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 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 described her in 2016 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. Thomas believed that creativity should be independent of gender or race, creating works with a focus on accidental beauty and the abstraction of color.
Life and work
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. 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. Despite a growing interest in the arts, Thomas was "not allowed" to go into art museums as a child. She was given music lessons as well, and her mother played the violin. In school, she was known to excel at math, science, and architecture specifically interested her.
In 1907 when Thomas was 16, the family moved to the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., to escape racial violence in Georgia and to seek 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.
College education, teaching career, and graduate studies
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. This technique was avante-garde at the time, since abstract art had not yet become popular in the American mainstream. Thomas was active within the artistic community while at Howard, joining Lois Mailous Jones's artist community, "The Little Paris Group."
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. However, Thomas still planned on teaching until she retired, and in 1924, she began teaching at Shaw Junior High School, where she remained 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. She retired in 1960 from teaching and dedicated herself to painting.
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. 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), from 1950 to 1960. In 1958, she visited art centers in Western Europe on behalf of the Tler School of Art.
"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
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.
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. Thomas's post-retirement artwork had a notable focus on color theory. 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." She stated, "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."
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." 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. She also did not use masking tape to outline the shapes in her paintings.
Her first retrospective exhibit was in 1966 (April 24–May 17) at the Gallery of Art at Howard University, curated by art historian James A. Porter with 34 works from 1959 to 1966. For this exhibition, she created Earth Paintings, a series of nature inspired abstract works, including Resurrection (1966) bought in 2014 for the White House collection. 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.
For this exhibition, she had a supportive review in The Washington Post written by Helen Hoffman (May 4, 1966) titled "colorful abstract reflects her spirit".
Inspired by the moon landing in 1969, Alma Thomas began her second major theme of paintings. The series Space, Snoopy and Earth were applying pointillism. She evoked mood by dramatic contrast of color with mosaic style. Using dark blue to against the pale pink and orange color. Through the use of color, depicting an abstraction and accidental beauty. Mostly the art work in these series are having circular, horizontal and vertical patterns. All these patterns are able to generate a conceptual feeling of floating. The patterns also generated energy within the canvas. The contrast of color create a powerful color segregation, such visibility maintained visual energy.
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.
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. 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. The New York Times reviewed her exhibit four times, calling her paintings "expert abstractachiste in style, faultless in their handling of color." Throughout many white critics, she was complemented as “ the Signac of current color painters” and as “gifted, elbuillent abstractionist”. Alma Thomas's philosophy of her own art is that her works are full of energy. Those energy cannot be destroyed or created.
Mary Beth Edelson's Some Living American Women Artists / Last Supper (1972) appropriated Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, with the heads of notable women artists collaged over the heads of Christ and his apostles; Alma Thomas was among those notable women artists. This image, addressing the role of religious and art historical iconography in the subordination of women, became "one of the most iconic images of the feminist art movement."
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. Toward the end of her life, her style moved "to a color-filled, impastoed geometric abstraction of tessellated brushstroke patterns."
Thomas' style has qualities similar to West African paintings as well as Byzantine mosaics.
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. 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." 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).
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. 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."
Although Thomas did not receive a monograph until 1998 when the Fort Wayne Museum decided to exhibit a retrospective on the artist, 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, 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." 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. Thomas was accompanied by prominent members of the D.C. art community, James V. Herring and Alonzo J. Aden.. Kainen was quoted in the introduction of catalogue of Thomas retrospective in 1966 comparing her to "the Signac of current color painters".
In 2009, two paintings, including Watusi (Hard Edge), 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. 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."
In 2015, another of her paintings, Resurrection (1966), was prominently hung in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, having been acquired for the White House collection in 2014 with $290,000 in funding from the White House Historical Association. It was "the first artwork by an African-American woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House and enter the permanent collection."
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 in Harlem 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, Washington, D.C.
- Alma W. Thomas: Retrospective Exhibition, 1972, Whitney Museum of American Art
- Alma W. Thomas: Paintings, 1973, Martha Jackson Gallery
- Alma W. Thomas: Recent Paintings, 1975, Howard University Gallery of Art
- 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.
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