15 Sep

Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) Revisited

Posted by Obiora Nnamdi Anekwe

For me, Alma Woodsey Thomas was a hometown, household name. Growing up in Columbus, Georgia, I had a passion for art and learning about artists who were unique and original. My first viewing of an Alma Thomas painting was at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia. I remember her paintings as bright and colorful masterpieces in different physical scales and sizes. The circular motions of her brush strokes were dazzling. The playful elegance of her artwork was inspiring.

As a youth, I had the pleasure of once knowing one of her relatives, Gertrude Sparks. I remember once seeing a number of paintings by Alma Thomas in her relative’s closet. The pieces were  very large works of art that were rare. They were unlike the previous works I saw at the Columbus Museum. Years later, I can say that her works and life story have affected me profoundly to be a dedicated artist to the craft of creating.

Born in Columbus, Georgia on September 22, 1891, Alma Woodsey Thomas attended Armstrong Technical High School in Washington, D.C. She enrolled in the teacher’s preparatory course for kindergarten instruction at the Minor Teacher Normal School. After graduation, she worked in a settlement house in Wilmington, Delaware. Thomas further studied in art at Columbia University in New York City and American University in Washington, D.C.

There were many firsts for Alma Thomas. She was the first graduate of Howard University’s fine arts department in 1924, later becoming an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. As an abstract expressionists and art teacher, she established the first art gallery in a Washington, D.C. public school. After her retirement in 1960, she became a full-time painter at the age of 71. Thomas was the first African-American woman to receive a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. 

But now recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in the art of Alma Thomas. Her works of art are being reexamined and revisited by museums and galleries around the world. A new exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York is one such example. For my birthday, I attended the exhibition of Thomas’ artwork at The Studio Museum in Harlem. This prolific exhibition is on view from July 14 to October 30, 2016, featuring more than fifty paintings and works on paper created between the 19500s until her death in 1978.

The opening artworks I viewed at the exhibition were reflective of abstract scenes from the Civil Rights Movement in which marching and protest scenes were dominate. These particular works were surprising because I often associated Thomas’ art with non-social issues. Although many African American artists during the Civil Rights Movement highlighted social injustice themes within their works, it was not uncommon for African American artists to refocus on a personal style that was unique, transcending race and social inequality. Thomas’ work did just that. Her originality and usage of color, shapes, patterns, and mesmerizing mosaic paintings made her standout not only as an artist, but as a black female artist who went against modern artistic conventions.