“Creative art is for all time and is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality; the statement may stand unchallenged.”
-Alma Thomas, 1970
I have always been a fan of the Washington Color School artists. Alma Thomas and Gene Davis are two of my favorites. Mr. Davis’s work still comes up at auction (from local collections) in the D.C. market from time to time.
This post however, is about Alma Thomas.
Alma Thomas was an African American artist who was a successful Washington avant-garde painter despite the barriers presented by her age, race and gender.
Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in 1891, in Columbus, Georgia. She was an African American teacher, painter and art educator. She lived and worked primarily in Washington, D.C. where she became known as a force in the Washington Color School. In 1906, her family relocated to Washington because of the racial violence in Georgia and the superior public schools in D.C. She grew up in Logan Circle (Washington, D.C.) and died living in the same house that her family moved into upon their arrival in Washington. She died in 1978.
She was an undergraduate at Howard University (1921-1924) and was the first Fine Arts major to graduate. At Howard, Ms. Thomas started as a home economics student only to switch to fine art after studying under the art department founder James V. Herring.
After graduation in 1924, she taught at Shaw Junior High School, where she remained until her retirement in 1960. In 1934, she received a M.F.A degree from Columbia University.
In 1943, she co-founded the Barnett-Aden Gallery with Mr.Herring (former professor and mentor) and Mr. Alonzo Aden. It was through the gallery that Ms. Thomas met and created lasting relationships with many of the members of the Washington Color School as the gallery exhibited much of their work.
At the age of 55, Thomas went back to school at American University, taking Jacob Kainen’s abstract painting classes. His work was considered radical! Thomas switched from realism to abstract patterns of colorful geometric forms when Color Field Painting was still in its infancy. Between 1950 and 1960, she took courses in creative painting and color theory at American University, where many of the Washington artists were teachers. Thomas incorporated aspects of their styles such as strong design, large-scale format, and pure colors, into her abstractions. However, she favored a more gestural style, drawing pencil lines, which are usually visible in her finished work and showing active brushstrokes.
In the 1960s, she joined the local Washington Color School, whose members included Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Sam Gilliam.
Ms. Thomas worked for more than 25 years in a relatively representational mode, incorporating elements from the styles of Cezanne and Matisse. She altered her approach late in her career to one that showed her assimilation of abstract expressionism and the focus on color that dominated the work of the Washington Color School painters.
Her inspiration came from the natural world such as fallen leaves, the night sky or a bursting bouquet of flowers.
In 1972, she became the first African American woman artist to mount a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Alma Thomas at the Whitney at the opening of her exhibit, 1972.
In 2009, two paintings, including Watusi (Hard Edge) and Sky Light, on loan from the Hirshhorn Museum, which hangs in the Obama family private quarters, were chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama,White House interior designer Michael Smith and White House curator William Allman to be exhibited during the Obamas presidency. Watusi (Hard Edge) was eventually removed from the White House due to concerns with the piece fitting into the space in Michelle Obama’s East Wing office.“The reason why it was moved was because it didn’t fit the space right,” announced Semonti Stephens, the First Lady’s deputy press secretary.
There was a rather ridiculous controversy with the Watusi painting. and a similar painting by Matisse called L’Escargot, 1953. The art press and newspapers had a field day. All kinds of insulting things were written about Ms. Thomas as well as the Obamas.
Alma Thomas, Watusi, (Hard Edge) 1963.
Matisse, L’Escargot, 1953.
The 1963 painting it turns out, is extremely similar to a 1953 piece entitled L’Escargot by Matisse, a maestro whom Thomas openly proclaimed an inspiration to her evolution as a painter. Rotate L’Escargot (above) 90 degrees counterclockwise, use a cooler color palette, and ta-da! Watusi emerges.
However, Ms. Thomas talked about creating Watusi. She worked out of the kitchen in her house, creating works like Watusi, which was a manipulation of the Matisse cutout, L’Escargot, in which Thomas shifted shapes around as well as changed the colors that Matisse used. She named the piece after a Chubby Checker song.
Alma Thomas, Sky Light, 1973.
Alma Thomas, Untitled
Alma Thomas, Springtime in Washington, 1971.
Alma Thomas, Red Azaleas Singing & Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C. She was 85 when she created this.
Alma Thomas’s work is on display all over the United States. The Smithsonian has several paintings, as well as MoMA in New York, The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and Fisk University in Nashville.