A world without colour would seem dead. Colour is life.

Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) was an expressionist painter, arts educator, teacher, sculptor, marionette maker and playwright. Born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891 to John Harris Thomas and Amelia Cantey Thomas, the artist was one of four daughters. 

Entering the world as an African-American woman at the turn of a tumultuous century, Thomas lived through the Civil Rights Movement, two world wars, the Harlem Renaissance and Great Depression, industrial and technological revolutions and major advances in women’s rights. However, it is often noted that her work is absent of political statement, and Thomas herself commented on this on a number of occasions: “Through colour, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” In fact, her 1963 painting depicting The March on Washington was probably her only work that was blatantly political in theme. It is clear that she did not want her art confined and stereotyped as a result of her racial heritage or gender. When asked by a journalist if she considered herself to be a “black artist”, Thomas replied “I am an American.” 

By the time Thomas began her career as an artist, she was 69. In the four decades she spent working in education, she was not only a teacher, but a leader and an inspiration to young people, organising marionette theatre productions, opening galleries and bringing art classes to black children from impoverished backgrounds. 

Thomas is best known for her work in the form of concentric circles and parallel lines, which often resemble carefully pruned flower beds or gobstoppers cleaved in two. Her work has been compared to the pointillism of Seurat and the fractured images of ancient mosaics, with raw canvas exposed beneath acrylic squares of flat colour. Over the years, her artistic style has spanned Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, and colour field painting in its approach and composition. Thomas not only painted in vivid colours but surrounded herself with them – from her home to her clothes to her art, Thomas’ life was seeped in vibrant hues and embellished in pattern.

From a brief glance at the artist’s biography, it is clear that her passion to learn about art never ceased. In 1907, after her family relocated to Washington, Thomas enrolled at Armstrong Manual Training High School. A revolutionary individual from the beginning, it is no surprise that Thomas was the only female student in her year to take maths and architectural drawing. In 1911 she graduated from high school and attended Miner Normal School (now known as the University of the District of Columbia), receiving her certificate for kindergarten teaching in 1913.

Thomas later accepted a role at a school in Maryland, where she stayed for four months before taking a teaching position at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1915. She remained there for 6 years, and in 1921, at the age of 30, Thomas followed her dream of becoming a costume designer and enrolled in Home Economics at Howard. During this time, she created costumes for the University’s theatre group ‘The Howard Players’. 

In 1924, Thomas became the first student to graduate from the newly formed art department at Columbia University, achieving a Master of Arts with a thesis that focused on the art of marionette making. Thomas was later hired as the Assistant Director of drawing at the Cheyney Training School for Teachers in Pennsylvania, where she stayed for just one term before accepting a teaching position in the art department at Shaw Junior High School. She held this role for an astonishing 35 years, but, even as a teacher, her love for learning remained persistent. Between 1930 and 1934, Thomas took summer classes at Teachers College at Columbia University, which taught all manner of art theory, philosophy, and crafts such as pottery. 

Returning to her love for puppetry, in 1935 Thomas took a course on marionette making in New York. During this period, and for many years surrounding it, African-Americans were prohibited from entering the National Theatre in Washington D.C. In response, Thomas organised marionette shows that were open to the minority community, staging puppet theatre at institutions such as the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, the Howard University Gallery of Art, Armstrong Manual Training High School and Shaw Junior High School. These included popular shows such as Alice in Wonderland, as well as plays written by Thomas herself.

In 1936 Thomas went on to organise the School Arts League, which had classes on Saturday mornings and was specifically aimed at inspiring a love for visual culture in African-American high school students. Two years later, she organised the founding and opening  of the school’s first art gallery. By 1943, Thomas was the Vice President of the Barnett Aden Gallery, which was the first gallery in DC to break social barriers and invite artists of all cultures and racial backgrounds to exhibit.

Encouraged by the artist community of Washington (and those contemporaries who participated in the artists group ‘The Little Paris Studio’), in 1950 Thomas enrolled in classes at American University, where she would receive a second degree. Here, she studied for over a decade under figures such as Joe Summerford, Robert Gates and Jacob Kainen. This period in Thomas’ life would nurture the artist’s fascination with the abstract and monochromatic styles that she would gravitate to in later years, and which eventually became characteristic of her most celebrated works. It was not until the early 1960s when Thomas fully retired from teaching and began to focus her energy on her career as an artist. 

Thomas is often associated with the Washington Colour School, (which largely consisted of colour-field painters such as Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis, Gene Davis, Howard Mehring, Tom Downing, and Paul Reed); it has been argued that her work stands apart from this group in a number of stylistic ways. In the introduction to Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings (1998), (a catalogue that would accompany a seminal exhibition at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art), curator Sachi Yanari argues that “Like them, Thomas turned to acrylic paint and explored non-traditional painting techniques on large-scale canvases. But she remained independent from them in style, technique and subject matter.” Thomas found the beauty of nature to be her primary source of inspiration, and this can be seen in the titles of paintings such as Hydrangeas Spring Song (1976), and Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968).

Though Thomas’s earlier paintings focused on figurative works, by the mid 1960s she had turned almost entirely to bright colours and systemic abstraction, inspired by her knowledge of colour theory, and her time studying at American University. She was greatly influenced by the first moon landing in 1969, creating the Space or Snoopy series the very same year. These works were brought to life on large canvases, with Thomas’s characteristic rectangles of tesselating colour on pale backgrounds allowing the patterns to look almost as though they are moving, like an optical illusion. In the 1970s, her arthritis and diminishing eyesight started to interfere with her artistic practice, yet her love for colour never ceased. Her last known work is titled ‘Rainbow’ (1978).

Thomas continued to paint until the end of her life, never marrying, and living in the family home that her father had bought in 1907. During her lifetime and posthumously, her work has been recognised internationally and has been the subject of many exhibitions. These include a solo exhibition at Howard University in 1966, and later at Fisk University in 1971-1972. Thomas’ paintings were also the subject of a 1987 travelling exhibition by the National Museum of American Art. In 1972, Thomas was the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. During the reception of the retrospective she said “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.” 


©The Heroine Collective 2020 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include Black Art: A Cultural History, Thames & Hudson 2002, // Forgotten Women Artists by Zing Tsjeng // Women of Abstract Expressionism by Joan Marter.

Tor Scott

Written by Tor Scott

Tor is a Collections & Research Assistant at the National Galleries of Scotland. Her interests involve material culture, curiosities, and in particular a focus on superstitious objects and charms found in England and Scotland over the last 600 years.

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Image sourced from Smithsonian American Art Museum, URI http://edan.si.edu/saam/id/person-institution/4778, and is used for non-commercial, informative purposes only.