The African-American artist Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891 – 1978) is an unconventional artist figure. Her career as a painter started late: only after a professional life as an art teacher, Alma Thomas devoted herself to her own art. In 1970, eight years before her death, the artist declared: “Creative art is for all time and it 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.”
The colorful abstract paintings on canvas and the artist’s watercolors also tell of this independence of which Alma Thomas spoke here. Her style in art was also unconventional and innovative for her creative period, especially for an African-American woman: initially expressionistic, her formal language became increasingly abstract. Today, the artist, who has spent most of her life in Washington D.C., is famous as an important pioneer of abstract art in the U.S.A. In the following, we will introduce Alma W. Thomas in more detail by means of 6 facts and 10 colorful abstract paintings.
1. Alma Thomas Started Painting In 1960
When Alma Thomas had begun to seriously dedicate herself to her own art in 1960, she was at the end of a 38-year career as an art teacher. The works that were created during this initial period still make it clear today that Alma Thomas had yet to find her own style at that time. From her kitchen in her home in Washington, D.C., she created very different works in these early years.
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One of these was Red Abstraction (1960). This is a painting in oil on canvas, which is captivating in its colorfulness, but by no means as radiant as Alma Thomas’ later works. The style is also much less rhythmic. A second work from Alma Thomas’ early artistic years is Watusi (1963), named after a Chubby Checker song. Connoisseurs of art history will immediately notice it: In this work, Thomas plays with a famous work by Henri Matisse, The Snail (1952 – 53). Alma Thomas has taken the forms from Matisse’s cut-out and brought them on canvas in a different arrangement and color.
Both paintings by Alma W. Thomas seen together, already reveal three important elements of the African-American artist’s style: her path to abstraction, a special colorfulness and the work with geometric forms.
2. Colorful Abstract Paintings At Washington Color Field School
In the following years, Alma Thomas gained more and more recognition for her art in artist circles and also among critics. Soon the artist was seen in a row with artists such as Morris Louis, Gene Davis and others who since the 1950s and had belonged to a movement called the Washington Color Field School. This was an artists’ movement consisting of Abstract Expressionists who were mainly concerned with color field painting. Like Louis or Davis, Alma Thomas was also interested in dealing with the power and effect of color.
In contrast to her colleagues, however, the artist refrained from masking color fields, for example, and instead structured her paintings visibly with a pencil. Gradually, Thomas developed this into a form of painting that is characterized by a free and colorful style and, with its mosaic-like appearance, is reminiscent of Byzantine and Pointillist art. One example of these colorful abstract paintings is the work Resurrection (1966) that Alma Thomas painted for her first exhibition at the Gallery of Art at Howard University in 1966 together with a series of different nature-inspired works that are known today as Earth Series.
3. References To Her Childhood In Columbus, Georgia
Alma Thomas, born September 22, 1891, grew up with her four younger siblings and her parents in a large Victorian house in Columbus, Georgia. The nature that surrounded the house is said to have made an impression on the later artist at an early age already. For hours, Alma Thomas is said to have enjoyed the colors of nature, the light, and the movement of the leaves through the wind at a young age.
When Thomas was just 15 years old, she moved with her family to Washington D.C. – also to escape the strong racism in her home country. As a reminder: in the U.S.A., segregation still applied at the beginning of the 20th century. As an Afro-American artist, Alma Thomas had to feel the consequences of racism throughout her life. As such, the nature of her homeland also remained an inspiration to her until her death in 1978. Nature was her most popular motif, as can be quickly seen from the titles of Thomas’ paintings.
Unlike other African-American artists in the 1960s, the abstract artist decided not to make explicitly political art. Yet she was by no means apolitical. An exception is the work March on Washington (1963), in which Alma Thomas dealt with her participation in the historical event. Basically, however, the artist dedicated herself to the motif of color in her works. She says: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”
4. Inspiration From The 1969 Moon Landing
There is a historical event that apparently had such a great influence on Thomas that she dedicated a whole series of paintings to the event. The series is called Space or Snoopy – the latter title is an allusion to the name of a vehicle that the astronauts used after landing on the moon.
The pictures in the series are works in the style typical of Alma Thomas: colorful pictures painted in mosaic technique with the motif of geometric forms. One of these is Blast Off (1970), an impressive, colorful work, which abstractly reproduces the force of the rocket launch. Or Apollo 12 Splash Down (1970) in reference to the landing of the astronauts on the moon.
5. The First Afro-American Woman With Solo-Exhibition At The Whitney
This fact about the artist once again highlights her special significance for art history. With a retrospective in 1972, Alma Thomas was the first African-American woman ever to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan, New York. The woman, who due to her skin color and background was not allowed to visit exhibitions and museums as a young girl, was honored with a solo exhibition at the age of 81 in one of the most renowned museums in the world. Alma Thomas herself made the event itself a symbol of the changing times by saying on the occasion of the vernissage at the Whitney Museum: “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.”
Although Alma Thomas never explicitly referred to feminism in her work, she was also made a figurehead for feminism in the 1970s. The artist Mary Beth Edelson integrated Thomas into her famous work Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper (1972) – a critical and polemical response to the Last Supper of Jesus Christ.
6. The Obamas Were Great Fans Of Alma Thomas
Ex-President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama were apparently great fans of Thomas and made the Abstract Expressionists the first female African-American whose art was on display as part of the permanent collection in the public spaces of the White House. Several works by Alma Thomas made it into the White House during Obama’s term of office: Watusi (Hard Edge), Resurrection and Sky Light.