Open main menu

Alma Woodsey Thomas (September 22, 1891 – February 24, 1978) was an African-American Expressionist painter and art educator best known for her colorful abstract paintings.[1] She lived and worked primarily in Washington, D.C. and The Washington Post described her as a force in the Washington Color School.[2] The Wall Street Journal describes her as a previously "underappreciated artist" who is more recently recognized for her "exuberant" works, noteworthy for their pattern, rhythm and color.[3] Thomas remains an influence to young and old as she was a cornerstone for the Fine Arts at Howard University, started a successful art career later in her life, and took major strides during times of segregation as an African-American female artist.

Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas.jpg
Alma Thomas in her studio, ca. 1968
Born
Alma Woodsey Thomas

(1891-09-22)September 22, 1891
Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
DiedFebruary 24, 1978(1978-02-24) (aged 86)
Washington, D.C.
EducationHoward University
Columbia University
Known forPainting
Notable work
Sky Light; Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses; Watusi (Hard Edge); Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto; Air View of a Spring Nursery; Milky Way; Flowers at Jefferson Memorial; Untitled (Music Series); Red Rose Sonata; Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers; The Eclipse
MovementExpressionism
Realism

Contents

Personal lifeEdit

Alma Thomas was born on September 22, 1891 in Columbus, Georgia[4] as the oldest of four children to John Harris Thomas, a businessman,[5] and Amelia Cantey Thomas, a dress designer.[5] She was creative as a child, although her serious artistic career began much later in life. While growing up, Thomas displayed her artistic capabilities, and enjoyed making small pieces of artwork such as puppets, sculptures, and plates, mainly out of clay from the river behind her childhood home.[6] She was given music lessons as well, and her mother played the violin.[7] In school, she was known to excel at math, science, and architecture specifically interested her.[8]

In 1907 when Thomas was 16, the family moved to the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., relocating due to racial violence in Georgia and the benefits of the public school system of Washington.[9] Although still segregated, the nation's capital was known to offer more opportunities for African-Americans than most other cities.[10] As a child, she displayed artistic interest, making puppets and sculptures at home.[5] She expressed interest in being an architect, but the unusualness of women in that profession limited her.Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School, where she took her first art classes. After graduating from high school in 1911, she studied kindergarten education at Miner Normal School until 1913. She served as a substitute teacher in Washington until 1914 when she obtained a permanent teaching position on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Two years later, in 1916, she started teaching kindergarten at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, staying there until 1923.[11]

EducationEdit

 
Alma Thomas, Light Blue Nursery, 1968, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1970

Thomas entered Howard University in 1921, as a home economics student, only to switch to fine art after studying under art department founder James V. Herring. Encouraged by Herring and another professor and prolific artist, Loïs Mailou Jones, she began to experiment with abstraction.[10] This technique was avante-garde at the time, since abstract art had not yet become popular in the American mainstream.[12] Thomas was incredibly active within the artistic community while at Howard, joining Lois Mailous Jones's artist community, "The Little Paris Group."[13]

She earned her Bachelors of Science in Fine Arts in 1924[11] from Howard University; becoming the first graduate from the university Fine Arts program, and was also one of the first African American women to earn an art degree.[14][2] However, Thomas still planned on teaching until she retired,[15] and in 1924, she began teaching at Shaw Junior High School, where she remained until her retirement in 1960. She taught alongside Malkia Roberts.[16] While at Shaw Junior High, she started a community arts program that encouraged student appreciation of fine art. The program supported marionette performances and the distribution of student designed holiday cards which were given to soldiers at the Tuskegee Veterans Administration Medical Center. In 1934, she earned her Masters in Art Education from Columbia University and studied painting at American University under Jacob Kainen from 1950 to 1960. While teaching, Thomas was able to earn her Masters in Art Education from Columbia University in 1934, and this was achieved through consistent extracurricular work and visits to galleries and museums during her summers.[17] Thomas also enrolled in American University at the age of 59, where she studied Art History and painting under successful painter Jacob Kainen (along with Joe Summerford and Robert Gates[18]), from 1950 to 1960[19]. In 1958, she visited art centers in Western Europe on behalf of the Tler School of Art. She retired in 1960 from teaching and dedicated herself to painting. In 1963, she walked in the March on Washington with her friend Lillian Evans.[20]

 
Alma Thomas House in Washington, D.C. Where Alma lived until her death.

Alma Thomas died on February 24, 1978 still living in the same house that her family moved into upon their arrival in Washington in 1906.[9][11]

Artistic careerEdit

"Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged."
-Alma Thomas, 1970[21]

 
Alma Thomas, Red Abstraction, 1960, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist

Alma Thomas' early work was representational in manner.[21] Upon further education at Howard and training under James V. Herring and Lois Mailou Jones her work became more abstract.[22] Thomas would not be recognized as a professional artist until her retirement from teaching in 1960, when she enrolled in classes at American University. There she learned about the Color Field movement and theory from Ben L. Summerford and Jacob Kainen. She then became interested in the use of color and composition. Thomas' style has qualities similar to West African paintings as well as Byzantine mosaics.[23] Within twelve years after her first class at American, she began creating Color Field paintings, inspired by the work of the New York School and Abstract Expressionism.[21] She worked out of the kitchen in her house, creating works like Watusi (Hard Edge) (1963), a manipulation of the Matisse cutout The Snail,[24] in which Thomas shifted shapes around and changed the colors that Matisse used, and named it after a Chubby Checker song.[9] Thomas's post-retirement artwork had a notable focus on color theory.[25] Her work at the time resonated with that of Vasily Kandinsky (who was interested in the emotional capabilities of color) and of the Washington Color Field Painters, "something that endeared her to critics . . . but also raised questions about her 'blackness' at a time when younger African-American artists were producing works of racial protest."[26] Unlike these painters, however, Thomas's work was more individualistic, as it was inspired by her creative imagination.

"The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness in my painting rather than on man's inhumanity to man." –Alma Thomas[27]

[28]

Thomas's artistic style began as representation, then moved to an individualized abstract form, and towards the end of her life, "to a color-filled, impastoed geometric abstraction of tessellated brushstroke patterns"[26] Thomas was known to work in her home studio (a small living room), creating her paintings by "propping the canvas on her lap and balancing it against the sofa."[29] Her technique involved drawing faint pencil lines across the canvas to create shapes and patterns, and filling in the canvas with paint afterwards. Her pencil lines are obvious in many of her finished pieces, as Thomas did not erase them.[29] She also did not use masking tape to outline the shapes in her paintings[30].

Her watercolor and oil paintings incorporated the use of (sometimes overlapping) colorful rectangles. This technique was used later on, in her pieces which explored colors found in trees, flowers, gardens, and other natural imagery.[31] Her painting, 'Evening Glow,' was inspired in part by Thomas's interest in the colors of natural world: "The holly tree outside her living room intrigued Thomas with designs formed by its leaves against the window panes, and with patterns of light and shade cast on the floor and walls inside her home."[31] She called her paintings 'Alma's Stripes,' as the overlapping shapes of paint created elongated rectangles, and was later inspired by space exploration and the cosmos (as in her 1972 painting, 'Mars Dust,' whose title alluded to news stories of a dust storm on Mars at the time[32]).

 
Alma Thomas, Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac

Her first retrospective exhibit, was in 1966 at the Gallery of Art at Howard University, curated by art historian James A. Porter. For this exhibition, she created Earth Paintings, a series of nature inspired abstract works, including Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto (1973) which art historian Sharon Patton considers "one of the most Minimalist Color-Field paintings ever produced by an African-American artist."[21] These paintings have been compared to Byzantine mosaics and the pointillist paintings of Georges-Pierre Seurat.[22] Thomas and Delilah Pierce, a friend, would drive into the countryside where Thomas would seek inspiration, pulling ideas from the effects of light and atmosphere on rural environments. In 1972, at the age of 81, Thomas was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and within the same year an exhibition was also held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.[21][33] Thomas denied labels placed upon her as an artist and would not accept any barriers inhibiting her creative process and art career, including her identity as a black woman.[34] She believed that the most important thing was for her to continue to create her visions through her own artwork and work in the art world despite racial segregation.[35] Despite this, Thomas was still discriminated against as a black female artist and was critiqued for her abstract style as opposed to other Black Americans who worked with figuration and symbolism to fight oppression. Her works were featured alongside many other African-American artists in galleries and shows, such as the first Black-owned gallery in the District of Columbia.[34]

After her show at the Whitney, Thomas's fame within the fine arts community immediately skyrocketed. Her newfound recognition was somewhat due to Robert Doty's vocal support of her, as he organized Thomas's Whitney show as part of a series of African American Artist exhibitions, intended to protest their lack of representation.[36] Additionally, New York critics were impressed with Thomas's modern style, especially given the fact that she was nearly an 80-year-old woman at the time of her national debut.[36] The New York Times reviewed her exhibit four times, calling her paintings "expert abstractachiste in style, faultless in their handling of color."[37]

Thomas Hess bought one of Thomas's paintings titled 'Red Rose Sonata,' and his family's foundation ended up giving the piece to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.[38] Joshua Taylor also purchased some of her work, and wrote the following in a letter addressed to Thomas, thanking her for a painting: "It's like having Spring well before its appointed date."[39]


Although Thomas did not receive a monograph until 1998 when the Fort Wayne Museum decided to exhibit a retrospective on the artist,[40] her lack of national attention does not accurately represent her legacy and influence on the realm of Visual Arts. Jacob Kainen, her teacher at Howard University throughout the 1950s,[41] asserts that Thomas played a key role in the development of abstract painting throughout the mid 20th century. In the Fort Wayne Museum's retrospective on Thomas as an artist, Kainen remembers her as ". . . a small, slim woman whose elegance of dress and manner and unmistakable firmness of character made the matter of her size irrelevant."[41] Kainen met Alma in 1943, when she was the vice-president of Howard University's art department, at an event at the Barnett Arden Gallery in Washington, D.C.[41] Thomas was accompanied by prominent members of the D.C. art community, James V. Herring and Alonzo J. Aden.[41]

 
Thomas at opening in the Whitney Museum, 1972
 
Alma Thomas, Elysian Fields, 1973, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist

In 2009, two paintings, including Watusi (Hard Edge),[9] by Alma Thomas were chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama, White House interior designer Michael S. Smith (interior designer) and White House curator William Allman, to be exhibited during the Obama presidency.[42] Watusi (Hard Edge) was eventually removed from the White House due to concerns with the piece fitting into the space in Michelle Obama's East Wing office.[43] Sky Light, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, hung in the Obama family private quarters.[24] In 2015, the Obamas hung Thomas's work Resurrection in the Old Family Dining Room.[44][45] The painting is the first work by an African-American woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House as part of the permanent collection.[45] The choice of Thomas for the White House collection was described as an ideal symbol for the Obama administration by The New York Times art critic Holland Cotter. Cotter described Thomas' work as "forward-looking without being radical; post-racial but also race-conscious."[46] Thomas' papers were donated in several periods between 1979 and 2004 to the Archives of American Art by J. Maurice Thomas, Alma Thomas' sister.[11]

In 2016, Alma Thomas was organized by The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College and The Studio Museum in Harlem.[47] This exhibition was curated by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of the Tang Museum and Lauren Haynes, Associate Curator, Permanent Collection at the Studio Museum in Harlem and supported by the Friends of the Tang.[47] Thomas’s patterned compositions, energetic brushwork and commitment to color created a singular and innovative body of work. This exhibition is the first comprehensive look at the artist’s work in nearly twenty years and includes rarely exhibited watercolors and early experiments. This exhibition can be divided into four sections: Move to abstraction; Earth, Space, and Late Work, presenting a wide-range of evolution of Thomas's work from the late 1950s to her death in 1978.[47]

Notable exhibitionsEdit

Notable collectionsEdit

NotesEdit

  1. ^ Vogel, Carol (October 6, 2009). "A Bold and Modern White House". The New York Times. pp. A14. Archived from the original on June 16, 2013. Retrieved October 7, 2009.
  2. ^ a b c Dawson, Jessica (April 7, 2005). "An Alumni Reunion On the Hilltop". The Washington Post. pp. C05. Retrieved October 8, 2009.
  3. ^ Alma Thomas Review The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2016
  4. ^ "Alma Thomas", Smithsonian Institution, Retrieved online 17 October 2018.
  5. ^ a b c d Charles T. Butler (2004). "Alma Thomas (1891–1978)". Individual Artists. The New Georgia Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on June 6, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  6. ^ Cherry, Schroeder (1997). "Instructional Resources: Four Works by African-American Artists in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Collection". Art Education. 50 (2): 25–32. doi:10.2307/3193640. ISSN 0004-3125. JSTOR 3193640.
  7. ^ "Box 2, Folder 7 | A Finding Aid to the Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001 | Digitized Collection". www.aaa.si.edu. Retrieved May 2, 2019.
  8. ^ Simpson, Pamela H. (2000). "Review of Alma W. Thomas, a Retrospective of the Paintings, , , ; The Art of Joan Brown". Woman's Art Journal. 21 (1): 55–56. doi:10.2307/1358876. ISSN 0270-7993. JSTOR 1358876.
  9. ^ a b c d Holland Cotter (October 11, 2009). "White House Art: Colors From a World of Black and White". The New York Times. Critic's Notebook. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  10. ^ a b "Alma Woodsey Thomas | National Museum of Women in the Arts". nmwa.org. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  11. ^ a b c d "Alma Thomas papers, 1894–2000". Finding Aid. Archives of American Art. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  12. ^ Thomas, Alma; Art, Fort Wayne Museum of (1998). Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. Pomegranate. ISBN 9780764906862.
  13. ^ Simpson, Pamela H.; Kainen, Jacob; Gibson, Ann; Binstock, Jonathan P.; Tsujimoto, Karen; Baas, Jacquelynn (2000). "Alma W. Thomas, A Retrospective of the Paintings". Woman's Art Journal. 21 (1): 55–56. doi:10.2307/1358876. JSTOR 1358876.
  14. ^ Danielle, Krysa (October 2, 2018). A big important art book (now with women) : profiles of unstoppable female artists--and projects to help you become one (First ed.). Philadelphia. ISBN 9780762463794. OCLC 1023484688.
  15. ^ "Box 2, Folder 7 | A Finding Aid to the Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001 | Digitized Collection". www.aaa.si.edu. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  16. ^ Alma Thomas; Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998). Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. Pomegranate. pp. 43–. ISBN 978-0-7649-0686-2.
  17. ^ Cherry, Schroeder (1997). "Instructional Resources: Four Works by African-American Artists in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Collection". Art Education. 50 (2): 25–32. doi:10.2307/3193640. ISSN 0004-3125. JSTOR 3193640.
  18. ^ "Alma Thomas". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Retrieved May 2, 2019.
  19. ^ Thomas, Alma; Art, Fort Wayne Museum of (1998). Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. Pomegranate. ISBN 9780764906862.
  20. ^ "Alma Thomas's March on Washington …with 250,000 Others". Archives of American Art. August 9, 2013.
  21. ^ a b c d e Patton, 220.
  22. ^ a b "Alma Woodsey Thomas". Artist Profile. National Museum of Women in the Arts. 2011. Archived from the original on June 24, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  23. ^ Henkes, Robert (1993). The art of Black American women : works of twenty-four artists of the twentieth century. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland Publishing. ISBN 978-0899508184.
  24. ^ a b Blake Gopnik (November 5, 2009). "Alma Thomas's "Watusi (Hard Edge)" Won't Hang in White House". Washington Post. Arts & Living. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  25. ^ Cherry, Schroeder (1997). "Instructional Resources: Four Works by African-American Artists in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Collection". Art Education. 50 (2): 25–32. doi:10.2307/3193640. ISSN 0004-3125. JSTOR 3193640.
  26. ^ a b "Reviewed Works: Alma W. Thomas, a Retrospective of the Paintings". Woman's Art Journal. 21 (1): 55–56. 2000. doi:10.2307/1358116. ISSN 0270-7993. JSTOR 1358116.
  27. ^ "Box 2, Folder 7 | A Finding Aid to the Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001 | Digitized Collection". www.aaa.si.edu. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  28. ^ "Reviewed Works: Alma W. Thomas, a Retrospective of the Paintings". Woman's Art Journal. 21 (1): 55–56. 2000. doi:10.2307/1358116. ISSN 0270-7993. JSTOR 1358116.
  29. ^ a b Cherry, Schroeder (1997). "Instructional Resources: Four Works by African-American Artists in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Collection". Art Education. 50 (2): 25–32. doi:10.2307/3193640. ISSN 0004-3125. JSTOR 3193640.
  30. ^ "Box 2, Folder 7 | A Finding Aid to the Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001 | Digitized Collection". www.aaa.si.edu. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  31. ^ a b Cherry, Schroeder (1997). "Instructional Resources: Four Works by African-American Artists in the Baltimore Museum of Art's Collection". Art Education. 50 (2): 25–32. doi:10.2307/3193640. ISSN 0004-3125. JSTOR 3193640.
  32. ^ "Box 2, Folder 7 | A Finding Aid to the Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001 | Digitized Collection". www.aaa.si.edu. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  33. ^ Bearden, Romare (1993). A History of African-American Artists. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 452. ISBN 9780394570167.
  34. ^ a b Ian Berry, Lauren Haynes. (2016). Alma Thomas. Prestel. ISBN 978-3791355719.
  35. ^ K Harrisburg, Halley (1966). African-American art : 20th century masterworks, III : [exhibition]. New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.
  36. ^ a b "Reviewed Works: Alma W. Thomas, a Retrospective of the Paintings". Woman's Art Journal. 21 (1): 55–56. 2000. doi:10.2307/1358116. ISSN 0270-7993. JSTOR 1358116.
  37. ^ Mellow, James R. (April 29, 1972). "Expert Abstractions by Alma Thomas". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved April 29, 2019.
  38. ^ Simpson, Pamela H.; Kainen, Jacob; Gibson, Ann; Binstock, Jonathan P.; Tsujimoto, Karen; Baas, Jacquelynn (2000). "Alma W. Thomas, A Retrospective of the Paintings". Woman's Art Journal. 21 (1): 55–56. doi:10.2307/1358876. JSTOR 1358876.
  39. ^ "Joshua Taylor letter to Alma Thomas, 1975 March 3, from the Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001". www.aaa.si.edu. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  40. ^ "Reviewed Works: Alma W. Thomas, a Retrospective of the Paintings". Woman's Art Journal. 21 (1): 55–56. 2000. doi:10.2307/1358116. ISSN 0270-7993. JSTOR 1358116.
  41. ^ a b c d Thomas, Alma; Art, Fort Wayne Museum of (1998). Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. Pomegranate. ISBN 9780764906862.
  42. ^ Vogel, Carol (October 7, 2009). "A Bold and Modern White House". Art & Design. The New York Time. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  43. ^ "Alma Thomas' "Watusi" Gets the White House Kibosh". November 5, 2009.
  44. ^ "Rediscovery". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved September 23, 2016.
  45. ^ a b "Alma Thomas is Given Pride of Place at the White House | Culture Type". Retrieved September 23, 2016.
  46. ^ Robin Cembalest (2009). "Critics Nix Obamas' Pix Mix". Past Issues. ARTnews. Archived from the original on July 7, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  47. ^ a b c "Alma Thomas". Tang Teaching Museum. Retrieved March 2, 2019.
  48. ^ a b c d Alma Thomas. Prestel: The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, and DelMonico Books. 2016. p. 206. ISBN 9783791355719.
  49. ^ Alma Thomas. Prestel: The Studio Museum in Harlem, The France Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, and DelMonico Books. 2016. p. 206. ISBN 9783791355719.
  50. ^ a b c d e f g Alma Thomas. Prestel: The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, and DelMonico Books. 2016. p. 206. ISBN 9783791355719.
  51. ^ "Color Balance: Paintings by Felrath Hines and Alma Thomas". Exhibitions. Nasher Museum of Art. 2011. Archived from the original on September 28, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  52. ^ "Past Exhibits - Alma Thomas". Studio Museum Harlem. Retrieved March 11, 2017.
  53. ^ "Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers". American Art. Phillips Museum. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
  54. ^ "Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses". Permanent Collection. National Museum of Women in the Arts. 2011. Archived from the original on June 24, 2011. Retrieved January 10, 2017.
  55. ^ "The Baltimore Museum of Art". collection.artbma.org. Retrieved February 13, 2016.
  56. ^ "The Metropolitan Museum of Art". metmuseum.org/art/collection. Retrieved January 29, 2017.
  57. ^ "Watusi (Hard Edge)", Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Retrieved online 17 October 2018.
  58. ^ "Starry Night and the Astronauts", Art Institute of Chicago, Retrieved online 17 October 2018.
  59. ^ "Hydrangeas Spring Song", Philadelphia Museum of Art, Retrieved online 17 October 2018.

ReferencesEdit

  • Patton, Sharon F. African-American Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1998). ISBN 978-01-92842-13-8
  • "Alma Thomas papers, 1894-2000". Finding Aid. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit