morgan and they were married in 1897.

Their daughter Alma was born in 1902, at Newholm. She was one of five girls, including Gertie Rumball Scott, Edna Rumball Oke, Jessie Rumball Adamson and Gwen Rumball; there was also one brother, Roy. At the time of Alma’s birth, their father managed Britannia Lodge for T.J. White.

Reg and Francis Rumball started the first Rumball Dairy, later named the Huntsville Dairy, purchased by W. Horton and Son. They built a cobblestone house on the river at Dairy Lane. Their farm, in those days, covered property from the corners of highways 11 and 60, where Rogers Cove Retirement home now stands, to the Huntsville Memorial Cemetery. Verne Oke later built his home, with wife Edna, and two cottages for the maiden aunts, Alma and Gwen, on this land. It was known in the family as “the aunt hill.”

Okes’ Grocery store was located where the current Shopper’s Drug Mart sits, and the hospital was built on the opposite corner. Reg Rumball was a community-minded man and became reeve of Chaffey Township and a member of Unity Lodge.

Alma’s father wanted her to become a school teacher, so she attended Normal School (Teacher’s College) in North Bay, in 1923. She lasted only four years in the rural country schools in Huntsville, however, because she was suspected of having tuberculosis. She spent three months in a sanatorium but never did prove to have TB. When her father died, in 1941, she inherited the house on the river (on Dairy Lane), now owned by Dr. Michael and Judith Morison, and she lived there until 1948.

Alma had spent a lot of time drawing as a child, so she decided to go to Toronto, at this point in her life, and express her artistic talents. She worked in a ceramics factory, York China, and decorated vases for several years there. She returned to Huntsville in the early 1950s. Up until this time, she had led a relatively normal social life, by all accounts.
Something changed her life forever, though, and she was never the same again. She became a recluse, not venturing out except for family functions. She never married, nor had a family of her own, to distract her from what some call her “soul mission.” Around this time, she experienced a vision of Jesus, accompanied by a panther. As she recounted later, Jesus spoke to her and commanded her to draw and write, in order to help humanity.
She became clairvoyant and clairaudient, at about 50 years of age. She told me she saw other planes of existence and began to communicate with what she called a “genius” – a turbaned spiritual guide, named Aba. Socrates and other gifted visionaries speak of their genius, or “daemon,” which provided inspiration for their greatest works.

At the same time, her “Hand” began to choose crayons, pencils and colored inks as though with a will of its own. She watched as the Hand raced across multiple sheets of paper, leaving intricately detailed and beautiful images, unintended by her own mind. She responded to this phenomenon by saying: “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.”
In the early 1970s, Kalu Rinpoche, the spiritual advisor to the Dalai Lama, saw Alma Rumball’s drawings in Toronto. In a private audience, he identified and named seven of 20 depictions as Tibetan deities and gods, in proper positions and with appropriate mantels and headdresses.

Strange symbols, figures and characters, forming patterns like unknown languages, have captivated art experts for decades. Sometimes there are messages splashed across abstract or geometric drawings. “ALMA CAME TO EARTH AS JOAN OF ARC” was one. There are several armored females in the collection. Strangely, as well, hundreds of pages of writing lay out descriptions of Atlantis – complete with sketches – and warnings for humanity to follow God’s wishes or suffer the same fate as Atlantis. This unusual artist also drew scenes of heaven, holy ghosts and fruits of the Tree of Life, each with different healing capabilities.

Alma, however, was a childlike, simple, rural woman who never explored beyond her Christian teachings. She never claimed to understand the process of her artistic creations; she simply marveled at the gift she felt she’d received from God. Over the years, these drawings have been given names by others, who are able to identify the elements they contain, as the Tibetan spiritual advisor did in the 1970s.

Alma Rumball suffered a stroke in the early 1970s, but continued to allow the Hand to express itself. She died in 1980, never really understanding, yet accepting, her role in exploring the frontiers of the spiritual world through art.

The 30 subsequent years produced showings in Toronto – atop the CN Tower, at the Symposium for Humanity and at York University, custodians of many of Alma’s works. Their curator, Michael Greenwood, said he had not seen a more pure case of “psychic automatism” (a surrealist term, coined by Andre Breton) since William Blake.
Internationally acclaimed Chilean muralist Carmen Cereceda, assistant to Diego Rivera and housemate of Frida Kahlo, declares there is nothing quite so “purely of Spirit” seen anywhere in the world, to her extensive knowledge. She became the Oke family’s mentor and introduced them to both Toronto’s artistic community and its spiritual community, in the 1970s. Exhibits of Alma Rumball’s work are being planned in San Miguel, Mexico, where Carmen lives today.

Alma’s works have been shown in Canada, the United States, Mexico, England and Australia. There is almost always an intense reaction when viewers interact with her unusual artwork. Artists, spiritual teachers, cryptologists and healers have vast and varying commentaries on her artistic contribution to humanity. There are suggestions of energetic healing through meditative exchanges, for instance. As well, her works continue to be seen as pioneering in a world so few have explored, even today.
More Information:

Carmen Cereceda has been an integral mentor in the promotion of Alma Rumball’s automatic drawings. Carmen studied Fine Arts at the University of Chile, her country of origin. She later did research in mural painting at the National Polytechnical Institute of Mexico. Her special talent and care for mural art was further developed while living in Mexico and working as an assistant to Diego Rivera while living with the maestro and Frida Khalo. Carmen completed Modern Mural studies in Mexico, with Jose Gutierrez.   Her work is done in the tradition of the great masters of mural painting.

Carmen’s philosophy is art must make some political statement in order to have social import. She said the one exception to her rule was Alma Rumball.

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