New Year, New Inspirations – Alma Thomas

This week’s artist in our New Year, New Inspiration series is Alma Thomas. This week we’ll tell you a bit about this amazing artist, then next week we’ll have a project for you inspired by her work.

© Michael Fischer, 1976; Courtesy of National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

About Alma Thomas

Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) is best know for her colourful abstract paintings such The Eclipse, painted in 1970. This painting is one from her series Space Paintings, which was inspired by topics from rocket launches to sunsets. 

The Eclipse (1970)

Thomas was a significant contributor to Abstract Expressionism – a movement dominated by male artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The work of many female abstract expressionists has been overlooked and underappreciated however Thomas was celebrated during her lifetime, and in recent years her work has become even more well known. It is important to be aware that, as well as achieving recognition in a male-dominated art world, as a black woman Thomas dealt with violence, segregation, and prejudice throughout her life.

Thomas was born in Georgia in 1891 and was the eldest of four daughters. She always enjoyed art, from being a small child. When she was 16 her family moved to Washington DC to escape the racism and racial violence in Georgia. They also believed their daughters would get a better education there as the city was known to offer more opportunities to African-Americans. At this time it was completely lawful to segregate black and white children in schools in the US and while services were supposed to be equal, in practice the education of African-American children was almost always of a lower quality and they were denied many educational opportunities.

Thomas took her first art classes at the high school she attended in Washington DC. She was also a strong student in maths and science, and although she expressed interest in architecture as a career, being a woman limited her prospects in this area. Instead she studied to be a teacher, initially teaching kindergarten. At the age of 30 she entered Howard University, earning her degree in Fine Arts in 1924 – it is said that she is the first black women, or perhaps the first woman, to gain a bachelor’s degree in art in America.

After graduation, Thomas was employed as an art teacher in Washington DC from 1924 until she retired in 1960. During this time she worked to support and promote other black artists; she organised art exhibitions and promoted art opportunities, including for children in the city’s public schools. Throughout her working life she also pursued her own artistic interests – devoting time to painting, study and research.  She painted predominantly in water colours in the 1930s and 40s and her work was still quite traditional at this time.

In the 1950s her style evolved, she became more interested in abstraction and started using more oils and then acrylic paints. Etude in Brown is a significant and early oil painting by Thomas during this time when the artist was developing her abstract voice.

Etude in Brown c .1958

Another example of this move into abstraction:

Untitled (1960)

After she retired in 1960, Thomas could devote more time to her artwork, and it was after her retirement that she developed the style she is now known for. As well as moving towards abstraction, she also began to work with the bright colours we tend to associate with her work.

Unititled (Composition in Blue) 1964

Thomas created major works of art throughout her 60s, 70s and 80s. Her style and inspiration continued to evolve. She used acrylics on canvas more and more and her best known paintings from this period were characterized by brightly coloured, lozenge-shaped brushstrokes arranged in long bands or dense, puzzle-like patterns. 

Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969

At the age of 81 Alma Thomas was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Today her work is owned by many major galleries and any paintings which come onto the market command high prices. In 2019 A Fantastic Sunset sold in auction at Christie’s New York for $2,655,000. 

Thomas’ inspirations

Although Thomas lived and worked through years of appalling racism, segregation and oppression of black people in America, she chose not to express this in her art. She stated that the colours she used concentrated ‘on beauty and happiness in my painting rather than on man’s inhumanity to man’. She believed it important to create her own art and realise her artistic vision despite the prejudice and discrimination she faced as a black woman.

Inspired by Thomas

There is so much about Alma Thomas as a person which is inspiring. She was a black woman creating abstract expressionist paintings in a field dominated by men. She lived through decades in America where black people were systematically oppressed. She had a long teaching career and supported many other artists and then found her signature style after retiring from a long teaching career. Her achievements are incredible.

However, the real inspiration is her artwork – the ‘beauty and happiness’ in her paintings. I absolutely love her work. Her paintings, particularly the ones she worked on later in life, are so colourful, so vibrant – I could look at these forever. I think they really appeal to me as a modern quilt maker as they take simple shapes, brilliant colours and often a plain background to create something so beautiful.

It is so hard to choose a favourite, or even a few favourites – these are just some of the many I love.

I would encourage you to go and look at more of her work – if you Google ‘Alma Thomas paintings’ and go to the image page you get a screen of gorgeous colour!

So what will we be making?

Next week we will be creating our own, mini works of art inspired by these paintings, only in fabric. You’ll need to gather some fabrics in gorgeous, strong colours – similar to those used by Thomas. You don’t need a lot – we’re working small so you can use scraps.

You’ll also need some heat ‘n bond / bondaweb or similar, some plain white fabric, wadding and a sheet of plain card.

 For more information about Alma Thomas:

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