Alma Thomas: The Painter of Joyful Abstraction
Viewing nature as a colorful abstract mosaic and creating canvases that dealt with beauty and happiness by applying acrylics and watercolors of loosely gridded, wristy daubs, the African-American Expressionist painter and art educator, Alma Woodsey Thomas, is famous as a major painter of the Washington Color Field School, who achieved widespread recognition late in her lifetime for her colorful, exuberant abstract paintings.
Celebrated as the first African-American woman to hold a solo show at Whitney, Thomas was born on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia. The oldest of four daughters, Thomas lived with her family in a Victorian house. Her father was a businessman, her mother a dressmaker. In 1907, the family moved to Washington and took a house in the prosperous neighborhood, in which she lived for the rest of her life.
In 1921, Thomas enrolled at Howard University, and in 1924 became the first graduate of its newly formed art department. Later, she earned a master's degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Thomas taught art for 35 years in a segregated junior high school in Washington, D.C., while always making her own work.
During the 1950s Thomas attended art classes at American University in Washington. She studied painting under Joe Summerford, Robert Gates, Jacob KKaine, and developed an interest in color and abstract art. Throughout her teaching career she painted and exhibited academic still lifes and realistic paintings in group shows of African-American artists.
After retiring as a school teacher in 1960, Thomas committed herself full-time to her art. Thomas forged a highly personal style of brilliantly hued short brushstrokes aligned in dazzling vertical stripes and radiating circular compositions inspired by natural phenomena like the patterns of light in her garden and images from the Apollo moon missions.
In her eighth decade, Thomas produced her most important work. Earliest to win acclaim was her series of “Earth” paintings. Done in the late 1960s, these works bear references to rows and borders of flowers inspired by Washington’s famed azaleas and cherry blossoms.
In her last paintings, Thomas employed her characteristic short bars of colors and impasto technique. However, the tones became more subdued, and the formally vertical and horizontal accents of her brushstrokes became more diverse in movement, and included diagonals, diamond shapes, and asymmetrical surface patterns.
During the artist's final years, the crippling effects of arthritis prevented her from painting as often as she wanted. The final year of her life brought awards and recognition. In 1972, she was honored with one-woman exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art and at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The same year one of her painting was selected for the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
At the age of 86, Alma Thomas died on February 24, 1978, in Washington, D.C.