“The Expressionist Painter, Alma Woodsey Thomas”
Mixed Media on Paper
11 inches x 14 inches
Born on September 22, 1891, Alma Woodsey Thomas was oldest among four children as her father was worked as a businessman and her mother worked as a dress designer. Thomas was described to be exceptionally creative as a child as she grew up in Columbus, Georgia—making countless works consisting of puppets, painted china, and sculptures that remained in the home she was born and raised. She excelled in math and science in school, learned to play the violin, but gained a deep interest in architecture. Thomas and her family then moved to Washington DC once racial violence began to escalate in Georgia.
The city offered more opportunities for African-Americans and Thomas sought to pursue her artistic agenda, but studying architecture as a woman grounded her chances at being a successful one. She studied early childhood education at Miner Normal School after graduating from Armstrong Technical High School for visual arts. The next few years were spent as a substitute teacher before becoming a fully licensed teacher working in Maryland and taught kindergarten in Delaware.
By the early 1920s, Thomas attended Howard College under the artistic tutelage of James V. Herring. Loïs Mailiu Jones, another professor and renowned artist, encouraged her to experiment with abstraction—a style that was new to the American public—and joined “The Little Paris Group” led by Jones. At Shaw Junior High School, Thomas continued teaching. She also founded a visual arts department with community projects for art appreciation. Resolute in teaching until her retirement in 1960, she became one of the first African American women to earn an art degree (also earning her Masters in Art Education at Columbia University).
Though, she would not be recognized as a professional artist until later in her life, Thomas’ Color Field style paintings were still experimented with as she looked through the works of Matisse and Seurat. Her inspiration would often come from nature, paying homage to notable female figures, and to civil rights protests (as she participated in the March on Washington with opera singer, Lillian Evans). Exhibitions of her work were held at Howard University, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (at the age of 81).
Thomas’ works are now featured in the White House Historical Association of her representational style and Byzantine mosaics as well as the National Museum of Women in the Arts (there are over 10 more locations—one being a very private collection).