Born in Mount Pleasant, Ohio in 1899, Howard Wilbur Thomas spent most of his childhood summers on the farms of Quaker communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Within that community, it was Thomas’s grandfather who showed the young artist the quiet integrity and the bond with Earth that would inspire him for the rest of his life. After graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1922, he began teaching high school art classes in Wisconsin, where he became friends with Carl Holty. When he returned from his travels through Europe in 1928, he began teaching full-time at Milwaukee State Teachers College.

For the next decade, he would exhibit works across the United States to critical acclaim. Thomas’s work in this era was realist and regionalist, reflecting his focus on the cultural and emotional isolation of the small towns of provincial America, with a particular focus on African American, blue-collar workers. Clear influences from the works of Cezanne and the Cubist movement can be seen in his early artwork. In 1941, he would tour the South for the first time, remarking in his diary, “The red earth around Asheville, N.C., and South was rich.” When he began teaching full-time at the University of Georgia, he also began working with raw earth material which he called earth pigment, reflecting his desire to capture nature in its most essential form. For Thomas, making art was not only symbolic and nostalgic, but philosophical and spiritual. He also worked with Josef Albers and Carl Holty through his position as an examiner at Black Mountain College in 1948. These relationships, along with his travels to Japan, would influence his art in later years.

It was halfway through the 1950s that he developed his signature abstract pointillism style, a series broadly classified as “dispersed surfaces,” that would garner him more fame and accolades. His confetti-strewn style was highly non-representational, boundaryless, autonomous, and full of energy and movement. Thomas often painted to musical pieces by the likes of Bach and Vivaldi, and the influence is clear in the “visual rhythms” of pieces from this era. In 1960, he married fellow artist Helen Anne Wall. Once they returned from travels to the United Kingdom, Thomas made a series of gouache paintings and a film called Earth Red: Howard Thomas Paints a Gouache about his artistic process, which he released in 1964. The next year, he retired from University of Georgia and moved to Carrboro, North Carolina, where he painted, taught workshops, and exhibited his pieces until his death in 1971.