Alma Thomas Unisex T-Shirt
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Alma Thomas: Your New Favorite Artist
Alma Woodsey Thomas (September 22, 1891 – February 24, 1978) was an African-American artist and teacher who lived and worked in Washington, D.C., and is now recognized as a major American painter of the 20th century. Thomas is best known for the “exuberant”, colorful, abstract paintings that she created after her retirement from a 35-year career teaching art at Washington’s Shaw Junior High School.
Thomas, who is often considered a member of the Washington Color School of artists but alternatively classified by some as an Expressionist,she earned her teaching degree from University of the District of Columbia (known as Miner Normal School at the time) and was the first graduate of Howard University‘s Art department, and maintained connections to that university through her life. She achieved success as an African-American female artist despite the segregation and prejudice of her time.
Thomas’s reputation has continued to grow since her death. Her paintings are displayed in notable museums and collections, and they have been the subject of several books and solo museum exhibitions. In 2021, a museum sold Thomas’s painting Alma’s Flower Garden in a private transaction for $2.8 million.
The Infiniteness of Alma Thomas
Childhood, education, and early teaching positions
Alma Thomas was born on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia, as the oldest of four daughters, to John Harris Thomas, a businessman, and Amelia Cantey Thomas, a dress designer. Her mother and aunts, she later wrote, were teachers and Tuskeegee Institute graduates. 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 provided with music lessons, as her mother played the violin.
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. Her parents made this move despite that the family “kind of came down a bit,” socially and economically, in leaving their upper-middle class life in Georgia. Describing the reason for the family move, she later wrote, “When I finished grade school in Columbus, there was nowhere that I could continue my education, so my parents decided to move the family to Washington.” Other writers have pointed to the Atlanta race riots and racial massacre of 1906 as among the reasons her family left Georgia. As another example of the racial violence that her family faced in Georgia, Alma’s father had an encounter with a lynch mob shortly before Alma was born, and her family attributed her poor hearing to the fright from that incident. Although still segregated, the nation’s capital was known to offer more opportunities for African-Americans than most other cities. As she wrote in the 1970s, “At least Washington’s libraries were open to Negroes, whereas Columbus excluded Negroes from its only library.”
In Washington, Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School, where she took her first art classes. About them, she said “When I entered the art room, it was like entering heaven. . . . The Armstrong High School laid the foundation for my life.” In high school, she excelled at math and science, and architecture specifically interested her. A miniature schoolhouse that she made from cardboard using techniques learned in her architecture studies at Armstrong was exhibited at the Smithsonian in 1912. Although she expressed an interest in becoming an architect, it was unusual for women to work in this profession and this limited her prospects.
After graduating from high school in 1911, she studied kindergarten education at Miner Normal School (now known as University of the District of Columbia), earning her teaching credentials in 1913. In 1914, she obtained a teaching position in the Princess Anne schools on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she taught for four months. In 1915, she started teaching kindergarten at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, staying there until 1921.
Thomas entered Howard University in 1921, at age 30, entering as a junior because of her previous teacher training. She started as a home economics student, planning to specialize in costume design, only to switch to fine art after studying under art department founder James V. Herring. Her artistic focus at Howard was on sculpture; the paintings she produced during her college education were described by Romare Bearden and Henry Henderson as “academic and undistinguished.” She earned her Bachelors of Science in Fine Arts in 1924 from Howard, becoming the first graduate from the University’s Fine Arts program, and also “possibly the first African-American woman” to earn a bachelors degree in art—or the first American woman of any racial background, as the artist Keith Anthony Morrison wrote that “it was said [in 1924] that she was the first woman in America ever to gain a bachelor’s degree in art.”
In 1924, Thomas began teaching art at Shaw Junior High School, a Black school in the then-segregated public schools of Washington, D.C., where she worked until her retirement in 1960; she wrote, “I was there for thirty-five years and occupied the same classroom.” She taught alongside fellow artist 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. Also, according to her reminiscences, “At Shaw, I organized the first art gallery in the D.C. public schools in 1938, securing paintings by outstanding Negro artists from the Howard Gallery of Art.”
The three and a half decades of Thomas’s teaching career, 1924-1960, were described by Thurlow Tibbs, the D.C. African-American art dealer (and grandson of Thomas’s friend Lillian Evans, the opera singer) as Thomas’s “fermenting period;”: 41 during them she absorbed many ideas and influences, and after 1960 from those ideas and influences she would create her own distinctive art. While she taught at Shaw Junior High, Thomas continued to pursue her art, her formal and informal education, and activities with the Washington, D.C. art community, the latter often in ways connected to Howard University.
During this time Thomas painted, especially in watercolor; while her style in the 1930s was described as still “quite traditional” and naturalistic, she has been called a “brilliant watercolorist.” Over summers, she would travel to New York City to visit art museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and galleries.
During the summers of 1930 through 1934, she attended Teachers College of Columbia University, earning her Masters in Art Education in 1934; her studies focused on sculpture, and she wrote her thesis on the use of marionettes.
In the summer of 1935, she further studied marionettes in New York City with the German-American puppeteer Tony Sarg, known as the father of modern puppetry in America.
In 1936, she founded an organization, called the School Arts League Project, to bring art opportunities to children.
In 1943, Thomas helped James W. Herring, her former professor at Howard, and Alonzo J. Aden found the Barnett-Aden Gallery, the first successful Black-owned private art gallery in the United States. She served as the gallery’s Vice President. Thomas’s association with the Barnett-Aden Gallery has been described as “critical to” and, according to curator Adelyn Dohme Breeskin, the “pivotal” development in, her development as a professional artist.” It put her into contact with leading contemporary national artists, which “heightened her awareness of art trends and directions,” and it provided exposure to local artists which “both challenged and inspired her.”
In the 1940s Thomas also joined Lois Mailou Jones‘s artist community, “The Little Paris Group (or “Little Paris Studio,” or “Little Paris Studio group”). This group of Black Washington artists was founded by Jones and Céline Marie Tabary, both artists and members of the Howard University art faculty (Jones from 1930 to 1977, and Tabary beginning in 1945). The date of the group’s founding is described variously as during the German occupation of Paris (i.e., 1940-1944), “the late 1940s,” 1945, 1946, or 1948. It met either weekly or twice per week, at Jones’ studio, the “Little Paris studio,” in her home at 1220 Quincy Street NE, in Washington’s Brookland neighborhood. It existed for five years. It offered developing artists an opportunity to paint from the model, to improve their techniques — “developing skills and styles,” and “to hone their skills and exchange critiques”—as well as a salon, or discussion forum—to “talk about the latest developments in modern art, particularly as it was centered in Paris.” Other members of the group in addition to Jones and Tabary included Delilah Pierce and Thomas, as well as Bruce Brown, Ruth Brown, Richard Dempsey, Barbara Linger, Don Roberts, Desdemona Wade, Frank West, and Elizabeth Williamson. A photo, from Thomas’s archives, of a 1948 gathering of the group shows thirteen artists and a male model.
In 1958, Thomas visited art centers in Western Europe with Temple University students in an extensive tour arranged by that university’s Tyler School of Art.
Her involvement with the Little Paris Group is said to have inspired Thomas to seek further academic training at American University. One source states that in the early 1950s, “the A.U. art department was regarded in many quarters as ‘the’ avant-garde art department in the nation.” Accordingly, in 1950, at the age of 59, she began a decade of studies at that university, taking night and weekend classes, studying Art History and painting. At American University she studied painting with Robert Franklin Gates and Ben “Joe” Summerford. But Jacob Kainen was her most influential teacher there, and would become a close friend for the rest of her lifetime. When Tomas studied with Kainin in fall 1957, he considered her as a fellow artist rather than as a student. Kainen had met Thomas in 1934, at the Barnet-Aden Gallery, and in 1957, he agreed to take over teaching an intensive year-long A.U. class for six selected top painting students, including Thomas, but the administration allowed 32 students, many of them beginners, to take the class and Kainen quit in frustration after one term.
When Thomas began her advanced studies at American University in 1950, she was still a figurative painter. During the 1950s her style evolved in several major shifts, from figurative painting to cubism and then to abstract expressionism, with “monumental,” dark paintings largely in blue and brown tones, to beginning to embrace the bright colors that she would later use in her signature style.
“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 become a full-time, professional artist until she was 68 or 69 years old, in 1960, when she retired from teaching.
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.” 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.
In contrast with most other members of the Washington Color School, she did not use masking tape to outline the shapes in her paintings. 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.
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.” Speaking again about her use of color she said: “Color is life, and light is the mother of color.”
In 1963, she walked in the March on Washington with her friend, the opera singer Lillian Evans. Although Thomas was largely an apolitical artist, she portrayed the 1963 event in a 1964 painting. A detail from that painting became a 2005 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the March on Washington.
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. It included 34 works from 1959 to 1966. For this exhibition, she created Earth Paintings, a series of nature-inspired abstract works, including Resurrection (1966), which in 2014 would be bought for the White House collection. Thomas and the artist 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.
To meet the challenge posed by the Howard show, according to Romare Bearden and Henry Henderson, her style changed again, in a crucial way: “Thomas evolved the specific style now recognized as her signature – playing color against color and over color with small, irregular rectangular shapes of dense, often intense color.” This exhibition received a supportive review from Helen Hoffman in The Washington Post of 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 against pale pink and orange colors, depicting an abstraction and accidental beauty through the use of color. Most of the works in these series have circular, horizontal and vertical patterns. These patterns are able to generate a conceptual feeling of floating. The patterns also generate energy within the canvas. The contrast of colors creates a powerful color segregation, and maintain 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 later the same year a much larger 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 due in part 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. New York critics were impressed with Thomas’s modern style, especially given the fact that she was a nearly 80-year-old woman at the time of her national debut. The New York Times reviewed her exhibit four times, calling her paintings “expert abstractions, tachiste in style, faultless in their handling of color.” Many white critics complimented her as “the Signac of current color painters” and as “gifted, ebullient abstractionist”. Alma Thomas’s philosophy of her own art is that her works are full of energy, and those energies cannot be destroyed or created.
New York art curator and editor Thomas B. Hess bought Thomas’s 1972 painting Red Roses Sonata, and in 1976 his family’s foundation gave the piece to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Joshua Taylor, director from 1970 to 1981 of the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), also purchased some of her work, and wrote to Thomas in 1975, thanking her for a painting that hung in his living room: “It’s like having Spring well before its appointed date.”
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.”
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