Alma W. Thomas
(Columbus, Georgia, 1891 - 1978, Washington, D.C.)
When she was fifteen, Alma Thomas’s family moved from Georgia to Washington, D.C. in order to escape racial violence and find better (though still segregated) schools. Although she was prohibited from visiting art museums as a child because of her race, Thomas became the first graduate of Howard University’s fine arts department in 1924. After graduation, she began her thirty-five year teaching career at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. A decade later she earned an MFA from Columbia University in New York City. Thomas painted intermittently during the decades that followed and took weekend classes at American University in the 1950s. During this time, she began to develop an interest in color and abstraction and studied with Jacob Kainen, a member of the Washington Color School. Thomas explained her interest in color: “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”
Thomas retired from teaching in 1960 at age sixty-nine and – using her kitchen as her studio – devoted herself to painting full time. She developed a system of short strokes resembling mosaic tesserae, usually set against a different-colored ground or unpainted canvas. In the mid-1960s, Thomas began to focus on painting abstract depictions of natural phenomena. In 1966, Howard University mounted a retrospective, and she began to receive recognition for her work. In 1972, Thomas became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. mounted another retrospective of her work. When an interviewer asked her how she viewed herself, she responded, “I’m a painter. I’m an American.” Thomas died a few years later in the same Washington, D.C. row house she had lived in since 1907.