This American educator turned painter and art ambassador was unfaltering in her pursuit of beauty and became a ground-breaker for Black artists in the mid century and beyond.
Alma Thomas’ life was full of firsts. She was the first of four children and was in the inaugural class of graduates for Howard University’s first Fine Arts program. In 1938 she opened the first art gallery in a Washington DC public school. Three decades later Thomas became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. And 40 years after her death, Thomas’ work was selected by First Lady Michelle Obama to hang on the walls of the White House.
Alma Thomas’ Early Life & Education
Born in Georgia in 1891, as a child Thomas moved with her family to Washington DC, escaping the racial violence of the South. Although still segregated, DC would offer her the freedoms of attending school. She would in fact live a life surrounded by education and art.
Thomas graduated from Howard’s Fine Arts program, received a master’s degree in art education from Columbia University and pursued advanced studies at American University. While pursuing her education, Thomas taught art at a D.C. junior high school, occupying the same classroom for 35 years. Her curriculum deliberately incorporated Black history in relation to art, while she developed art clubs, lectures, field trips and exhibits for her students. Her love of art and community can also be seen in her involvement in founding the School Arts League Project and the Barnett-Aden Gallery.
Alma Thomas’ Work
It wasn’t until 1960 that Alma Thomas, at the age of 68, would retire from teaching and become a full-time professional artist. She used her extensive studies and experience to ultimately create luminous, abstract and contemplative pieces. Considered a part of the Washington Color School movement, Thomas’ work is defined by her use of color, shapes and patterns to express natural phenomena. She explained her aesthetic, saying, “Man’s highest aspirations come from nature. A world without color would seem dead. Color is life. Light is the mother of color.” Her inspirations ranged from flowers in her garden to space and the moon landing.
Although she faced discrimination throughout her life, Thomas’ work focused on the creative spirit rather than society’s harsh shortcomings. While her contemporaries used realism to depict the brutality and struggle of the civil rights movement, Thomas took a different approach to inspire. “The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man,” Thomas said in a 1970 interview.
Her work continues to influence and inspire today, well past her death in 1978, as seen through her art featured in countless exhibits across the country and most notably in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In 2015 Thomas’ painting Resurrection was hung in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House; it was the first work by an African-American woman to enter the White House Collection.
To learn more about other inspiring artists and architects of the mid century, don’t miss profiles on Norma Skarlek, Francis Gassner, and Ruth Asawa. Of course, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Mid Century Modern inspiration!