Alma Thomas: a career of firsts

Alma Thomas. Her name in Greek means leap. And this is exactly what I want to do. Her paintings are so lively and bold that I’d love to leap into them and see the world through her eyes. Alma Thomas was one of the most influential painters of the twentieth century but not only for her art but also her ideas. Born in 1891 in a family of four children, she grew up in Columbus, Georgia, but really flourished in Washington DC.

She was born in the dark times of segregation and her family was affected by violence against African – Americans. Her parents wanted a better future for her and her siblings so they decided to take a leap, or an alma, of faith (see what I did there?) and move to Washington to be able to provide better education to their kids. Racial inequality in the United States was at a high when Alma was growing up and violence was a problem every African American was troubled by.

Alma could choose to become hateful as well and deal with her problems less productively than she did. Instead of becoming bitter from the atrocities she experienced, she found her solace in creating beautiful paintings that were cutting edge for her time. Her university education, first at Howard University and then at Columbia for her master’s helped her carve her own path in the field of education and the arts. She started a community program for students that were interested in fine art at Shaw High School, where she used to teach for most of her career. Up until 1960, Alma Thomas pursued her teaching career but still remained passionate for her art. It was after 1960 that she was able to completely immerse herself in her art sans distractions.

She enrolled in classes at American University where she studied the Color Field movement. The Color Field movement is a movement that focuses as its name implies, in color. Color becomes the main focus of the painting leaving more room for abstraction and liveliness. We are far away from the landscape paintings and into the abstract expressionism movement. Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko and Paul Klee are only some of the artists that participated in this popular art movement in the middle of the 20th century. However, color field movement was not the only inspiration for Thomas. Matisse’s work Snail created in 1953, one of his cutouts, inspired Thomas to create Watusi in 1962. In Watusi Thomas uses the same principles as Matisse. Solid colors, cutouts on a square shape.

At the same time, one of her greatest inspirations during the 1960s was Wassily Kandinsky. She worked in her kitchen by propping a canvas on her knees and balancing against the sofa. She used pencil across the canvas to create patterns and different shapes and in some of her paintings these pencil marks are still visible to the eye. She started gaining fame and became known at the Washington art circles landing her first retrospective in 1966, just six years after she devoted herself in painting full time. The retrospective took place at the Gallery of Art of Howard University.

For her first retrospective she created a series of paintings inspired by the Earth. These works are told to be heavily influenced by Byzantine mosaics and Seurat’s pointillist paintings. If you haven’t heard of pointillism, it is mainly dotting the canvas with different colors to create shapes and forms. This movement was very prominent in the late 1800’s among impressionist painters. As you can tell from this Alma Thomas takes both inspiration from both impressionist and expressionist painters to create her own form of abstraction somewhere in the spectrum of abstract expressionism.

Her second major theme of paintings were inspired by the moon landing in 1969. Appollo 12 Splash Down, Mars Dust, Atmospheric Effects I, Snoopy-Early Sun Display on Earth and The eclipse were all inspired by space. Thomas produced them in her signature pointillist, abstract style with vertical, horizontal and circular lines and bold colors. Her paintings evoke memories of space-ships and landings but in an abstract way, giving us the impression that she knew how to take a subject and give it an abstract spin on it. Thomas’ talent gave her a place in the Whitney Museum or American Art, where she was the first African American woman to have a retrospective. This was a historical time for black artists and Alma Thomas was a protagonist in those times.

Alma Thomas was still affected by segregation though, facing the same struggles as her art world peers. She never let that show in her paintings though. Instead of using her paintings to fight oppression in a direct way, the sole act of continuing her art journey was enough for an indirect blow to oppression and segregation. Thomas said on that that “The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me. Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness in my painting rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.(…) My goal was not to offend the beauty in nature, but rather to share with others those aspects of it that have given me so much joy.”

She carved her own way to artistic success by building a solid base of work that won the hearts of the toughest art critics, including New York Times who called her faultless in her use of color. Alma Thomas went on to become one of the most famous Color Field painters of the 20th century and left a legacy of huge importance for black artists. However she didn’t view it like that per se as she held that in her opinion Black art “is a misnomer. There are black artists and they, like all others, draw from they experiences to produce artistic expressions. If this expression is non representational, it is difficult or not impossible to tell whether the artist is white or non white. There can be no doubt however of the impact traditional African art has had on the world of modern art.” In 2009 two of her paintings were chosen by the first lady at the time, Michelle Obama, to be exhibited in the Obama residency. Ressurection was hung in the Dining Room of the White House and thus became the first artwork by an African American artist to be displayed in the White House and become part of its permanent collection. Thomas had already passed away in 1978 but her paintings continue to thrill us to this day.