Friday, January 8, 2016

WOMEN ARTISTS: Alma Woodsey Thomas




A prominent abstract painter of the 1960's and 70's, Alma Thomas was the first African American woman to have a solo art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC, in 1971.  She is the featured artist for January, 2016, in my Woman Artist Series.  

Alma Thomas was a successful Washington Expressionist painter and art educator, despite the barriers presented by her race and gender.  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.  She viewed nature as a colorful, abstract mosaic.




ALMA WOODSEY THOMAS




Here are 10 things to know about Alma Woodsey Thomas, along with some of her paintings, and images of Thomas herself:


1.  Alma Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891, and moved with her family in 1907, to a house in Washington, DC, where she would reside for the remaining seven decades of her life.  



Alma was the eldest of four daughters of John Harris Thomas, a successful businessman, and Amelia Cantey Thomas, a dress designer.  Alma showed artistic tendencies as a child, when she used local clay to make homemade puppets and sculptures.  

Thomas' childhood was instilled with the importance of education.  Although her hometown prohibited black people in public libraries, Thomas' aunts, who were schoolteachers, often brought professors and traveling lecturers to the Thomas home, including Booker T Washington.  








With the desire for a better education for his daughters, and concern over the 1906 race riots in nearby Atlanta, John Thomas moved his family to Washington, DC, in 1907.  They settled in a house that Alma would occupy for the next 71 years, and that remains in the Thomas family to this day.

Though segregated, the nation's capitol still offered more opportunities for African Americans than most cities in those years.





2.  In 1924, Thomas earned her BS in Fine Arts from Howard University -- the first graduate of the fine art program at the university.

Shortly after her family relocated to Washington, DC, in 1907, Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School, where she took her first art classes.  She also excelled in math and science, as well as demonstrating a strong talent in architectural drawing.  Although she considered becoming an architect, art captured her imagination more thoroughly.  By the time she graduated, she had taken every art class the school offered.





Upon graduating, Thomas attended the Miner Teachers Normal School, specializing in early childhood education.  She earned her teacher's certificate in 1913.

After six years of teaching, Thomas entered Howard University in 1921 as a home economics student.  During her first year at Howard, Thomas met Professor James Herring, the founder of the school's Fine Art Department.  Herring persuaded Thomas to abandon the idea of costume design and to enroll as the first student in his new curriculum.  Herring would be a lifelong friend and mentor to Thomas.  Thomas was the first graduate of Herring's Art Department (and it's only graduate of 1924).

In 1934, she earned her Masters in Art Education from Columbia University.







3.  Alma Thomas was an art teacher for 35 years, before publicly exhibiting her own work, at the age of 68.

Thomas taught kindergarten and arts & crafts at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House for six years in Wilmington, Delaware, before returning to Washington in 1921 to enroll at Howard University.  While at the Settlement House, she experienced the joy of teaching and encouraging creativity in young people.  She also staged carnivals, circuses, and puppet shows.  





After graduation from Howard with a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts, she became an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Washington -- remaining there until her retirement in 1960.  "I devoted my life to the children, and I think they loved me -- at least those did who cared about art", she said.  While at Shaw JHS, she started a community arts program that encouraged student appreciation of fine art.  The program also supported marionette performances.  




In 1930, Thomas began spending her summers in NYC, working toward a masters degree in Art Education at Columbia University.  She focused her studies on marionette plays.  She also studied with Tony Sarg, the world-renowned marionette maker and puppeteer.




4.  When Thomas retired from teaching, she devoted herself to painting full-time, and was given her first one-person show at the Dupont Theater, an art cinema in Washington, DC.  She was 68 years old when she first publicly exhibited her own work.





Alma Woodsey Thomas' first retrospective exhibit was in 1966 at the Gallery of Art at Howard University, at the age of 75 -- where she debuted her abstract work.  







In 1972, she was the first African American woman to be given a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York.

Thomas, at her opening in the Whitney Museum, 1972



5.  For more than twenty-five years, Alma Thomas created representational images.  She first painted rudimentary still life paintings that served as a springboard for later, more adventurous works. 

"What I would rather do is to paint something beautiful."  




She spent many hours visiting museums, where she studied Western classics, as well as examples of Byzantine and Asian art.  She derived inspiration from the styles of Cezanne and Matisse and from her long study of color theory.




She had a special affinity for watercolor, and her professional debut consisted of works in that medium.  Upon classes at Howard, and training under James Herring and Lois Jones, her work became more abstract.





6.  Thomas studied painting at American University under Jacob Kainen. from 1950 to 1960 -- at night and on weekends.  

It was there that she took courses in creative painting and color theory.  She began to incorporate strong design, large scale format, and pure colors into her abstractions.  





Studying under one of the leading Expressionist painters, Jacob Kainen -- who thought of her as an artist, not a student -- introduced her to member of the Washington Color Field group.  Kainen encouraged Thomas to focus on color in her paintings.




She completed her studies at American University in 1960 -- the same year she retired from teaching.







7.  In 1943, Alma Woodsey Thomas helped found the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, DC.    James Herring and Alonzo Aden, an art curator, asked Thomas to help them establish the Gallery, so she joined the venture as vice president.





The Barnett-Aden Gallery customarily featured talented artists, regardless of race or sex.  It was the first private gallery in Washington to exhibit modern American art, as well as the works of relatively unknown black artists.  






It was there that she became involved with the "Little Paris" group of artists in 1946.  Primarily black public school teachers and civil employees, the "Little Paris" group sketched, painted, and encouraged each other.






8.  Thomas worked out of the kitchen in her house -- sometimes even working on her lap.  In the late 1950's, she developed the confidence and knowledge to pursue the highly-colored abstract style for which she is known.  





During the 1960's, Thomas emerged as an exuberant colorist, abstracting shapes and patterns from the trees and flowers around her.  Her new palette and technique -- lighter and looser than in her earlier representational works and dark abstractions -- reflected her long study of color theory and the watercolor medium.  She was in her 70's when she developed her signature style -- the large abstract paintings filled with dense, irregular mosaic patterns of bright colors.






In Washington, DC, where she lived and worked, Thomas became identified with the Color Field painters active in the area since the 50's -- including Morris Louis and Gene Davis.  Her close relationships with these Washington Color School Painters, whose works emphasized abstract color shapes, assured her acceptance in that circle.  Like them, she explored the power of color and form.  





Thomas studied and assimilated the styles of artists she admired, merging them with her own profoundly independent vision.  The Color Field painters used staining techniques and masking tape in order to give their work a hard edge.  Thomas, however, spoke proudly of her pencil-drawn rectangles and wedges which she then colored individually.  

Another influence on her art at the time was a book by Bauhaus artist, Johannes Itten, The Art of Color.  


Starry Night









9.  Alma Thomas retired from teaching in 1960, at the age of 70, to focus on what she called her "serious painting".  This is when she evolved her signature style and was finally recognized as a professional artist.










For her retrospective exhibition at Howard University, she created her Earth Paintings, a series of nature-inspired abstract works, and her "Space Paintings" series.  These paintings have been compared to Byzantine mosaics and the pointillist paintings of Seurat.




The space series was inspired from the heavens and stars, and "my idea of what it's like to be an astronaut, exploring space".  Two of the paintings have titles, using the astronauts' nickname for the moon vehicle -- "Snoopy Sees a Sunrise" and "Snoopy -- Early Sun Display on Earth".





Though her chronic arthritis made working increasingly difficult, Thomas continued to paint, and exhibited her canvases through the mid-1970's.









10.  Thomas was an important role model -- for women, for African Americans, and for older artists.  In 1963, she walked in the March on Washington -- though she would be the first to tell you she was not a "black artist".  

 In 1972, at the age of 80, Thomas had what she called her "banner year".  Both the Whitney Museum of American Art (the first black woman to have a solo exhibit there), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art held solo exhibitions of her work.  





In 1977, she was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter, in recognition of her achievements.  She exhibited her paintings at the White House three times.

In 2009, two paintings by Alma Thomas were chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama, to be exhibited there during the Obama presidency.  







Today, Alma Thomas' work can be found in many important private and public collections -- including the Akron Art Museum in Ohio, the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, and the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York.

Thomas died on February 24, 1978, while undergoing open heart surgery at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC.  She was 86, and was living in the same house that her family moved into, upon their arrival in Washington in 1906.









9 comments:

  1. Thank you for your work in researching this. Sadly, I'd never heard of her and really enjoyed reading your article.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed reading this, too -- thanks! I had never heard of her, either, unfortunately.

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  2. Wow, I love her work! I can't believe that I've never heard of her. Thank you so much for sharing her work with us.

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    1. You're welcome! I'm surprised that she has not received more attention.

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  3. Very interesting article; what an inspirational woman. Could you please do some tutorials on painting in Mabel Lucie Atwell's style? A lot of my books as a child had beautiful plates of her watercolour paintings (I wish I still had them)

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    1. She was an inspirational woman, indeed! I will do some checking on Mabel Lucie Atwell. Thanks!

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  4. I really enjoyed this, thanks for posting it. Now I'm off to google Expressionism!

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    1. Cool! Glad this sparked your curiosity!

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  5. Wow, what an amazing, inspirational lady to write about! It's incredible that she kept on doing what she loved throughout her life, to then get success later on just goes to show that if you have a passion, you should always make time for it. I love these paintings. I'd never heard of her before but thank you for bringing her to my attention!

    Hannah Sullivan @ Goarty

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