We artists are put on God’s good earth to create. Some of us may be black, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is for us to create, to give form to what we have inside of us. We can’t accept any barriers, any limitations of any kind, on what we create or how we do it. —Alma Woodsey Thomas, 1891-1978
From the classroom to the canvas, educator and painter Alma Woodsey Thomas was a force of encouragement, growth, and inspiration. As she advised others, she accepted no barriers, and this focused determination empowered her to become a groundbreaker for black woman artists.
Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891, and would be the eldest of four sisters. When she was in her teens, the family moved to Washington, D.C., where the artist taught and lived most of her life. After graduating from high school and teaching kindergarten for several years, Thomas enrolled at Howard University, a historically black university in D.C. She initially set out to become a costume designer, but after some encouragement from a professor, she became the first ever student to major in Howard’s emerging fine arts program. She graduated in 1924 with her bachelor’s degree.
Over the next 35 years, Thomas prioritized her career as an educator, teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. She spearheaded arts initiatives for black youth, often in partnership with Howard University, such as the School Arts League and the Junior High School Arts Club. She also sought to increase diversity and foster community among adult artists, serving as vice-president in 1943 for the Barnett Aden Gallery, D.C.’s first private art gallery to feature artists of all races.
From exhibit submissions to local artist groups, Thomas continued to practice her own art throughout her teaching career. During the summers of 1930-1934, she attended the Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City, earning her master’s in art education. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, she appeared in larger exhibits and launched solo exhibits at galleries around Washington, D.C. After retiring from education in 1960, Thomas became a full-time painter and developed the style that she is known for to this day.
Although Thomas dabbled in many styles, her career-defining works are most closely associated with the color field movement and, more specifically, the Washington Color School. Color field emerged in New York during the 1940s and ‘50s as a response to European modernism and abstract expressionism, and the Washington Color School was a particular approach to the style favored by many artists in the D.C. area. Abstract pieces utilize large swaths of color to convey specific emotions or experiences. Thomas’s later pieces are named for specific scenes or images, but she employed simple brushstrokes and larger color blocks to indicate not what she saw, but rather how she felt.
In 1972, when Thomas was 80 years old, the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC launched Alma W. Thomas, the first solo exhibit of a black woman artist shown at that institution. Later that year, the mayor of Washington, D.C., declared September 9 to be “Alma W. Thomas Day.” Television and radio broadcasts featured her work and life during September 20-23, 1972. Thomas also landed two solo exhibits at New York’s Martha Jackson Gallery over the next several years, in additional to ongoing appearances in multi-artist shows. Thomas’s painting Red Rose Sonata was donated to NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 following its appearance in several exhibitions.
Thomas died in 1978 at Howard University Hospital. At nearly 90 years old, she had contributed immeasurably to the esteem of black woman artists and used her talents to encourage black youth in her community. Despite ongoing battles for equality during the Civil Rights Movement and after, Thomas managed to identify and spread joy to those around her. In her own words: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”