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  • Alma W. Thomas

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Photograph of Alma Thomas with her work at the Whitney Museum of American Art (c.1972). Unidentified photographer.


Courtesy of the Alma Thomas papers, 1894–2000, bulk 1936–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

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Creative art is for all time and it is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality, the statement may stand unchallenged.

Alma Thomas

Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man's inhumanity to man.

Alma Thomas

To tell the story of Alma Woodsey Thomas, whom we now think of as artist, one might begin with the last eighteen years of her life, from the year of her retirement from teaching art at Shaw Junior High School of Washington, DC, in 1960, to her death in 1978. Not that her earlier years had little or nothing to do with her artistic productions from 1960 onward—quite the contrary, those years, as well as her youth and young adult life, had everything to do with the formation of her aesthetic sensibility, and the feeding of her imaginary and her intellect, along with disciplined practice as a painter. Her formal art education at American University and Howard University, where she was the first graduate of the Art Department, combined with her informal intellectual and aesthetic exchanges with the Little Paris Group and the Washington Color school, were paramount to her development as an artist. Her helping to plan and mount the various art exhibitions, as well as her participation in open discussions, at the Barnett-Aden Gallery were paramount to her development as a curator and arts administrator. But it is the paintings that she produced during those last eighteen years of her life for which she will be long remembered. To explore her life and work between 1960 and 1978, and turn back to examine some of the experiences that fueled her imaginary and helped to shape the sensibility that produced such engaging color-filled abstract paintings as The Eclipse (1970), White Roses Sing and Sing (1973), and Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto (1973), for example, might further confirm the obvious: why and how might day-to-day dedication to and focus on one's project, and discipline in the practice and production of one's life-long project, more often than not, lead to excellence? The example is Alma Thomas, and the paintings she produced after her retirement are the excellence.


I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration. There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the window panes.

Alma Thomas

[Alma Thomas's] interest in nature, plants and flowers and landscapes provide the basis for this study [Wind and Crepe Myrtle] of color and light, one of the most Minimalist colour-field paintings ever produced by an African American artist … Nature here is reduced to staccato strokes of one to four colours. The spacing and repetition of colours create a visual rhythm: the formalized progressions of symphonies rather than the syncopation of jazz sensed in her slightly later paintings.

from Sharon F. Patton [End Page 1054]

The paintings Alma Thomas created between 1960 and 1978 were in no way representational or figurative; they were, in contrast to her earlier work, original abstract expressionist paintings—and they were so even when she first began to search for a style and subject and a voice commensurate with that she perceived, felt, knew, and imagined—all of those concerns that would ultimately define her as an artist. They all tell us much about her inspiration and how she transformed what inspired her and what she wanted to achieve from that inspiration. Her first steps in that direction were her Earth Painting series, inspired, Thomas said, "by the display of azaleas at the Arboretum, the cherry...


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