Alma Thomas: The Life and Work of a 20th-Century Black Female Abstract Artist

It’s never too late to achieve your dreams and reach your fullest potential. There are few better examples of this than Alma Thomas. As a Black female artist of the 20th century, she grew up during a time and in a place where she wasn’t even allowed into museums, much less have her work hanging in one. Needless to say, she did not take the conventional path to becoming an artist. Not pursuing her art career seriously until she was almost 70, the abstract painter went on to obtain numerous accolades and acclaim during her lifetime and is now remembered especially for her use of abstract shapes and color.

Read on to learn more about this extraordinary artist who overcame the obstacles of a world filled with both racial and gender discrimination to create her own vibrant world of beauty and color.

 

Who Was Alma Thomas?

Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891—just before the turn of the century—Alma Thomas was the oldest of four daughters. Though she grew up in the South during a time of racial segregation and wasn’t allowed in art museums and other such institutions, she was always creative as a child. That side of her was nurtured by her mother, who was a dress designer and who the artist credits with giving her that creative spark.

“Everything she made was like a painting,” Thomas recalled in an interview shortly before her death. “She sat at the sewing machine, and at night we would hear her singing as she sewed. That’s why I am as I am. So that young people come around me, those who want to be painters and those who love art. I got that from my grandfather and my mother.”

In 1907, when Thomas would turn 16, her father relocated the family to Washington, D.C. so that his daughters could finish their education. It was there that she was able to truly develop her artistic abilities and explore a variety of fields that interested her. Upon entering Armstrong Technical High School, the young artist was able to take classes in sewing, cooking, millinery, and—of course—art. “When I entered the art room, it was like entering heaven. A beautiful place, just where I belonged,” Thomas expressed of her high school days. “I stayed three or four years and took all the art courses… The Armstrong High School laid the foundation for my life.”

 

Education and Early Career

Thomas graduated from high school in 1911 and went on to pursue a career in education. She earned her teaching certificate in 1913 and later obtained a position teaching kindergarten at a settlement house in Wilmington, Delaware, where she remained for six years. Towards the end of her tenure there, due to new developments in technology as well as the changing contemporary teaching methods, she decided that it was time to make adjustments in her career.

In 1921—at the age of 30—Thomas reentered school. She attended Howard University and studied under James V. Herring, the founder of the University’s new art department. In 1924, she earned her Bachelors of Science in Fine Arts and became the first graduate of the University’s newly inaugurated Fine Arts program. Though there is limited documentation to confirm this fact, she is thought to be the first African American woman—or the first woman at all—to receive a bachelor’s degree in art in America.

Following her time at Howard University, Thomas returned to the classroom—this time as an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School in D.C. She remained there as a teacher for 35 years, though she continued to develop her own artistic practice during that time. “I devoted my life to the children, and I think they loved me, at least those did who were interested in art,” the artist recalled.

While teaching in D.C., Thomas developed a number of programs for her students, organizing the first art gallery in the D.C. public school system as well as a community arts program to encourage fine art appreciation. She also returned to pursue her own art education, taking night and weekend classes for over a decade at American University, beginning in 1950—when she was 59 years old. During these formative years, Thomas’ style evolved, shifting from more traditional figurative painting through phases of cubism, abstract expressionism, and later incorporating the signature bright colors of her mature style.

“The study of creative painting at the American University released me from the limitations of the past and opened the door to creativity,” Thomas expressed in her autobiographical writings. “Creative art…is for all times and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we merely mean that 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.”

 

Later Years and Career as an Artist

When Thomas retired from teaching in 1960—at the age of 69—she began dedicating herself fully to her passion as a professional artist. Able to devote herself full-time to her artistic practice, she began to find new sources of inspiration—light coming through the window of her home studio, imagining the earth from a bird’s-eye view, and even space exploration. These led her to the development of the style she is best known for today, the bold brushstrokes that coalesce into mosaic-like patterns, plastered in a brilliant rainbow of colors.

During her later years of life is also when Thomas began to receive more recognition for her work, mainly due to the development of her mature style which is very distinct from her earlier figurative works. After a severe attack of arthritis in 1964, she had considered giving up painting for good, and she continued to battle with the painful ailment for the rest of her life. However, Howard University offered to organize a retrospective of her work in 1966—when Thomas was 75 years old—which encouraged her to continue painting.

Thomas was inspired to create a completely new body of work, especially for the Howard exhibition that was different than anything she had painted before. This series became known as her Earth Paintings. One of these, entitled Resurrection, was later acquired for the White House collection in 2014. A few years after the Howard retrospective, in 1969, Thomas began to focus on another major theme in her paintings. This time inspired by the moon landing, she titled the series Space, Snoopy and Earth.

In 1972, when she was 81 years old, Thomas became the first African American woman to have her works displayed in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Later that same year, she received the same honor at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Her work was very well received by art critics, with several glowing reviews appearing in The New York Times. They lauded her imaginative compositions, calling them “expert abstractions, tachiste in style, faultless in their handling of color.”

Thomas continued to receive national recognition for her work until the time of her death in 1978. As a Black female artist, she left a legacy that hasn’t been, and won’t soon be, forgotten. Since the artist’s death, her work continues to be celebrated, with several exhibitions organized in her name over the last 40 years—including one titled Everything is Beautiful scheduled to open in July 2021 at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Virginia.

Beauty was the central impetus behind Thomas’ paintings, and she strived to transmit the beauty she saw in the world around her in every piece she painted. Offering her own unique perspective, she often described the philosophy behind her art in hopeful terms: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness in my painting, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”

 

Have look at some of the incredible abstract art painted by Alma Thomas.

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