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Alma Thomas may not have been borne in Washington D.C. but it did become her home, inspiration, and place of opportunity during Jim Crow America. She had a deep passion of color and the outdoors. Take a moment of your day and enjoy the outdoors and find inspiration in the colors that are all around us! 

Painting Styles and Mediums

  • Early work comprised of mainly watercolor
  • Latter work mostly Acrylics on large canvas

“It’s never too late to begin again”

Alma Thomas did not start her serious paintings until she was in her 70’s and had her first major exhibition at age 80.

Early Life

  • Born September 22, 1891 in Columbus, Georgia. 
  • As a child she displayed artistic interests, making puppets and sculptures at home. 
  • In 1907, her family moved to Washington, D.C. seeking relief from the racial violence in the South.
  • Although her hometown prohibited African American people from entering public libraries, Thomas’s aunts, who were school teachers, often brought professors and traveling lecturers to the Thomas home, including Booker T. Washington.
  • Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School, where she took her first art classes.
  • “When I entered the art room, it was like entering heaven. Becoming an artist, though, seemed like an unattainable aspiration when I was a little girl in Columbus.”
  • The move to Washington DC gave her hope.
  • After graduating from high school in 1911, she studied Kindergarten education at Miner Normal School and went on to teach in Wilmington, Delaware.
  • Thomas entered Howard University in 1921 as a home economics student, only to switch to art, earning her BS in Fine Arts in 1924.
  • In 1924, she began a 35 year career teaching art at a D.C. school. She was devoted to her students and organized art clubs, lectures, and student exhibitions for them.

Teaching allowed her to support herself while pursuing her own painting part-time.

Example of what her classroom would have looked like. 

  • Thomas’s early art was realistic; she later experimented with abstract art.
  • Thomas retired from teaching in 1960 and was able to focus all of her attention on her art and developing her own style.

Alma Thomas working on her paintings.

From the window of her house she enjoyed watching the ever-changing patterns that light created on her trees and flower garden. She decided to paint what she saw through the screen. Her new paintings were more abstract than her previous ones.

Light Blue Nursery 1968

Thomas’s style consisted of broad, mosaic-like patches of vibrant color applied in circles or vertical stripe patterns. 

Resurrection 1966. It was the first art work of an African-American woman to hang in the White House’s public spaces and entered in the permanent collection. 

Color was the basis of her paintings. Many times she would start with her color pallet and then make up the pattern or even be inspired by a particular shade of color.

The Eclipse 1970

  • The Moon landing in 1969 also influenced her art, providing 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 the space vehicle used on the moon’s surface.

Snoopy space vehicle

Snoopy Sees Earth

Wrapped in Sunset, 1970

Starry Night and the Astronauts, 1972

1972

Spring Flowers in Washington, D.C. sold for $387,500 at a Los Angeles auction house on March 5, 2017–well above its $125,000 to $175,000 estimate.

@ Home Project!

Cut up tiny pieces of colored paper then arrange and glue them on a white piece of paper so the white can be seen between the colored pieces creating a  mosaic wonder just like Alma Thomas.  Feel free to email a picture of your artwork to ljohnson [at] ccplonline [dot] org for a chance to be featured in future editions of Art History Snapshot!

Resources

If you want to know more and Alma Woodsey Thomas explore these fun titles: