Alma Woodsey Thomas was an African American abstract artist who lived a life rich with art. Inspired by the everchanging nature around her, Thomas explored the unique ways in which she could share her visions with the world. She embarked on a 38-year career in teaching and, all the while, never stopped pursuing what she loved.
Thomas took every opportunity given to her and lived to the beat of her own drum, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire future generations. From still life to a unique abstract style, her art developed and transformed with the changes in her life. Persistent, expressive and passionate, Alma Woodsey Thomas is a true icon who has spent a lifetime following her passion and who’s work still inspires both novice and seasoned artists today.
The Early Years
Alma Woodsey Thomas was born on September 22, 1891, in the town of Columbus, Georgia. From the early days of her youth, Alma was surrounded by art. Her father John Harris Thomas was a businessman, and her mother Amelia Cantey Thomas was a dress designer and seamstress.
Alma was the oldest of four girls, and the Thomas family was well respected and lived comfortably within the community. Their Victorian house sat on a hill that overlooked town and showcased the beauty and color of the surrounding nature for the young artist to-be.
Although it wasn’t always accessible to many black folks at the turn of the century, both of Thomas’ parents were educated and they prioritized the same rights for their children. However, early 20th century Georgia offered no higher education options for the girls. The stir of race riots in 1906 in the region were the push that finally brought the Thomas family to Washington DC.
The nation’s capital was also still segregated, but it allowed Black students the secondary education that was denied to them in Georgia. The family moved into a row house in Logan Circle where they became well known among other academics, businessmen, and artists in a thriving middle-class black neighborhood.
A Formal Education in Art
Art was always in Alma Thomas’s future, and as a child she dreamed of designing architecture. However, despite her family’s societal standing and connections, the times were not yet welcoming to female architects. After high school, she instead earned a teaching certificate and moved to Wilmington, Delaware where she taught at a settlement house for six years.
Upon returning home to continue her own studies, Thomas became a student at Howard University. There, she became acquainted with other creatives who would help her in discovering her talents and in building a career around art. By 1924, Thomas became the first graduate of the University’s newly formed fine arts department.
Thomas went back to teaching upon receiving her degree, this time alongside other Howard-trained artists and educators at a local junior high school. However, her love of learning pushed Thomas to continue furthering her skills. She went on to earn her MA from the Teachers College at Columbia University while also taking painting classes both locally and abroad.
As a teacher, Thomas created enrichment programs for her students. As a church member, she organized the Sunday Afternoon Beauty Club, whose field trips would promote and encourage art and pride. And as a community member, she established the first art gallery in the Washington D.C. public school system.
Alma Thomas began her career teaching, and teaching would ultimately develop into a means of making and inspiring others to make art. Financially, teaching was a way to support herself as she continued painting in her free time. At the same time, her deepfelt passion for the arts pushed her to actively share and inspire those around her.
The Evolution of Alma Thomas’s Paintings
In many ways, Thomas’ art became more abstract as she developed her skill, though the pieces done late in life found an expression complex with precision and detailed attention that some of her earlier abstract pieces had not embraced. Always a reflection of the world around her, Thomas’ art developed alongside her personal progressions in life.
Alma Thomas’ early works were realistic and included many still life paintings. One such example is her piece Still Life with Mandolin, which was painted in 1955. It wasn’t until her time at Howard that her professor James V. Herring and her peer Loïs Mailou Jones encouraged Thomas to experiment with abstraction instead.
While teaching at Shaw Junior High School, Thomas kept her flourishing passion alive by attending art classes at American University. Although she continued to paint still life paintings and even to exhibit them in African American artist gallery shows, her studies developed her interest in the color play of abstract art. Paintings like The Stormy Sea were undeniably abstract in comparison to earlier paintings and focused heavily on colors and shading.
It wasn’t until after retirement that Thomas truly began experimenting with her unique style, and it was at this point that she created what would become her most notable pieces. She focused on light, on shadows, and on how nature could be portrayed through bold splashes of color.
Her later paintings would also incorporate white areas that gave many of her pieces a mosaic-like appearance. Much of her work drew inspiration from the pointillist technique of Georges Seurat, from the shapes of Henri Matisse, and from the Washington Color School.
A clear transition can be seen when observing her pieces chronologically. Red Abstraction was painted the year Thomas retired, and it uses the same styles of abstraction seen in earlier work. Watusi, painted three years later, shows a stark change in which Thomas utilized blank spaces and hard edges. And by the middle of the decade, her style had been refined to what we see in paintings such as Air View of a Spring Nursery and what has become known as her signature style.
Some of Thomas’ last and arguably most important works employed concentric circles as well as rows and stripes to create abstract portrayals of Earth and the natural world. She was often inspired by the beauty surrounding her as well as the arial views of these places, and many of the titles of her paintings explicitly described what it was she was depicting. Springtime in Washington, for example, was inspired by the beauty of the flowers she loved seeing each year.
After the moon landing, she also drew inspiration from her fascination of the event to create her Space or Snoopy series of paintings. Some paintings such as Snoopy See Earth Wrapped in Sunset envision what the view that “Snoopy”, the space vehicle used on the moon, would have. Others, such as the 1972 painting Orion, focused on the use of shading to depict the shimmer and the vastness of the night sky.
The Process Behind the Art
Thomas started off painting with watercolors, sometimes adding brush strokes of India ink to accentuate specific details. She later found that she enjoyed using acrylics, particularly on large canvases. However, many of her studies continued to be done in watercolor.
To paint the abstract depictions of the everchanging environment, Thomas made meticulous preparations in color mapping and compositions. Separate papers were often taped together to allow for movement and change as she developed her ideas, and later studies showed pencil markings that guided her rows and circles.
The Inspiration Behind the Art
Alma Thomas loved art for art’s sake, not for any deeper motive. Although many of her peers felt compelled to speak out against racial injustices and patriarchy, Thomas believed that creativity existed separately from race and gender, and she did not desire to be known explicitly as a black woman artist.
One of the few political art pieces that Thomas did paint is her depiction of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that was held on August 28, 1963. This demonstration declared a need for civil and economic rights and was the same rally where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Alma Thomas participated in the march and painted March on Washington the following year. The painting was released as a US postage stamp in 2005.
Despite the challenges she faced as a black woman in early 20th century America, the majority of the inspiration behind Thomas’ paintings came from the world surrounding her lifelong home in Washington D.C.
“Man’s highest aspirations come from nature. A world without color would seem dead. Color is life. Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors.”
—Press Release, Columbus Museum of Arts and Sciences, 1982, for an exhibition entitled A Life in Art: Alma Thomas 1891–1978, Vertical File, Library, National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Alma Thomas observed the changes of weather and the seasons, and she shared her perspective with the world through playful colors. In her later paintings, she built compositions through individual brush strokes, each unique in its shape and size, directionality, and degrees of finish. Reflective of the natural world, her paintings were not perfect, but rather light and fluid.
Alma Woodsey Thomas could be proud of the list of achievements that she accomplished in her life. Especially at a time in history when women and minorities were often not allotted the same legal rights as others, Thomas took every opportunity she had to learn, progress, and follow her dream.
The first showcase that highlighted Thomas’ work was at the Dupont Art Theater in 1960. Her work was later put on displayed in the Howard University’s Gallery of Art as well as at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, the first Black-owned gallery in the city that focused on providing black artists a space to exhibit their work.
In 1972, Thomas had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the first African American women to do so. She also exhibited her work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art as well as at the White House on three separate occasions.
Alma Woodsey Thomas passed away on February 24, 1978, at the age of 86. She never married nor had kids, and she continued to live in the house that her family moved into in 1907 for the remainder of her life. However, Thomas spent thirty-eight years teaching and a lifetime following her dream. She became a prominent painter of the Washington Color Field School and was one of the few women to be nationally recognized as a major woman artist devoted to abstract painting before her death.
Although arthritis prevented her from painting as much as she would have liked to late in life, Alma Thomas received accolades through her last years and continues to be recognized for her accomplishments today.