Alma Thomas is one of the inescapable artists represented in DC art museums; and rightly so! Being an important member of the Washington Color School and the first black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney (as well as purportedly being the first black woman to graduate from a fine art program in the US) is no small feat. Her work is popular amongst Color School fans as well as those of the encompassing Color Field Movement. Fun fact: Thomas’s work is also popular with the Obamas, as she is one of the few women artists selected by Michelle Obama to decorate their private White House residence.
Upon graduating high school in 1911, Alma Thomas studied education; first becoming a substitute teacher and later a kindergarten teacher. Thomas earned her BS in fine arts in 1924, proceeding to teach at Shaw Junior High School until her retirement in 1960 (Where she ran a number of art projects benefiting the school, for example, founding its first art gallery and a community arts program). Throughout her career as a teacher she continued to study art, earning a masters in art education from Columbia University and studying painting at American University.
Thomas had always participated in the DC art community, however her work further evolved and became more highly appreciated following her retirement (A period in which many suggest she created her best work). She was a member of the Washington Color School and The Little Paris Studio. The Washington Color School was part of the Color Field movement, and similar to abstract expressionism in its use of certain tools and techniques, although dissimilar in the psychology behind the work. While many of her peers focused upon social realism during this period, Thomas turned her attention to color and abstract composition. Additionally, her work differed stylistically from many Color Field painters in that she used a primed canvas–allowing paint to build up texturally–and she used color intuitively, feeling constricted by the laws of color theory.Take a look at some of Thomas’s work in the 60s and 70s:
Thomas’s work is clearly inspired by the environment (Many sources refer to Thomas’s attachment to her garden, watching the plants change and grow with the seasons). Living in DC was a boon, in that the city is filled with breathtaking gardens and arboretums. Thomas’s titles are very descriptive and evocative of natural imagery–for example, White Roses Sing–despite abstracting to the point of unnatural, geometric design. Her work is very much about shape and flow within the piece, as even the rough blocks of color seem to follow a rhythm. This is especially evident in her Music Series, in which the shapes cluster, spiral, and disperse into beautiful patterns.
One of the things I personally love about Thomas is that children often love her work. The bright colors, fun patterns, and interesting approach translate into cool arts and craft projects (All you need is a blank surface, sheets of colorful construction paper or post it notes, and some glue! I remember Corcoran ArtReach employees telling me about the Thomas inspired project they had for the kids and how great they turned out!) and the concepts behind the pieces are something they can generally relate to. For an artist working as a teacher for such a long time, it’s nice to see that children are still learning from her today.
Thomas is also an example of a black, female artist whose work largely did not include themes of gender or racial identity. Recently there’s been a lot of discussion about identity art (With certain white, male critics bemoaning its lack of “universality”). And one of the arguments people make is that minority artists and female artists don’t make work beyond their own identity. Which is obviously absurd (Helen Frankenthaler! Lee Krasner! Grace Hartigan! I’ll stop, just take it from me that there are many more “universal” female artists), but feel free to pull Alma Thomas’s incredible artwork out of your sleeve any time you hear such a thing. Thomas herself spoke little of identity in artwork, at one point stating, “I’m over seventy and painting released me from the limitations of the past and opened the door to progressive creativity… 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 that the creative spirit in man which produces a picture of a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality, the statement may stand unchallenged.” Thomas’s words remind us that we can generally relate to artwork regardless of the background of the painter. It’s important to remember that while we may not share the same background as an artist, it’s interesting to view things from another person’s point of view, and that certain topics–gender, racial identity, sexuality, etc., are not limited to certain groups of people. Certainly there are stronger arguments for the worth of identity art than listing minority artists creating “universal” work (which I’d like to write about in the future seeing as how “universal” nearly always translates as, “pertaining to young, white, wealthy, straight, and cisgender men”), but for this particular complaint, it’s simple enough to look in art history books or at the contemporary scene to see many minority artists working “universally”.
Try and seek out Thomas’s work the next time you’re in DC! Or really any other modern art museum, particularly those with an American focus. Alma Thomas is everywhere, and for good reason.