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Remembering Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas, Snoopy Sees a Daybreak on Earth, 1970. Zenith Community Arts Foundation

Women Artists

Remembering Alma Thomas

Abstract Expressionism was a movement dominated by male artists. Painters such as Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning have held centre stage as the stars of the movement, leaving many female abstract expressionists in their shadows – their work overlooked and underappreciated. One of these artists is Alma Thomas, a painter, educator and the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition of her work in the Whitney Museum of Art.

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Photograph of Alma Thomas at Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition opening, 1972. Unidentified photographer. Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Born in 1891 in the state of Georgia, Thomas exhibited an interest in the arts as a young girl and dreamt of becoming an architect. In 1907, as a result of escalating racial tension in the south, her family made the decision to move to Washington D.C – hoping for a better quality of life and a more positive future. Following the family’s relocation, Thomas excelled in school and in 1924, graduated from Howard University with a degree in Fine Art.  She pursued a career as an art teacher and would continue to teach until her retirement in 1960. Despite finding her vocation in education, Thomas still found time to paint in her spare time and upon retiring, committed fully to her practice. Enrolling onto classes at the American University, Thomas learnt of colour field painting and theory and began to develop her signature style.

Photograph of Alma Thomas painting in her studio

Alma Thomas working in her studio, ca. 1968. Ida Jervis, photographer. Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Thomas’s interest in colour theory is evident in her work, resulting in beautifully expressive and experimental artworks. She was also greatly inspired by nature, demonstrated in her artwork Earth Sermon – Beauty, Love and Peace (1971). Although Alma Thomas’s life had clearly been dedicated to her craft, it wasn’t until her latter years that her work was institutionally recognised in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. This exhibition made Alma Thomas the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney, an incredible achievement in itself, let alone at the age of 81.

Alma Thomas, "Earth Sermon"

Alma Thomas, Earth Sermon – Beauty, Love And Peace, 1971. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Thomas_CherryBlossomSymphony

Alma Thomas, Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973. Courtesy Studio Museum in Harlem

Thomas_BreezeRustling

Alma Thomas, Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

Alma Thomas has also been recognised posthumously, most famously by Michelle Obama. In 2009, two of Thomas’s paintings were chosen by the First Lady to be hung within the White House for the duration of the presidency. The painting Resurrection (1966) can be seen in the below photograph, hanging in the newly renovated Old Family Dining Room in 2015. It is poignant to see the first African American presidency recognise Alma Thomas, as she was a woman of first’s herself – transgressing expectations both artistically and socially and making a greater contribution to the art world than art history has allowed us to know.

PETE SOUZA/WHITE HOUSE

Alma Thomas, Resurrection, 1966. Displayed in the White House in 2015

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Art Historian and writer with a love for everything creative. I am especially interested in the connection between art and emotion, as well as being very interested in religious art. UK based.

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