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Art HERstory: Alma Thomas

Today’s featured artist should be particulary interesting for those of you in the textile design industry and/or if you’re a textile design student.

As a black woman artist, Alma Thomas encountered many obstacles. She did not, however, turn to racial or feminist issues in her art, instead she believed that the creative spirit is independent of race or gender (I LOVE that idea!). In her art, Thomas explores the power of color and form in luminous, contemplative paintings.

[Please note: Today’s info was taken directly from: Smithsonian American Art Museum (No author is noted on the site). The article poses the right questions about Ms. Thomas’ work and is very well written, helping us fully take in her amazing art.]

Thomas in her studio, 1968. Photograph by Ida Jervis.

Do the trees near your house play music? Do the flowers in your neighborhood sing and dance?

When Alma Thomas looked at her garden, she imagined that sometimes they did. When the wind blew through the trees in her yard, she heard the leaves hum. When the sun was bright, she watched the flowers turn to face the sky.

New Galaxy, 1970, Synthetic polymer on canvas, 54×54

Although she lived in the same small house in Washington, D.C., for almost her entire life, she watched her garden change every day. Some of the changes were small ones—the grass looked greener after a spring rain, and the leaves began to change color after the first fall frost. But some of the changes were much bigger—a fall storm knocked branches and blossoms to the ground, and once the moon moved in front of the sun in an eclipse, making the shadows sharper and colors deeper than usual.

Alma Thomas enjoyed all of these changes. They made her garden more interesting to her. And they made her think about ways she could change her paintings, to make them just as interesting as her garden. She wanted to try a new kind of painting—unlike anything she’d ever seen or done before. But how? As she thought about this, she stood at her window, watching the holly tree in her front yard. She decided to try painting everything she saw—the sun shining through the leaves, the breeze rustling them, the shadows changing their shape and color. This would be her new kind of painting!

Alma Thomas in her studio, ca. 1968 / Ida Jervis, photographer.

“I got some watercolors and some crayons, and I began dabbling,” she said. “Little dabs of color that spread out very free…that’s how it all began. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the windowpanes.”

Leaves Outside a Window in Rain, 1966, watercolor

Alma Thomas put these new colors and patterns into her paintings to show us the kinds of changes she enjoyed watching. Then, when she was finished, she gave her paintings special names, to tell us what they reminded her of and why they made her happy.

Red Sunset, Old Pond Concerto,1972, acrylic, 68 1/2 x 52 1/4 in.

The titles Alma Thomas chose for her paintings tell us that the wind brought her much more than new colors to paint. It made her crepe myrtle tree seem to play music and the flowers on her azalea bush sing and dance to rock ‘n’ roll!

Alma Thomas often did artwork with children. She worked as an art teacher in city schools. She loved teaching, but she also loved learning—especially the new lessons she discovered in her students’ art.

Her first summers were spent on her grandfather’s farm in Alabama. She had birds and animals to play with, wildflowers and cotton to pick, and colored clay from the brook to make into little cups and plates. When she started painting, she remembered these happy months and began “painting nature.”

Hydrangeas Spring Song, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 48″.

She was excited about new discoveries in science and technology. She was especially interested in the space program. Photographs taken from satellites gave her new ways to see the world, and she often painted from them.

Cherry Blossom Symphony, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 69″ x 54″.

The people in her neighborhood in Washington, D.C., had many problems and hardships. She said that her paintings show that people can be “living in the heart of the ghetto and seeing beauty.”

Alma Thomas was known for smiling at everyone she met. She was cheerful and encouraging—in her artwork and in person!


I hope you enjoyed today’s featured artist. Please feel free to send us your comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Also, next week I’ll be taking this column to the next level with the featured artist I have planned…so STAY TUNED (trust me, this is going to be GOOD!)!

Images: Smithsonian Archives of American Art

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