Alma Thomas Facts

Alma Thomas was an African-American artist and teacher who is now recognised as an important artist of the 20th century.

Facts About Alma Thomas

  • Alma Thomas was born Alma Woodsey Thomas in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia, US.
  • She had three older siblings, her father was a businessman, and her mother was a dress designer.
  • As a child, Alma Thomas enjoyed making puppets, and sculptures, and she handcrafted plates using clay collected from a river close to the family home.
  • Her mother played the violin, and she taught Alma Thomas how to play.
  • In 1907 her family relocated to Logan Circle, Washington DC, in order to escape the racial violence occurring in Georgia. The US capital was segregated at the time, but it was more welcoming to African-American families than many other US cities at the time.
  • Alma Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School. She was a good student and particularly liked science and architecture lessons.
  • She graduated in 1911, and she went on the study Kindergarten Education at Miner Normal School (now called the University of the District of Columbia). She qualified as a teacher in 1913.
  • In 1915, she got a job as a kindergarten teacher at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware. She remained in this post until 1921.
  • At the age of 30, Alma Thomas enrolled at Howard University in 1921. Initially, she took classes in home economics with a view to specializing in costume design, but she soon transferred onto the Fine Art course, studying under James V. Herring.
  • She graduated in 1924, and she began teaching at Shaw Junior High School. A school for black pupils in the then-segregated Washington DC.
  • Alma Thomas worked at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years, occupying the same classroom. Artist Malkia Roberts was also a member of the school’s art department.
  • During the school’s summer breaks, Alma Thomas would travel to New York to visit art museums and galleries.
  • In 1943, James W, Herring (one of her former professors) and Alma Thomas opened the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington DC.
  • Alma Thomas studied at the American University in 1950. During this period, her painting style evolved from figurative, to cubist, to abstract expressionist.
  • Alma Thomas did not become a professional painter until she was in her late-sixties after she had retired from her teaching career.
  • Her post-retirement work is often compared to the work of Vasily Kandinsky because of how they both approached the use of colour.

The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness in my painting rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.

Alma Thomas
  • Her 1963 work titled Watusi (Hard Edge) was based on Henri Matisse‘s Snail. Alma Thomas changed the colours, and rearranged the elements to produce a new work.
  • She was friends with the opera singer Lillian Evans, and together they participated in 1963’s March on Washington. Alma Thomas produced a painting of the event in 1964.
  • Alma Thomas’ art style evolved again in the late 1960s. She began to create works that featured small rectangular shapes of intense colour.
  • At the age of 81 years old, Alma Thomas had a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
  • Alma Thomas never married. She shared the family house (now known as the Alma Thomas House and listed on the National Register of Historic Places) with her sister John Maurice Thomas (named for their father).
  • The paintings Alma Thomas produced in the latter stages of her life have been compared to the pointillist work of Georges-Pierre Seurat.
  • Alma Thomas died in 1978.

The degree of beauty in a picture depends upon the feeling for beauty in the artist and his power to express it.

Alma Thomas
  • In 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama selected Alma Thomas’ Watusi (Hard Edge) to be one of the pieces to be exhibited in the White House. Her 1973 Sky Light painting was displayed in the Obama’s private living quarters.
  • In 2021, her painting Alma’s Flower Garden sold for $2.8 million. A Fantastic Sunset sold in 2019 for $2.6 million.
  • Some of her other most well-known works include Air View of a Spring Nursery (1966), Milky Way (1969), The Eclipse (1970), Red Rose Sonata (1972), and Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers (1968).
  • Alma Thomas’s work was inspired by the work of other Washington DC-based Colour Field painters, such as Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland, and Morris Louis.