March 25, 2023


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Alma Thomas: An Artist of Firsts

This American educator turned painter and artwork ambassador was unfaltering in her pursuit of magnificence and have become a ground-breaker for Black artists within the mid century and past.

Alma Thomas. Images © Michael Fischer, 1976. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Artwork Museum, Washington, DC.

Alma Thomas’ life was filled with firsts. She was the primary of 4 kids and was within the inaugural class of graduates for Howard College’s first High quality Arts program. In 1938 she opened the primary artwork gallery in a Washington DC public college. Three a long time later Thomas grew to become the primary African-American lady to have a solo exhibition on the Whitney Museum of American Artwork. And 40 years after her demise, Thomas’ work was chosen by First Woman Michelle Obama to hold on the partitions of the White Home.

Alma Thomas’ Early Life & Training

Born in Georgia in 1891, as a toddler Thomas moved together with her household to Washington DC, escaping the racial violence of the South. Though nonetheless segregated, DC would provide her the freedoms of attending college. She would in reality stay a life surrounded by training and artwork.

Untitled (Music Series) painting by Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas, Untitled (Music Collection), 1978, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Artwork Museum, Reward of the artist, 1978.40.5
The Eclipse, painting by Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas, The Eclipse, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Artwork Museum, Reward of the artist, 1978.40.3

Thomas graduated from Howard’s High quality Arts program, obtained a grasp’s diploma in artwork training from Columbia College and pursued superior research at American College. Whereas pursuing her training, Thomas taught artwork at a D.C. junior highschool, occupying the identical classroom for 35 years. Her curriculum intentionally integrated Black historical past in relation to artwork, whereas she developed artwork golf equipment, lectures, discipline journeys and displays for her college students. Her love of artwork and neighborhood may also be seen in her involvement in founding the College Arts League Mission and the Barnett-Aden Gallery.

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Alma Thomas’ Work

It wasn’t till 1960 that Alma Thomas, on the age of 68, would retire from instructing and change into a full-time skilled artist. She used her intensive research and expertise to in the end create luminous, summary and contemplative items. Thought-about part of the Washington Shade College motion, Thomas’ work is outlined by her use of shade, shapes and patterns to specific pure phenomena. She defined her aesthetic, saying, “Man’s highest aspirations come from nature. A world with out shade would appear useless. Shade is life. Gentle is the mom of shade.” Her inspirations ranged from flowers in her backyard to house and the moon touchdown.


Though she confronted discrimination all through her life, Thomas’ work centered on the inventive spirit fairly than society’s harsh shortcomings. Whereas her contemporaries used realism to depict the brutality and battle of the civil rights motion, Thomas took a unique method to encourage. “The usage of shade in my work is of paramount significance to me. Via shade I’ve sought to focus on magnificence and happiness, fairly than on man’s inhumanity to man,” Thomas mentioned in a 1970 interview.

Alma Thomas photo in gallery beside her artwork

Elysian Fields painting by Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas, Elysian Fields, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Artwork Museum, Bequest of the artist, 1980.36.8
Snoopy--Early Sun Display painting by Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas, Snoopy–Early Solar Show on Earth, 1970, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Artwork Museum, Reward of Vincent Melzac, 1976.140.1
Light Blue Nursery painting
Alma Thomas, Gentle Blue Nursery, 1968, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Artwork Museum, Reward of the artist, 1970.324

Her work continues to affect and encourage at present, effectively previous her demise in 1978, as seen by means of her artwork featured in numerous displays throughout the nation and most notably within the Smithsonian American Artwork Museum. In 2015 Thomas’ portray Resurrection was hung within the Outdated Household Eating Room of the White Home; it was the primary work by an African-American lady to enter the White Home Assortment.

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To study extra about different inspiring artists and designers of the mid century, don’t miss profiles on Norma Skarlek, Francis Gassner, and Ruth Asawa. In fact, don’t overlook to comply with us on Instagram, Fb and Pinterest for extra Mid Century Trendy inspiration!