Alma Pennell Gunter (pronounced "Gunther"), black folk artist and nurse, was born in Palestine, Texas, on June 11, 1909, the daughter of John H. and Flora Estell (Gardner) Pennell. She developed an interest in art early and had to teach herself, since no art classes were offered in the schools that she attended. Upon her graduation from Lincoln High School in 1927, her mother discouraged her pursuit of art. For the next eight years she worked as a domestic, seamstress, hairdresser, and dishwasher but continued to sketch her surroundings, committing to memory the images and scenes that appeared in later paintings. In 1936, after saving money from limited funds, she entered the school of nursing at Prairie View State College (now Prairie View A&M University). During her freshman year there she bought her first set of oil paints and an instruction booklet from Sears and Roebuck and taught herself to paint. She won first prize for two consecutive years in an art and poetry contest sponsored by the Dilettante Literary Society. After graduating with honors in 1939, she continued her studies at Jefferson Davis Hospital in Houston.
She married C. C. Gunter in 1941, and in 1942 they moved to Riverside, California, where Gunter had been stationed. The couple moved to San Francisco in 1945, following his discharge from the service. For the next twenty-three years Alma Gunter worked as a registered nurse and raised a stepdaughter. Career and family demands left little time for painting; during this time her efforts were limited to a few experimental watercolors, church posters, and several small portraits of her and her husband.
After her father's death in 1960 Mrs. Gunter turned to painting to assuage her grief. Other changes such as her daughter's marriage, her husband's death in 1964, and her own retirement left her more time to paint. Family responsibilities intervened in 1970, when her sister's death in a car accident prompted her to return to Palestine to care for her mother and nephew. In 1974 another death in the family prompted her to turn once again to painting for therapy. With her freedom limited by her mother's deteriorating health, she increasingly focused on her painting, experimented with new media, and sought inspiration in new books. Her absorption in painting increased following her mother's death in 1979.
Gunter's work focuses on happy scenes from her childhood in Palestine: her grandmother tells ghost stories to her and her three brothers in Ghost Teller, and children lie on their backs watching clouds in Cloud Watchers. She excelled at conveying familiar scenes with vivid details: in Preacher Man, for example, she painstakingly depicted the stained glass, the "Sunday best" clothes worn by the congregation, and a pitcher and glass next to the gesturing preacher. She used brilliant colors such as red, turquoise, blue, green, orange, and yellow in the foreground and background of a painting, a practice that tended to flatten the picture plane. Because of her lack of formal art education, she was usually called a "naive painter," but she was nevertheless very skilled in conveying the vitality of people and scenes. Later in life she refused to take lessons because she did not want to be influenced by others. She supplied written comments on each of her paintings. In addition to painting her childhood memories, Gunter also painted more ambitious "statement pieces," usually accompanied by pointed commentary. In The Have Nots, black children wander in awe through the neighborhood of the "haves." In Animals' Ark, people stand on the shore staring at an ark filled with animals; the commentary asks, "Would it not be justice in action if the `flood' were to recur, and the animals given charge of the ark; and the humans-trying desperately to get on board-found themselves excluded?"
In 1978 five of Gunter's paintings were selected for an art exhibition prepared in recognition of Negro History Week by the Negro Business and Professional Women's Club. Through this exhibition Gunter sold her first work, to the president of the bank where the exhibition was held. In the same year she entered the Palestine Art League's Dogwood Art Show and won third prize. In 1979 she won first place, and in 1980 she won "best of show" in several categories. In 1980 her work was exhibited at the Lufkin Historical and Creative Arts Center (now the Museum of East Texas), and in 1982 she had a solo exhibition at the George Washington Carver Museum in Austin. The inclusion of her painting Dinner on the Ground in the two-year touring exhibition Texas Women-A Celebration of History brought her statewide recognition.
Alma Gunter died on May 14, 1983. Since her death her work has been included in Handmade and Heartfelt: Contemporary Folk Art in Texas, a traveling exhibition organized by Texas Folklife Resources and Laguna Gloria Art Museum, and in exhibitions held in 1987 and 1988 at the Museum of African American Life and Culture in Dallas. Examples of her work are included in many private collections.
Biographical File, George Washington Carver Museum, Austin. Rudolph V. Pharis, Remembrance of Two Artists: The Stitchery of Ruby Yount and the Paintings of Alma Gunter (Lufkin, Texas: Lufkin Historical and Creative Arts Center, 1980). Rose Sharp, "Alma Pennell Gunter," Art Voices South, November-December 1980. Ruthe Winegarten, Finder's Guide to the`Texas Women: A Celebration of History' Exhibit Archives (Denton: Texas Woman's University Library, 1984).
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.