“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 in 1978, 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.”
If you’ve come across paintings full of irregular fields and bursting bold colors, odds are you’ve seen a piece by Alma Thomas, a painter who rose to fame in her 70s. Although Thomas did not believe in the relevance of race, gender or age to art and creativity, she has undoubtedly served as a significant role model for women, African Americans and elderly people in the arts through her accomplishments and life’s work. At the age of 80, after having developed her signature abstract style while painting out of the kitchen of her Washington, D.C. home, Thomas became the first black woman to be given a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Today, her pieces can be found in many redeemed private and public art collections around the country — during the Obama presidency, two of her pieces hung proudly in the White House. As one of our Black History Month spotlights, we’re stepping back a few decades to learn more about Alma Thomas’ journey to finding her own creative voice — and making it heard.
Although Thomas had shown an interest in art and architecture from a young age, it was her parents’ decision to move from Georgia to Washington, D.C. in 1907 that triggered her lifelong passion for all things creative. Providing their four daughters with a high-quality education, and seeking relief from the racial violence of the South were reasons for the move. Enrolled at Armstrong High School, Thomas’ passion for the arts came into bloom and laid a solid foundation for the rest of her life. In her late 20s, Thomas enrolled at Howard University, becoming its very first fine arts undergraduate in 1924.
After graduating, Thomas spent the next 35 years teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in D.C., devoting her professional career to her students up until her retirement in 1960. She continued her own studies in various fields of art both during her career as a teacher and after retiring.
Even though Thomas focused on representational painting, she never felt fully content. When offered a retrospective at Howard University in 1966, Thomas, now in her 70s, decided to try something different from anything she had ever done, or seen, before. “So I sat down right in that chair, that red chair here in my living room, and I looked at the window,” Thomas told Munro. “And you can see exactly what I saw, right before my eyes, from where I was sitting in the chair. Why, the tree! The holly tree! I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration.” Infatuated by the dark-green leaves of the big holly tree that pushed against the bay window in her Victorian terrace home, Thomas picked up some watercolors and crayons and began dabbling. She painted flickers of color and irregular patterns, working her way to the abstract style that would later become both her signature and legacy. “That tree changed my whole career, my whole way of thinking.”
Thomas’ emergence as a colorist brought her almost immediate exposure in the contemporary art scene of the 1970s. Inspired by natural phenomena, she imagined views from up in the air, allowing the landscape to spread out on the canvas as small splashes and dots. Once Thomas developed the knowledge and confidence to pursue her boldly colored abstract style, she never looked back. In 1972, at the age of 80, Thomas had what she called her “break-through” and “banner year.” “I presented my pictures at the Whitney Museum in New York, and about 12 New York art critics wrote about my work. Later on, Harold Rosenberg wrote in The New Yorker that I brought joy to the 70s!”
Alma Thomas died in 1978 at the age of 86. Besides leaving behind works that still brighten our dullest days and challenge our minds to see beyond the obvious, her legacy includes a strong message for all of us who have ever doubted ourselves, be it for race, sexuality, age or the likes — it is never too late to make a change, to reinvent or express yourself, to learn and create, to stay active in your community, to focus on beauty rather than pain, and to see each day as a new opportunity. “I say everyone on earth should take note of the spring of the year coming back every year, blooming and gorgeous.” —Sofia
All quotes are by Alma Thomas and were published in the article “The late Spring time of Alma Thomas” by Eleanor Munro, published April 15, 1979 in The Washington Post.
Image above: Alma Thomas, 1976, photographed by Michael Fischer. Source: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.