MAJOR EXHIBITIONS OF WORKS by Alma Thomas (1891-1978) have concentrated on her paintings, masterful abstract works that are defined by her attention to rhythm, pattern, and color. The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga., and the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., have announced a forthcoming retrospective that will broadly explore her creative life—her artistic practice, as well as her interest in gardening, fashion, costume design, graphic design, and more—along with her hometown connections.
Thomas was born and raised in Columbus, where her family was at the center of African American social and cultural activities. She was a teenager when her family moved to Washington, D.C. She eventually attended Howard University and spent her entire adult life in the nation’s capital. The exhibition will consider the places and institutions that influenced and inspired Thomas over the years and draw heavily on a cache of about 500 Thomas-related materials The Columbus Museum has acquired, mostly directly from her family.
Co-curated by Janathan Walz, director of curatorial affairs and curator of American art at The Columbus Museum, and Seth Feman, curator of exhibitions and curator of photography at the Chrysler, the exhibition is expected to open fall 2020 at the Chrysler and travel to the Columbus Museum in fall 2021. The plan is for the exhibition to be presented at additional museums, yet to be determined.
An overview of Thomas’s life reveals her deep roots in Columbus and Washington, persistent desire to pursue new challenges, commitment to developing her practice over the decades, and the many ways her creativity shows up beyond her painting.
ALMA THOMAS, “Vase with flowers and bibelot,” circa 1960s (watercolor on paper, 13 x 10 inches). | The Columbus Museum, Gift of Miss John Maurice Thomas, 1994
SITUATED ON THE CHATTAHOOCHEE, Georgia’s longest river, Columbus was established in 1828 as a major trading center. The city was segregated, but the black community thrived. Thomas was born in 1891, the oldest of four daughters (one of them died early in childhood). Her father, John Harris Thomas, was a successful businessman who owned a liquor store and her mother, Amelia Thomas (née Cantey), was a dressmaker. An essay by Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, published in the exhibition catalog for “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of Paintings” (1998), provides an overview of the artist’s early life.
A “mulatto,” her maternal grandfather was cotton farmer and veterinarian who bred and sold horses. “He gave aid the the elderly and infirm and built a two-room schoolhouse on his plantation for local children, including his own, who went on to attend Tuskegee Institute in Alabama,” Benjamin wrote. Thomas found solace on her grandparents’ land, a former plantation where she learned about nature, horticulture, and animals.
Georgia’s red-clay soil was probably her earliest material. As a child, she used it to form small-scale cups and plates. Her aunts hosted regular salons, inviting speakers from Atlanta to lecture on world history and Shakespeare, among other intellectual topics. The public library was off limits to blacks, but Thomas was exposed to culture and had a rich family life.
In a 1972 New York Times article, Thomas said her interest in art came “from her mother, who ‘painted dainty pictures on velvet,’ and from the ‘artsy’ household atmosphere of her childhood.”
With the turn of the century, came a rise in racial tensions in the state. Thomas was entering her adolescent years and local schools for black students only went up to 9th grade. Encouraged by her mother’s sister and husband, a government worker in Washington, D.C., the family moved north in 1907. Thomas was 15. Although the nation’s capital was segregated too, the educational and employment opportunities were generally superior. They moved on spec, without having jobs lined up. Her father secured employment as a sexton at the First Congregational Church. Her mother continued working as a seamstress, making dresses for wealthy whites in the city.
“They were upper middle class in Columbus. In a sense, they kind of came down a bit. They were able to maintain their social status, but financially it was tighter because he wasn’t making as much money. He was dependent on this parent organization and in Columbus he owned the business himself,” Walz told me. “…The mom and dad wanted the three daughters to keep going with their studies and both Alma and John Maurice (her sister) eventually went to Howard. So it did really make a difference that they moved to Washington.”
“…The mom and dad wanted the three daughters to keep going with their studies and both Alma and John Maurice (her sister) eventually went to Howard. So it did really make a difference that they moved to Washington.” — Curator Jonathan Walz, The Columbus Museum
Little Paris Group meeting in 1948 at the studio of Lois Mailou Jones studio. Alma Thomas is seated second from right; Jones is to her left. | Alma Thomas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution
After high school, Thomas attended what is today the University of the District of Columbia. Focusing on kindergarten education, she earned a teaching certificate. For a short stint, she taught in the Princess Anne schools, in Somerset County, Maryland. Then she accepted a position at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House, a hybrid community center and social service agency, in Wilmington, Del., where she stayed for six years. Thomas was 30 years old when she enrolled at Howard University, initially studying home economics and costume design before becoming an art major and the first student to earn a fine arts degree in the department (1924).
She taught for 35 years at Shaw Junior High, a Washington, D.C., public school, and continued to pursue her own education in parallel. Thomas earned a master’s degree in art education from Columbia University in New York, an MFA in painting at American University in Washington, and spent a summer in Europe on a study tour sponsored by the Tyler School of Fine Art at Temple University.
Over the course of her teaching career, she was active in the local arts community, organizing clubs to expose her students to the arts, and joining many others. Thomas was involved with the Little Paris Group, which was co-founded in 1946 by Céline Tabary and Lois Mailou Jones, the artist and textile designer who taught at Howard. The group’s members were primarily black school teachers and civil servants who were also artists.
Thomas served as vice president of the Barnett Aden Gallery, a black-owned and operated gallery founded in 1943, that is often cited as the first in the country. A groundbreaking space, Barnett-Aden exhibited work by both black and white artists. James V. Herring, who co-founded the gallery, established the art department at Howard and recruited Thomas as his first student.
At American University, she studied with artist, printmaker, and curator Jacob Kainen. They later became friends and he served as a mentor and critiqued her work. Her practice matured during the same period that the Washington Color School artists were dominating Washington. She shared social and aesthetic connections with the artists, who also looked to Kainen for advice.
Poster for fall 1970 exhibition of Alma Thomas’s Earth and space paintings at Franz Bader Gallery on Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, in Washington, D.C. – ALMA THOMAS “Untitled,” 1970 (photo mechanical reproduction, 20 × 22 inches). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.140.5
Separated in age by more than 40 years, Sam Gilliam was also in Thomas’s orbit. In his 1989 oral history interview with the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, he revealed one of the perks of visiting Thomas: “I knew Alma, because if there was anybody doing anything, Alma would call you and would talk to you. Alma had studied with Jacob Kainen. I was surprised that she would even know—I would just get together and have her get supplies and various things, go over to her house. Trade liquor. She had a good bottle of scotch.”
Last year, speaking on an artist panel at the National Gallery of Art, Gilliam shared another gem about Thomas. Sponsored by the museum’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, the discussion was about African American art in 20th century Washington.
Gilliam recalled an incident involving artist Kenneth Noland and his fondness for Thomas. In 1977, the Color Field painter’s retrospective was on view at both the Hirshhorn and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Gilliam was standing with Noland greeting guests at the opening when Noland spotted Thomas. “At the end of the line was Alma Thomas. She was in a wheelchair at the time. …[Noland] looked to the end of the line and he started to run and he ran and spoke first to Alma Thomas,” he said.
Her creativity was boundless. At Howard, she helped design the 1923 yearbook. In addition to painting, Thomas formed ceramic and plaster sculptures and busts. She made painted balsa wood marionettes with fabric clothing after spending the summer of 1935 in New York training with Tony Sarg, an internationally recognized puppeteer who specialized in marionettes. She paid great attention to how she fashioned herself, which is reflected in the photographs held by The Columbus Museum and the Archives of American Art. She and her sisters are captured in carefully chosen outfits in staged poses. Walz likened the images to early selfies.
Throughout the years, her work periodically appeared in exhibitions. In the 1950s and 60s she wavered among scene painting, abstract still lifes and abstract figuration before she settled in the mid-1960s on her bright, energetic abstractions. In these works, many of her rhythmic patterns were inspired by the circular gardens at her family home in Columbus and the leafy trees rustling outside her living room window in Washington.
In these works, many of her rhythmic patterns were inspired by the circular gardens at her family home in Columbus and the leafy trees rustling outside her living room window in Washington.
Alma Thomas at the opening of her solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972. Curator Jonathan Walz of The Columbus Museum said she commissioned a designer to make the bold-patterned dress she wore to the historic event. | Alma Thomas Papers, Smithsonian Archives of American Art
After she retired from teaching in 1960, Thomas devoted herself to painting full-time. She was 68. That fall, she presented a series of watercolors in her first solo exhibition at a local Dupont Circle gallery. She also had shows at Howard University (1966) and Fisk University (1971).
A dozen years after focusing solely on her practice, she landed the groundbreaking show at the Whitney in 1972. Thomas wore a bold-patterned dress to the opening, which Walz said she commissioned a designer to make for the special occasion. A retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., followed later that year and then-Mayor Walter Washington declared Sept. 9 “Alma W. Thomas Day.” At 80, when the careers of most have slowed, hers was moving at a fast clip.
On the occasion of the Whitney opening, Thomas spoke to the New York Times about the arc of her journey. “When I was a little girl in Columbus, there were things we could do and things we couldn’t,” she said. “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.”
“When I was a little girl in Columbus, there were things we could do and things we couldn’t. One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.” — Alma Thomas
In 1978, Thomas died at Howard University Hospital after aortal surgery. She was 86. The Washington Post published Thomas’s obituary and emphasized two stages of her career: “Miss Thomas, the first person to graduate in art from Howard (in 1924), spent her first career teaching art to students at Shaw Junior High School. It was not until she retired, in 1960, that she began to paint the brightly colored abstract pictures that would win her fame.” CT
TOP IMAGE: Alma Thomas inspects two of her paintings on display, n.d. | Alma Thomas Papers, Smithsonian Archives of American Art
READ MORE about announcement of the forthcoming retrospective co-organized by Alma Thomas’s hometown museum
The Columbus and Chrysler museums plan to publish a catalog to accompany the forthcoming Alma Thomas retrospective. Accompanying the exhibition organized by the Tang Teaching Museum and Studio Museum in Harlem, “Alma Thomas” features more than 125 vibrant, colorful paintings and works on paper, many published for the first time, a preface by Thelma Golden, scholarly essays, and responses to Thomas’s work by four contemporary artists. To further explore the life and practice of Alma Thomas, consider “Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings,” published to coincide with a traveling exhibition organized by the Fort Wayne Museum of Art (1998-2000). An earlier catalog, “A Life in Art: Alma W. Thomas, 1891-1978,” accompanied a Smithsonian exhibition (1981–1982).
ALMA THOMAS, “The Stormy Sea,” 1958 (oil on canvas, 48 1/8 x 41 7/8 inches). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1977.125
ALMA THOMSS, “Light Blue Nursery,” 1968 (acrylic on canvas, 49 x 47 7/8 inches). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the artist, 1970.324
ALMA THOMAS, “Autumn Leaves Fluttering in the Breeze,” 1973 (acrylic on canvas, 40 x 50 inches). | Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 1980.36.9
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