The African American artist Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891 – 1978) was an unconventional artistic figure. Her career as a painter started out late. Alma first had a career as an art teacher, after which she 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 her independence. Even though her unconventional and innovative art style defies rigid classifications, her work is often associated with the Washington Color School. 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 USA. In the following, we will introduce Alma W. Thomas in more detail through 6 facts and 10 colorful abstract paintings.
1. Alma Thomas Started Her Career as An Artist In 1960
When Alma Thomas began to seriously dedicate herself to her own art in 1960, she was at the end of a 35-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.
One of these was Red Abstraction (1960). This work 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 that 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.
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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. Her Work is Often Associated with the Washington Color School
In the following years, Alma Thomas gained more and more recognition for her works in the art circles and among critics. Soon the artist was seen in a row with artists such as Morris Louis, Gene Davis, and others who since the 1950s had belonged to a movement called the Washington Color School. The movement responded to Abstract Expressionism by creating abstract works that emphasized the optical qualities of color. The group received its name after its members were active for some time through a 1965 exhibition titled The Washington Color Painters. Like other members of the group, Thomas was also interested in dealing with the power and effect of color.
Alma Thomas was associated with the movement, but her works display a unique style. She drew lines with a pencil before applying color. After she was done, she chose not to erase the pencil lines so they would stay visible. Inspired by nature, Alma Thomas developed 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).
3. She Was the First Fine Arts Graduate of Howard University
In 1924, Alma Thomas received a degree in fine arts, which made her the first graduate of the new art department at Howard University. Alma Thomas, born on September 22, 1891, grew up as the oldest of four daughters in a large Victorian house in Columbus, Georgia. Her mother was a seamstress and homemaker and her father worked in a church. The nature that surrounded the house is said to have made an impression on the later artist at an early age. The house of the family was located on a hill and Thomas used to observe the beautiful and colorful qualities of the surrounding nature. Nature was her most popular motif, as can be quickly seen from the titles of Thomas’ works such as Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses or Flash of Spring.
In 1907, when Thomas was just 15 or 16 years old, her family moved to Washington D.C. due to racial violence and Washington’s great public schools. Even though Washington was still segregated at the time, it offered better opportunities, like a better education for example. In Washington, Alma Thomas attended Armstrong High School. The art classes at the school seemed to have had a profound impact on her life. Thomas once said: “When I entered the art room, it was like entering heaven. . . . The Armstrong High School laid the foundation for my life.”
Unlike other African American artists in the 1960s, Thomas decided not to make explicitly political art. Yet she was by no means apolitical. An exception is a work called March on Washington (1963), in which Alma Thomas dealt with her participation in the historical event. However, the artist always paid great attention to color in her works. She said: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”
4. She Was Inspired By 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 done in the style typical of Alma Thomas. These are 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. A painting called Apollo 12 Splash Down (1970) references its landing in the Pacific Ocean.
5. Her Solo Exhibition at The Whitney Was Historic
With a retrospective in 1972, Thomas became the first African American woman artist with a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York City. This fact about the artist once again highlights her special place in art history. In one interview, Thomas talked about how African Americans could not visit museums when she lived in Columbus as a child. Years later, she was honored with a solo exhibition at the age of 81 in one of the most renowned museums in the world. She reflected on this change by saying: “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 Thomas never explicitly referred to feminism in her work, she was also made a figurehead of 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.
6. Alma Thomas’ Work Was Exhibited at the White House
Ex-President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama were apparently great fans of Alma Thomas. In 2015, her work Resurrection (1966) was exhibited in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House. It was the first artwork made by an African American woman that was displayed as part of the permanent collection in the public spaces of the White House. Three of the artist’s works made it into the White House during Obama’s term of office: Her piece Sky Light (1973), for example, was hung in the private quarters of the family.