Disclaimer: The information provided in this episode comes from multiple sources and is not my scientific studies or discoveries. All authors and sources are credited at the end of this article. Thank you!
Welcome to HerArt podcast, a project for art lovers, especially art created by women. In our third episode, we will talk about Alma Woodsey THOMAS — the joy of color. My name is Nata Andreev and I am going to tell you seven curious facts that you didn’t know about the artist that was a force of encouragement, growth, and inspiration. As she advised others, she accepted no barriers, and this focused determination empowered her to become a groundbreaker for black women artists.
Curious Fact #1
Alma was born in Columbus, Georgia, and would be the eldest of four sisters. When she was in her teens, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where the artist taught and lived most of her life. After graduating from high school and teaching kindergarten for several years, Thomas enrolled at Howard University, a historically black university in D.C. She initially set out to become a costume designer, but after some encouragement from a professor, she became the first-ever student to major in Howard’s emerging fine arts program. She graduated in 1924 with her bachelor’s degree.
Curious Fact #2
Over the next 35 years, Thomas prioritized her career as an educator, teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. She spearheaded arts initiatives for black youth, often in partnership with Howard University, such as the School Arts League and the Junior High School Arts Club. She also sought to increase diversity and foster community among adult artists, serving as vice-president at the age of 52 for the Barnett Aden Gallery, D.C.’s first private art gallery to feature artists of all races. Alma Thomas never married and lived in the same house her father bought in downtown Washington when Alma was 16 years old.
Curious Fact #3
As a black woman artist, Thomas encountered many barriers; she did not, however, turn to racial or feminist issues in her art, believing rather that the creative spirit is independent of race or gender. “Do you think of yourself as a black artist?” art critic and writer Eleanor Munro asked 86-year-old Alma Woodsey Thomas in an interview conducted in the artist’s home, two months before her passing. “No, I do not. I am a painter. I am an American,” Thomas answered. “When I was in the South, that was segregated. When I came to Washington, that was segregated. And New York — that was segregated. But I always thought the reason was ignorance. I thought myself superior and kept on going. Culture is sensitivity to beauty. And a cultured person is the highest stage of the human being. If everybody were cultured we would have no wars or disturbance. There would be peace in the world.”
Curious Fact #4
Suffering from the pain of arthritis at the time of her retirement, she considered giving up painting. When Howard University offered to mount a retrospective of her work in 1966, however, she wanted to produce something new. From the window of her house, she enjoyed watching the ever-changing patterns that light created on her trees and flower garden. So inspired, her new paintings passed through an expressionist period, followed by an abstract one, to finally a nonobjective phase. Many of Thomas’s late-career paintings were watercolors in which bold splashes of color and large areas of white paper combine to create remarkably fresh effects, often accented with brushstrokes of India ink.
Curious Fact #5
Man’s landing on the moon in 1969 exerted a profound influence on Thomas, and provided the theme for her second major group of paintings. In 1969 she began the Space or Snoopy series so named because “Snoopy” was a term astronauts used to describe a space vehicle used on the moon’s surface. Like the Earth series, these paintings also evoke mood through color, yet several allude to more than a color reference. The majority of Thomas’s Space paintings are large sparkling works with implied movement achieved through floating patterns of broken colors against a white background.
Curious Fact #6
In 1972, when Thomas was 80 years old, the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC launched Alma W. Thomas, the first solo exhibit of a black woman artist shown at that institution. Later that year, the mayor of Washington, D.C., declared September 9 to be “Alma W. Thomas Day.” Thomas also landed two solo exhibits at New York’s Martha Jackson Gallery over the next several years, in addition to ongoing appearances in multi-artist shows. Thomas’s painting Red Rose Sonata was donated to NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 following its appearance in several exhibitions.
Curious Fact #7
Thomas died in 1978 at Howard University Hospital. At nearly 90 years old, she had contributed immeasurably to the esteem of black women artists and used her talents to encourage black youth in her community. Despite ongoing battles for equality during the Civil Rights Movement and after, Thomas managed to identify and spread joy to those around her.
Thank you so much for listening to the ninth episode of season three of HerArt podcast — a project for art lovers, especially art created by women. If you want to follow more of what I do, find me on Facebook and Instagram. And don’t forget to tune in next month, when I am going to tell you about Doris SALCEDO — one of the most influential artists in Latin America. This is the seventh episode I am recording during COVID-19. I hope everyone is safe and takes care of themselves and their loved ones. And don’t forget BLACK LIVES MATTER!