Urgent Museum Notice

5 Fast Facts: Alma Woodsey Thomas

Blog Category:  5 Fast Facts
Abstract painting composed of brightly colored, lozenge-shaped brushstrokes in vertical stripes of navy, purple, turquoise, yellow, orange and red.The overall effect is as if the painting was collaged out of torn pieces of paper, with the white of the canvas showing through.

Impress your friends with five fast facts about Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891–1978), whose works Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses (1969) and Orion (1973) are part of NMWA’s collection.

This fall and winter, cultural and educational institutions across Washington, D.C., celebrate Thomas’s life and art with a variety of programs and a major exhibition at the Phillips Collection.

A black-and-white photograph of an older adult woman wearing a dress with square patterns resembling a quilt. She smiles, surrounded by her paintings, holding one herself. The paintings feature different colored, thick, similarly shaped brushstrokes that create vertical stripes.
Photo by Ida Jervis; Alma Thomas papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

1. Leaving a Mark

In 1907, when Thomas was a teenager, she and her family moved from Columbus, Georgia, to Washington, D.C. Though she traveled elsewhere, the nation’s capital remained home for the rest of her life. The Alma Thomas DC Heritage Tour connects her personal and professional experiences to significant sites throughout the city.

2. Change of Plans

In 1924, Thomas received the first bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Howard University. Professor James V. Herring lured Thomas from the Department of Home Economics, where she was studying costume design, to his nascent Department of Art, where she became the first student of and graduate from the program.

3. The In Crowd

Thomas stayed connected to Howard University’s art department after graduation. She served as the first vice president of the Barnett Aden Gallery—one of the first Black-owned private galleries in the United States—co-founded by Herring. She also created and critiqued work as a member of the Little Paris Group, a cohort of prominent D.C. artists established by professors Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998) and Céline Marie Tabary (1908–1993).

4. Multi-Hit Wonder

Though known for canvases covered in her signature “Alma stripes,” Thomas’s artistic output includes costumes, marionettes, sculptures, still lifes, portraits, and stripe-free abstractions. After attending the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Thomas developed two sketches and a finished painting, which inspired a U.S. postage stamp in 2005.

5. Winds of Change

In 1968, the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition protested the absence of Black artists in the Whitney Museum’s exhibition The 1930s: Painting and Sculpture in America. This activism eventually led to greater representation of Black artists in the museum’s works on view and exhibitions, including Alma W. Thomas in 1972, the museum’s first solo show featuring an African American woman artist.

Related Posts