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. She lived and worked primarily in Washington, D.C. and The Washington Post described her as a force in the Washington Color School. 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. 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 in her studio, ca. 1968
Alma Woodsey Thomas
September 22, 1891
Columbus, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||February 24, 1978 (aged 86)|
|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|
Alma Thomas was born on September 22, 1891 in Columbus, Georgia as the oldest of four children to John Harris Thomas, a businessman, and Amelia Cantey Thomas, a dress designer. In 1907, 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. Although still segregated, the nation's capital was known to offer more opportunities for African-Americans than most other cities. As a child, she displayed artistic interest, making puppets and sculptures at home. 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.
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 her professors, Loïs Mailou Jones and James V. Herring, she began to experiment with abstraction. She earned her Bachelors of Science in Fine Arts in 1924 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. That year, Thomas began teaching at Shaw Junior High School, where she taught until her retirement in 1960. She taught alongside Malkia Roberts. 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. 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.
"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
Alma Thomas' early work was representational in manner. Upon further education at Howard and training under James V. Herring and Lois Mailou Jones her work became more abstract. 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. 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. She worked out of the kitchen in her house, creating works like Watusi (Hard Edge) (1963), a manipulation of the Matisse cutout The Snail, in which Thomas shifted shapes around and changed the colors that Matisse used, and named it after a Chubby Checker song.
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." These paintings have been compared to Byzantine mosaics and the pointillist paintings of Georges-Pierre Seurat. 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. 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. 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. 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.
In 2009, two paintings, including Watusi (Hard Edge), by Alma Thomas were chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama, White House interior designer Michael Smith and White House curator William Allman, to be exhibited during the Obama presidency. 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. Sky Light, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, hung in the Obama family private quarters. In 2015, the Obamas hung Thomas's work Resurrection in the Old Family Dining Room. 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. 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." Thomas' papers were donated in several periods between 1979 and 2004 to the Archives of American Art by J. Maurice Thomas, Alma Thomas' sister.
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. This exhibition was curated by Ian Berry, Dayton Director of the Tang Museum and Lauren Haynes, Associate Curator, Permanent Collection at the Studio Museum and supported by the Friends of the Tang. 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.
- Watercolors by Alma Thomas, 1960, Dupont Theatre Art Gallery
- Alma Thomas: A Retrospective Exhibition (1959-1966), 1966, Howard University Gallery of Art
- Alma Thomas: Recent Paintings, 1968, Franz Bader Gallery
- Recent Paintings by Alma W. Thomas: Earth and Space Series (1961-1971), 1971, Carl Van Vechten Gallery, Fisk University
- Alma W. Thomas: Retrospective Exhibition, 1972, Gorcoran Gallery of Art
- Alma W. Thomas, 1972, Whitney Museum of American Art
- Alma W. Thomas: Paintings, 1973, Martha Jackson Gallery
- Alma W. Thomas: Recent Paintings, 1976, H.C. Taylor Art Gallery, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University
- A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, 1981, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
- Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings, 1998, Fort Wayne Museum of Art,Tampa Museum of Art, New Jersey State Museum, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and The Columbus Museum
- Alma Thomas: Phantasmagoria, Major Paintings from the 1970s, 2001, Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, and Women's Museum: An Institution for the Future
- A Proud Continuum: Eight Decades of Art at Howard University, 2005, Howard University
- Color Balance: Paintings by Felrath Hines and Alma Thomas, 2010, Nasher Museum of Art
- "Alma Thomas", 2016, The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, and The Studio Museum in Harlem
- Air View of a Spring Nursery, 1966; Columbus Museum
- Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968; Phillips Collection
- Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses, 1969; National Museum of Women in the Arts
- Evening Glow, 1972; Baltimore Museum of Art
- Red Roses Sonata, 1972; The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- March on Washington, 1964; Michael Rosenfeld Gallery
- Resurrection, 1968; White House Historical Association
- Watusi (Hard Edge), 1963; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Starry Night and the Astronauts, 1972; Art Institute of Chicago
- Hydrangeas Spring Song, 1976; Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Springtime in Washington, 1971; private collection
- 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.
- Dawson, Jessica (April 7, 2005). "An Alumni Reunion On the Hilltop". The Washington Post. pp. C05. Retrieved October 8, 2009.
- Alma Thomas Review The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2016
- "Alma Thomas", Smithsonian Institution, Retrieved online 17 October 2018.
- 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.
- 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.
- "Alma Woodsey Thomas | National Museum of Women in the Arts". nmwa.org. Retrieved 2019-03-02.
- "Alma Thomas papers, 1894–2000". Finding Aid. Archives of American Art. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
- Danielle,, Krysa,. 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.
- 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.
- "Alma Thomas's March on Washington …with 250,000 Others". Archives of American Art. August 9, 2013.
- Patton, 220.
- "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.
- Henkes, Robert (1993). The art of Black American women : works of twenty-four artists of the twentieth century. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland Publishing. ISBN 0899508189.
- 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.
- Bearden, Romare (1993). A History of African-American Artists. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 452. ISBN 9780394570167.
- Ian Berry, Lauren Haynes. (2016). Alma Thomas. Prestel. ISBN 3791355716.
- K Harrisburg, Halley (1966). African-American art : 20th century masterworks, III : [exhibition]. New York, NY: Michael Rosenfeld Gallery.
- Vogel, Carol (October 7, 2009). "A Bold and Modern White House". Art & Design. The New York Time. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
- "Rediscovery". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2016-09-23.
- "Alma Thomas is Given Pride of Place at the White House | Culture Type". Retrieved 2016-09-23.
- Robin Cembalest (2009). "Critics Nix Obamas' Pix Mix". Past Issues. ARTnews. Archived from the original on July 7, 2011. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
- "Alma Thomas". Tang Teaching Museum. Retrieved 2019-03-02.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- "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.
- "Past Exhibits - Alma Thomas". Studio Museum Harlem. Retrieved 11 March 2017.
- "Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers". American Art. Phillips Museum. Retrieved July 6, 2011.
- "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.
- "The Baltimore Museum of Art". collection.artbma.org. Retrieved 2016-02-13.
- "The Metropolitan Museum of Art". metmuseum.org/art/collection. Retrieved 2017-01-29.
- "Watusi (Hard Edge)", Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Retrieved online 17 October 2018.
- "Starry Night and the Astronauts", Art Institute of Chicago, Retrieved online 17 October 2018.
- "Hydrangeas Spring Song", Philadelphia Museum of Art, Retrieved online 17 October 2018.
- Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. Fort Wayne: Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998). ISBN 0-7649-0686-0
- Merry A. Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art (1981). OCLC 927776976
- Alma Thomas. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art (1972). OCLC 53302446
- Berry, Ian; Haynes, Lauren (2016). Alma Thomas. Prestel. ISBN 3791355716.
- Retrospective article from The New York Times
- Dobryzinski, Judith H. (2016). "'Alma Thomas' Review; Alma Thomas was an Underappreciated Artist Who Immersed Herself in a Lifetime of Learning and Beauty". ProQuest.
- Foresta, Merry A. A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978. Published for the National Museum of American Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.