Known for her highly abstract paintings and her art education initiatives, Mary Alice Leath Thomas began her painting career creating watercolor sketches of Southern landscapes. The simplified, ethereal forms that populate these works on paper reveal Thomas’s familiarity with different parts of the Carolinas and Georgia. Born into a grocer’s family in Hazelhurst, Georgia, little is known in regards to what, if any, art instruction she received as a youth. But by the early 1930s, Thomas had graduated from Georgia State College for Women and had begun working toward her master’s degree at Duke University. She was appointed assistant professor of art at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and also served as president of the North Carolina Art Teacher’s Association. In 1935, she wrote Correlating Art with other School Subjects under the name Mary Leath Stewart; some early watercolors were also exhibited under this first married name.
Mary Leath met her second husband, fellow artist Howard Wilber Thomas, while attending summer classes at the University of Chicago in 1940. The couple married in 1945 and, shortly thereafter, moved from North Carolina to Athens, Georgia, where Howard Thomas was appointed professor of art at the University of Georgia. Mary Thomas also taught at the university, while worked as a consultant for the Atlanta school system and the South Carolina Department of Education. Throughout her notable career as an arts educator, Thomas was deeply interested in contemporary art developments and never stopped painting. Influenced by the 1941 retrospective of Paul Klee’s work at the Museum of Modern Art—an exhibition that introduced Americans to the Swiss-German artist’s abstract style—Thomas adopted a more modern idiom. The organic, ephemeral forms of her early landscapes congealed into solid, geometric forms, and the romantic earthy tones of her early watercolors became dramatically bolder. As Thomas moved toward complete abstraction, the natural objects to which her painted forms referred gradually became entirely unidentifiable, and can be seen as meaningful studies of color harmonies and balance.
Thomas’s compositions received mixed responses when exhibited at the North Carolina Annual Exhibition of 1947. The regional press and local audience were for the most part unfamiliar with her modern aesthetic and were initially hesitant to embrace abstraction. Nonetheless, Thomas soon earned a national reputation. The following year, Thomas’s work was included in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts’ annual watercolor and print exhibition. During the same period, she received a Carnegie Grant-in-Aid, which she and her husband used to co-write a book on design. Since her death in 1959, Thomas’s work has been featured in exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, High Museum, and Georgia Museum of Art.