“Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man."
- Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas, Spring--Delightful Flower Bed, 1967, oil on canvas, 37 1/4 × 37 1/4 × 2 3/8 in. (94.6 × 94.6 × 6 cm), Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of William J. and Brenda L. Galloway and Family, © Charles Thomas Lewis
Alma Thomas was a pioneering artist during the 1960s and 70s. As an elderly Black woman, she occupied spaces unheard of during the time. Thomas was one of few Black and woman artists solely exploring abstract expressionism and color-field style paintings when white men dominated these fields. She became the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Through her signature use of color and focus on nature, Thomas expanded what African American Art can be.
Growing up in the Jim Crow south, Alma Thomas was born on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia. Even as a young child, she was enamored with nature, with all its beauty and colors. When she was fifteen, in 1907, her family moved north to Washington, D.C., to escape the deep south’s racial tensions. In 1924, Thomas graduated from Howard University, becoming the first to graduate from Howard’s Fine Arts program. Thomas went on to earn her Master’s in Arts degree in education from Columbia University. For 30 years, she taught in D.C. public schools and was an art advocate: organizing exhibitions, art clubs, and lectures for the growth and development of Black art students. She also continued her artistic projects between teaching. At American University in the 1950s, she was introduced to the world of abstract expressionism and color field art. Upon her retirement from teaching, Thomas intended to give up painting due to difficulties with arthritis, but in 1966, Howard University offered to exhibit a retrospective of her work. Thomas, instead, offered to create new works for the exhibition.
Alma Thomas, Resurrection, 1966, Acrylic and graphite on canvas, 36 × 36 3/16 in (91.4 × 91.9 cm), White House Collection/White House Historical Association
Inspired by the trees and flowers outside her home, the soft pinks of cherry blossoms, the bold reds, oranges, and yellows of Autumn, and the excitement of a new era of space travel, Thomas created works that illustrated and captured the energy and beauty of life. Calling her signature mosaic-like style “Alma’s stripes,” color was paramount to Thomas. She aimed to “capture the magic” of the way light glitters and reflects on trees, flowers, and shrubs, all in hopes to share with others “the aspects of [nature] that have given me so much joy.”
Alma Thomas passed away in 1978, but her legacy lives on today. Her work continues to be exhibited across the world, especially in her hometown Washington D.C. In 2015, her painting “Resurrection” (1966) hung in the White House. It was selected for the White House Collection during Black History Month 2015 and is the first painting created by a Black woman in this collection. Her work “Spring--Delightful Flower Beds” (1967) is also part of the permanent exhibit “Visual Art and the American Experience” in the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Alma Thomas’s distinctive colorful abstract style continues to inspire artists and audiences around the country and world.