Her father’s insistence that his four daughters receive a complete education and escape the increasingly dangerous racial tensions plaguing their Southern hometown altered the course of Alma Woodsey Thomas’s life and the advancement of African American artists in the nation’s capital. John Thomas, a respected businessman from Columbus, Georgia, relocated his family to Washington, D.C., in 1907, moving into a small brick home that Alma would occupy until her death. From then on, Alma Thomas’s life was a series of firsts: the first graduate of Howard University’s fledgling fine arts department; the founding vice president of the Barnett Aden Gallery, the first private gallery in Washington to exhibit works by artists of all races; and the first African American female to have a solo exhibition at a major American museum.
Following her high school graduation and completion of a teaching certificate, Thomas taught art for six years at a Delaware settlement house before returning to Washington, D.C., to pursue undergraduate studies at Howard University. Armed with a degree in fine arts—the first Howard student to hold that honor—Thomas embarked on a career as an art instructor at a District of Columbia junior high school, a position she would hold for thirty-five years. During summer breaks, she continued her own art education, eventually earning a master’s degree from New York’s Columbia University. Passionately committed to the local arts community—and especially to fostering art appreciation among the city’s African American youth—Thomas joined her former professors James Herring and Alonzo Aden in the establishment of the Barnett Aden Gallery in 1943. The progressive gallery crossed the color barrier in Washington, showcasing modern works by exceptional artists of all races, including Gene Davis, Jacob Kainen, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, and Charles White. It also became a cultural hub, fostering the formation of the artists’ group known as “The Little Paris Studio” and promoting the works of members of the Washington Color School.
Thomas’s own paintings were, for the first twenty-five years of her career, largely representational and not particularly distinguished. However, beginning in the 1950s and in response to additional studies at American University, Thomas’s aesthetic changed course. She began experimenting with Cubism and Abstract Expressionism, adaptations that reflected her serious study of color and modernist theory. Following her retirement from Shaw Junior High in 1960 at the age of sixty-nine, she devoted herself to “serious painting.” She created exuberant canvases of vibrant color, often consisting of “thousands of small, irregular but usually rectangle squares of color, resembling tesserae, the small mosaic pieces used in Byzantine art.” Her exploration of color saturation and interplay also drew on Kenneth Noland’s circles and Gene Davis’s stripes. These abstractions were often inspired by nature as glimpsed from a window in her kitchen, which doubled as a studio.
A petite woman debilitated by crippling arthritis in her advancing years, Thomas refused to be thwarted by the obstacles—race, gender, and health—she faced. “Creative art is for all time,” she insisted, “and is therefore independent of time. It is . . . common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race, and nationality.” Thomas’s systematic investigation of color and stunning modern canvases began to attract national attention beginning in the late 1960s. In 1972, the Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a solo exhibition of her work, making Thomas the first African American to receive a one-woman show at the institution and earning four separate critical reviews from the New York Times. That same year, the Corcoran Gallery exhibited a significant retrospective. Acclaim for her work and person rose steadily through that decade, until her death in 1978.
In addition to the Whitney and Corcoran shows, Thomas’s work was exhibited nationally and internationally during her lifetime, including the 35th Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting and at the White House. Alma Thomas is represented in the holdings of such major museums as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Howard University Gallery of Art, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Art Institute of Chicago, and Columbus Museum of Art (Georgia).