Thomas, Alma 1891–1978

views updated May 29 2018

Alma Thomas 18911978


The Student/Teacher

First at Howard University

Barnett-Aden Gallery

First at the Whitney


Alma Thomas was a painter who viewed nature as a colorful, abstract mosaic. Through her eyes, leaves fluttering outside her window became a swirling dance of autumn hues, an eclipse would be a kaleidoscope of luminous tones, and a flower garden exploded into brilliant fireworks. Color is life, Thomas was quoted as saying in Women Artists in Washington Collections. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors. As an artist who began her serious painting at the age of 70 and had her first major exhibition at age 80, Thomass work reflected a lifetime in art. Though she was an art teacher for 35 years, Thomas also studied and assimilated the styles of artists she admired, merging them with her own profoundly independent vision.

Alma Woodsey Thomas was born September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia. The oldest of four daughters, Thomas lived with her family in a Victorian house surrounded by trees and flowerbeds. Perched above the town, Thomas would catch her first glimpses of the vibrant color contrasts and juxtapositions vital to her later work. Thomass childhood was also instilled with the importance of education. Although her hometown prohibited black people in public libraries, Thomass aunts were schoolteachers who often brought professors and traveling lecturers to the Thomas home, including Booker T. Washington.

With the desire for a better education for his daughters and concern over the 1906 race riots in nearby Atlanta, John Thomas moved his family to Washington, DC, in 1907. Thomas often recounted the story of her family about to cross the Potomac River: her parents suggested that Thomas and her sisters remove their shoes to knock off every last bit of the Georgia sand so they could begin their new life. In Washington the Thomass bought a small brick house on a tree-lined avenue where the artist and her youngest sister, John Maurice--named for their father--would live most of their lives. Soon after, the family encircled their house, like the one in Columbus, with trees and gardens.

The Student/Teacher

Shortly after the move to Washington, Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School where she excelled in math and science as well as demonstrating a strong talent in architecture. She designed a modern school-house that the Smithsonian Institution exhibited in 1912 when Thomas was just 20 years old. Although she considered becoming an architect, art captured her imagination more thoroughly. By the time she graduated, she had taken every class the school offered on the subject. When I entered the art room, she told Eleanor Munro, author of Originals: American Women Artists, it was like entering heaven. Becoming an artist, though, seemed like an unattainable aspiration. When I was a little girl in Columbus, she told David L. Shirey of the New York Times, one of the things we couldn t

At a Glance

Born Alma Woodsey Thomas, September 22, 1891, in Columbus, GA; died February 24, 1978, in Washington, DC, after undergoing surgery; daughter of John Harris (a businessman and church worker) and Amelia Cantey Thomas (homemaker and seamstress). Education : Miners Teachers Normal School, teachers certificate, 1913; Howard University, B.S. in fine arts, 1924; Columbia University Teachers College, M.A. in art education, 1934; painting classes at American University, 1950-1960.

Painter, educator. Took courses in art, architecture, and mechanical drawing at Armstrong Technical High School, 1907-1911; taught kindergarten age children at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, 1915-1921; became Howard Universitys first fine arts student, 1921, and first fine arts graduate, 1924; began teaching fine arts at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, DC, 1925; attended Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, summers 1930-1933; studied marionettes with Tony Sarg, 1935; initiated School Arts League Project in Washington, DC, 1936; helped found and was first vice president of Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, DC, 1943; joined the Little Paris group of artists, 1946; studied painting at American University, 1950-1960; retired from teaching, 1960; Alma W. Thomas, A Retrospective Exhibition held at Howard University, 1966; first woman to have solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, 1972; Alma W. Thomas Retrospective Exhibition held at Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, 1972; Mayor Walter Washington declared September 9, 1972, Alma Thomas Day in Washington, DC; invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter, 1977.

Awards : Honor Roll of Distinguished Women from National Association of Colored Womens clubs, 1962; Two Thousand Women of Achievement award, 1972; International Womens Year award for outstanding contributions to women and art.

do was go into museums let alone think of hanging one of our pictures there.

Thomas decided to pursue a career in teaching. She began studying kindergarten teaching at Miner Teachers Normal School. After graduating, she moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where she taught arts and crafts for six years at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House. While there, she experienced the joy of teaching and encouraging creativity in young people. Personally, she continued with such creative endeavors as staging carnivals, circuses, and puppet shows. She allowed her students to paint the sets and to design and make all the costumes. To that end, Thomas began attending Howard University in Washington, DC, in 1921 to study costume design. She also moved back into the family home where she would live until her death.

First at Howard University

During her first year at Howard, Thomas met Professor James Herring who was struggling to create a fine arts department at the school. Herring persuaded Thomas to abandon the idea of costume design and to enroll as the first student in his new curriculum. Herring would be a lifelong friend and mentor to Thomas offering support and encouragement as well as bridging her innate creative talents with historical artistic perspective. He gave her access to his private art library which Thomas combed voraciously, thus initiating a study of formal art history and disciplines.

Initially drawn to sculpture, Thomas first painted rudimentary still-life pieces that served as a springboard for later, more adventurous works. While not disappointing to Thomas and her mentor, these early paintings did not meet the high artistic standards the two shared. Thomas was the first graduate of Herrings art department at Howard, however, and the departments only graduate of 1924.

With her bachelors degree in fine arts, Thomas became an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Washington. Though Professor Herring encouraged her to paint full time, Thomas found the rewards of teaching too great to ignore. She painted part time, however, and teaching allowed her to learn more about communication through art. I devoted my life to the children, she told Munro. And I think they loved me, at least those did who cared about art. Again, as in Delaware, Thomas used the classroom as creatively as a brush and canvas, designing and staging marionette plays with the students, offering classes in clay modeling, inviting artists and professors to lecture, and organizing clubs and activities.

In 1930 Thomas began spending her summers in New York City working toward a masters degree in art education at Columbia University. She utilized her skills in costume design, sculpture, and painting to focus her studies on marionette plays. She graduated in 1934. The following year she returned to New York to study with Tony Sarg, the world-renowned marionette maker and puppeteer. Her time in New York also offered the opportunity to visit the citys large museums. Additionally, she acquainted herself with the work of more avantgarde painters at galleries around the city such as Alfred Stieglitzs An American Place. Her knowledge of both the masters and modern artists provided a deep and wide range of influences yet, while she enthused about the new expressionist works she had seen, her own painting retained tradition and historical form.

Barnett-Aden Gallery

In 1943 Herring and Alonzo Aden, an art curator, asked Thomas to help them establish the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington. Thomas joined the venture as vice president. In this capacity, she maintained responsibility for fund-raising and cooperated with Aden and Herring in the selection of featured artists. Through her new duties, Thomas met and became acquainted with a number of well-known artists, curators, gallery owners, and critics. She also studied diligently the vast amounts of artwork on display and digested the knowledge available in the constant discussions about art and the art world. Much of what she learned encompassed the transition from the symbolic naturalism prominent in the 1930s and early 1940s to the new Abstract Expressionism. Furthermore, since the gallery customarily featured talented artists regardless of race or sex, it was the first private gallery in Washington to exhibit modern American art as well as the works of relatively unknown black artists.

Two things prompted Thomas to move toward a more abstract style of painting. First was her involvement with the Little Paris group formed by Lois Mailou Jones and Celine Tabary in 1946. A group of primarily black school teachers and civil employees, they sketched, painted, and encouraged each other. Following that, in 1950 she began a ten-year period attending graduate painting classes at night and on weekends at American University with such instructors as Robert Gates and Joe Summerford. Summerford based his work on the idea that paintings should be constructed out of paint--meaning, the balance between color and form--rather than a realistic depiction. Naturally, many students at American University, including Thomas, followed this directive and began to introduce abstract ideas into their representational work. As she told Munro, I was doing representational painting. But I wasn t happy with that, ever. I watched other people painting abstractly, and I just kept thinking about it, turning it over and over in my mind.

In 1957 Thomas studied with expressionist painter Jacob Kainen at American University. Kainen, who maintained that he thought of her as an artist--not as a student--introduced her to members of the Washington Color Field group. Although artistic similarities existed with other members such as Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, and Morris Louis, the groups influence on her work was limited to the use of color. The Color Field painters used staining techniques and masking tape in order to give their work a hard edge. Thomas, however, spoke proudly of her pencil-drawn rectangles and wedges which she then colored individually. Despite the differences in styles, Thomass work sometimes is lumped into the Color Field group.

In 1960 Thomas completed her studies at American University and also retired from Shaw Junior High School after 35 years of teaching in the same classroom. At nearly 70 years of age, she concentrated on serious painting until a severe arthritis attack in 1964. I thought, This is the end, she told Munro. I ll never be able to move my arms again, or walk. Shortly thereafter, Howard University offered Thomas a retrospective showing of her paintings in recognition of her achievements. Thomas restored her health and creativity, even making new works. I decided to try to paint something different from anything I d ever done, she told Munro. Different from anything I d ever seen. I thought to myself, That must be accomplished. With the holly tree outside her living room window as inspiration, Thomas created a style that would be her signature: small, rectangular shapes of bright, intense colors merged together in curves, and circles.

First at the Whitney

A series of acclaimed solo shows at other galleries as well as participation in group exhibits of African American artists--though she would be the first to tell you she was not a black artist--followed the exhibition at Howard. In 1972, at the age of 80, Thomas had what she called her banner year, beginning with New Yorks Whitney Museum of American Arts first ever solo exhibition by a black woman. Later that year Corcoran Gallery held a larger exhibition, including Alma Thomas Day on September 9, 1972, in Washington, DC. Both these exhibitions featured the best paintings from her characteristic Earth Paintings and Space Paintings series, paintings inspired solely from nature, she told Shirey. With names like A Joyful Scene of Spring, Almas Flower Garden, and Azaleas Spring Display, the earth canvases depict flower beds and nurseries as if seen from a plane. The space series, inspired from the heavens and stars and my idea of what it is like to be an astronaut, exploring space, featured Launch Pad, The Eclipse, and two paintings whose titles use the moon astronauts nickname for their wheeled vehicle, Snoopy-Early Sun Display on Earth and Snoopy Sees a Sunrise. Reviewer Peter Schjeldahl of the New York Times said of the Whitney show, She is a gifted, ebullient abstractionist . . . [whose] best pictures are loose, gridlike arrangements of more or less uniform vertical brushstrokes, sumptuous and strongly rhythmic in color and full of light. Such praise was typical of the positive assessments from most critics.

Though her chronic arthritis made working increasingly difficult, Thomas continued to paint, albeit with a softer mosaic touch, and exhibited her canvases through the mid-1970s. An artist who had always painted in her kitchen or small living room, Thomas often worked with one end of the frame in her lap while the rest of it balanced against a sofa or her leg. Turning the canvas to paint the unreachable areas became more difficult after recovering from a broken hip in 1974. A History of African American Artists quoted Thomas as asking rhetorically, Do you have any idea of what its like to be caged in a 78 year-old body and to have the mind and energy of a 25 year-old? If I could only turn the clock back 60 years I d show them. I ll show them anyway. In 1977 shortly after President Jimmy Carter invited Thomas to the White House to honor her, a physician suggested that she submit to surgery to rectify an aneurism in her aorta. Preparing for an exhibition at the Franz Bader Gallery, she put off the surgery until the following year. She died on the operating table February 24, 1978.

I ve never bothered painting the ugly things in life, she told Munro. People struggling, having difficulty . No. I wanted something beautiful that you could sit down and look at. Alma Thomas was an uncompromising artist whose independent vision and unwavering integrity allowed little time for anything else. Having never married, she asked Shirey, What man would have ever appreciated what I was up to? It was the right choice, she said, to remain free, to paint whenever she wanted without interference. For Thomas, color was life, and life was art. She told Munro: People come to me and say, Tell me how to paint. I say, I can t. It comes from inside you. You have to expose yourself. Nobody taught me how to paint. I had to do it myself.



Bearden, Romare and Harry Henderson, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, Pantheon Books, 1993.

Clark, Marjorie, Women Artists in Washington Collections, University of Maryland Art Gallery and Womens Caucus for Art, 1979.

Foresta, Merry A., A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.

Munro, Eleanor, Originals: American Women Artists, Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Perry, Regenia A., Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art, Pomegranate, 1992.

Rosen, Randy and Catherine C. Brawer, Making Their Mark: Women Artists Move into the Mainstream, 1970-85, Abbeville Press, 1989.

Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer, American Women Artists, Avon Books, 1982.


Ms., February 1979, p. 59.

New York Times, May 4, 1972, p. C52; May 14, 1972, p. D23; October 20, 1973, p. L19; February 25, 1978, p. C24.

Washington Post, September 9, 1972, p. C1.

Brian Escamilla

Alma Woodsey Thomas

views updated May 29 2018

Alma Woodsey Thomas

Abstract painter Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) devoted her life to the youth of Washington and other local communities, both as a teacher and as an organizer of cultural events. In 1924 she became the first graduate of Howard University's School of Fine Arts. She possessed a natural sense of genius for color and form and upon retiring from teaching at age 68 embarked on a successful career as a professional artist.

Born Alma Woodsey Thomas on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia, she was the eldest of four daughters of John Maurice Harris, a teacher, and Amelia (Cantey) Thomas. Highly cultured and socially involved, the Thomas family owned a large Victorian home on 21st Street in Columbus's Rose Hill district, where Thomas was born and lived until the age of 15. As children, Thomas and her sisters enjoyed memorable visits to the home of their maternal grandparents, on a plantation near Fort Mitchell, Alabama. In her youth, she displayed a fondness for nature and the outdoors and enjoyed molding teacups and other pottery from the plentiful red Georgia clay.

The Thomas family remained in Georgia until the idyllic pace of life was disturbed by a period of racially motivated rioting in the fall of 1906. Unnerved by the violence, Thomas's parents took the family to Washington, D.C., arriving on July 31, 1907, after traveling by train from Georgia. They set up housekeeping at a new residence at 1530 15th Street NW, where Thomas was to live most of her life for the next 71 years, until her death in 1978.

Washington, like many of the southern United States, remained segregated in the early 1900s. Regardless, the Thomases anticipated better educational opportunities for their four children and greater cultural exposure for the family as a whole. Opportunities for employment were more plentiful too, for John Thomas as well as for his wife, who as a dress designer catered in her craft to the affluent women of Washington.

Talented in math and possessing an artistic bent, Thomas attended Armstrong Manual Training High School from 1907 to 1911, where she excelled in architectural drawing. For two years after high school she specialized in early child development at Miner Normal School, obtaining a teaching certificate in 1913. She took her first teaching job with the Princess Anne, Maryland, school district.

Two years later, in 1915 Thomas moved to Wilmington, Delaware, to the Thomas Garrett Settlement House. There she lived and worked at the community-operated school for resident children, teaching arts and crafts. She also devoted her time to making costumes for various school productions and to community arts productions.

Art Educator

In 1921 Thomas entered Howard University, initially contemplating a career in costume design. With that goal in mind she enrolled in a home economics program but changed paths by the end of her first semester, enrolling instead in the school's newly launched fine arts program at the urging of professor James V. Herring who recognized her talent and became her mentor.

Thomas's artwork during her years at Howard was founded almost exclusively in realism. In addition to many costume sketches and designs, she painted with oils and sculpted in ceramics. Also among her many three-dimensional works is the plaster "Bust of a Young Girl," completed around 1923, which is believed to be constructed in the image of her youngest sister, Fannie Cantey Thomas, then deceased. Among Thomas's most recognized works as a student is a still life done in oils in 1923. It is an untitled study depicting a vase with flowers; the bust of a woman appears to the right of the vase, in front of a draped background. Some experts believe that Thomas personally endowed the bust with the specific features and head covering that impart its distinctively African appearance and that the original model did not appear that way.

Thomas received a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1924, becoming the first ever to graduate from the Howard program. She moved briefly to Pennsylvania to teach at the Cheyney Training School for Teachers, returning to Washington after one term, to join the teaching staff at Shaw Junior High School. On February 2, 1925, she began teaching at Shaw, and in the process opened the door to a 35-year career at that school.

At Shaw, Thomas immersed herself totally in her life choices both as an educator and artist. She spent her summers in New York, at Teacher's College, Columbia University, where in 1934 she received a master's degree in fine arts education. In 1935 she summered in New York City as a student of England's premiere marionette maker, Tony Sarg. Thereafter she worked in collaboration with a Washington-based painter, Lois Mailou Jones, creating colorful string-operated puppets together. With Thomas contributing the design and fashioning the pieces of the puppets from balsa wood, Jones gave the toys a personality, using watercolors to paint faces on the wooden heads. Together the women created entire puppet troupes and sponsored performances at local venues such as the Phillis Wheatley Young Women's Christian Association and Howard University's Gallery of Art. Thomas produced popular children's classics—such as Alice in Wonderland —as puppet shows and wrote assorted scripts of her own. The need for these cultural events was especially acute because it came at a time in U.S. history when African American children were denied access to similar programs at the National Theater.

In 1936 she organized the Washington School Arts League. This program, also geared toward children of African American descent, was devised to sponsor and encourage tours, lectures, and other presentations at cultural venues such as museums and colleges. In 1938 she conceived of a program to create art galleries within the Washington schools. Beginning with a temporary exhibit at Shaw, she borrowed selected art works from the Howard Gallery and expanded the program from that starting point.

Community Arts Patron

Thomas with her cultural influence made deep inroads into the Washington community, extending well beyond the youth programs with which she is most frequently associated. In 1943 she contributed to the efforts of two Howard professors, Herring and Alonzo J. Aden, to found the Barnett Aden Gallery at their residence at 126 Randolph Street NW. The gallery quickly found its niche in the Washington cultural scene and became a popular gathering place for local society. Barnett Aden attracted patrons from diverse social, political, and artistic backgrounds within the national capital. Near the end of the decade, Jones and Céline Tabary opened a more casual space, called "The Little Paris Studio," at Jones's 1220 Quincy Street NE residence. There, too, Thomas could be found frequently, not only with her students, but also relaxing in private.

As the Washington artistic community experienced major growth throughout the 1940s, Thomas in 1950, at age 59, enrolled at American University to continue her education and expand her study of art. A subsequent metamorphosis from full-time educator to full-time artist ensued. Her works from this early period are characterized as somber and heavy, both in color and mood. Blues and browns predominate, with rough, dense shapes. Among her many oils on canvas, she painted "Grandfather's House" in 1952, evoking the natural serenity of the Cantey homestead in Alabama. The complacent emotion of the plantation is represented predominantly in blues with heavy brown trees and foliage. The painting hangs at the Columbus Museum in Georgia.

The artist's evolution toward color and abstraction can be traced through the progression of her impressionist still life paintings. "Joe Summerford's Still Life Study," also dated 1952, is heavy with detail; dark shadows and olive tones are used freely. Her migration toward abstraction is foreshadowed only in the reflective surfaces such as the face of a clock and the glassy bulb of an empty vase. The objects appear on a table of brown wood, and the exposed background wall is brown also and significantly darker.

"Still Life with Chrysanthemums," from 1954, retains a sense of realism in the foreground objects while fading to abstraction with allusions to sun and foliage in the backdrop. By 1958, with "Blue and Brown Still Life," Thomas's reality fades into coherent blocks of color, while allowing for specific images such as the cat tossing yarn and the appearance of vessels in the background. The environment overall is noncommittal, in shades of browns and blues.

Emergence of Color and Abstraction

After spending the summer in Europe in 1958, Thomas's work underwent a gradual migration toward vivid color as she abandoned the use of oils, deferring to water-color. The browns were colorfully split apart to reveal the reds and yellows as seen in "City Lights" and "Yellow and Blue," both from 1959. Increasing levels of activity in the paintings are depicted by black brush strokes in the foreground, as reds emerge and sometimes overpower the backgrounds. This style is seen prominently in "Macy's Parade" and "Untitled Study" in red and green, both from 1960. Having retired on January 31 of that year, Thomas held a solo exhibition at Washington's Dupont Theatre Art Gallery from September through December. By 1961 her move toward abstraction and geometric form was all but complete with "Blue Abstraction."

Yet the total abandonment of impressionism was yet to be accomplished by Thomas. Her devotion to realism is vividly evident in "March on Washington," completed in 1964.

The painting, with its infusion of a socio-political backdrop, employs the new reds and yellows of her 1960s period, while reprising her moody blues from the 1950s. Thomas in fact participated in the August 28 March on Washington in 1963, and this work serves as her commentary.

Maturity of Style

Thomas in her signature style of later years employs an abundance of square stripes of acrylic color that flow about the canvas. Aerial views and bird's eye representations of trees, leaves, rivers, and brooks typify this period. Primary colors break forth from muted backgrounds, as in her 1969 "Azaleas." Also during these years she produced her Earth and Space series, including "Light Blue Nursery" and "The Eclipse," in 1968 and 1970, respectively.

Working from her first floor quarters in the same 15th Street NW home of her adolescence, Thomas was inspired most distinctively by a holly tree that grew within the view of a bay window in the living area. There, by means of the holly tree, the indoor world was insulated from the rush of traffic on the busy street outside, and her impressions of the holly tree surface repeatedly in the imagery of her brush-stroke patterns.

By the 1970s Thomas worked with increasing frequency on very large canvases of 72 by 52 inches, sometimes combining two or three of these large panels into a single image. Often she tied a strip of elastic around the frame as she painted, to guide the movement of the color. "Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto" and the paneled "Elysian Fields" from 1973 are typical of this phase of her art. A sense of movement characterizes her work from this time and is evident especially in the progression between the panels of "Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music" in 1976. News of Thomas's work, ripe with personal caché, seeped into the cosmopolitan art world in 1972 when the Whitney Museum in New York held a solo exhibit of her paintings. The Corcoran Gallery in Washington held a retrospective of her work that year, and in 1973 the Martha Jackson Gallery featured her work also as a solo exhibit.

Suffering from arthritis and having tripped and broken her hip at home in 1974, she was inactive for two years while convalescing. She resumed painting in 1976. A second exhibit at the Martha Jackson Gallery opened on October 23, 1976, and was in retrospect Thomas's final solo exhibition prior to her death in 1978. In all she was featured in 16 solo exhibitions from 1959 to 1976.

On February 24, 1978, she died at Howard University Hospital in Washington, D.C., after emergency surgery to repair a damaged artery. She had carried her paint box and drawing pad with her to the hospital, where she arrived by ambulance. The luminous "Rainbow" of 1978 is her last known work.

Thomas defined both abstraction and impressionism on her own terms in the mid-twentieth century. She was a contemporary of those artists who comprised the Washington Color School of painting—including Gene Davis and Kenneth Noland—yet she rejected the practice of staining her canvases to create the void of relief that typifies that movement. Thomas's paintings in contrast forced texture to the forefront and her layered acrylics exhort the feel of the colors.


Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, 1998.

Foresta, Merry A., A Life in Art: Alma Thomas 1891-1978, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981.


Art in America, January 2002.

New York Times Biographical Edition, May 1972.

New York Times Biographical Service, February 1978. □