Alma Woodsey Thomas

Alma Woodsey Thomas

1891–1978

Artist Details

Birth Place
Columbus, Georgia
Death Place
Washington, D.C.
Phonetic Spelling
AL-mah WOOD-zee TAHM-ahs
Medium
Decorative and utilitarian works; Painting
Style
Abstraction
Places of Residence
Washington, D.C.
Training
Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, 1958; The American University, Washington, D.C., 1950–60; Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City, 1930–34; Steinhardt School of Education, New York University, New York City, 1927; Howard University, Washington, D.C., 1921–24
Retrospective Exhibitions

Alma Thomas, Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, and The Studio Museum Harlem, New York City, 2016Alma Thomas: Phantasmagoria, Major Paintings from the 1970’s, The Women's Museum: An Institute for the Future, Dallas, Texas, 2001; A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., 1981; Alma W. Thomas: Retrospective Exhibition, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1972

NMWA Exhibitions

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today, 2017–2018
Four Centuries of Women’s Art: The National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1990–91

About the Artist

Alma Woodsey Thomas developed her signature style—large, abstract paintings filled with dense, irregular patterns of bright colors—in her 70s.

Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, the oldest of four girls. In 1907, her family moved to Washington, D.C., seeking relief from the racial violence in the South. Though segregated, the nation’s capital still offered more opportunities for African Americans than most cities in those years.

As a girl, Thomas dreamed of being an architect and building bridges, but there were few women architects a century ago. Instead, she attended Howard University, becoming its first fine arts graduate in 1924. In 1924, Thomas began a 35 year career teaching art at a D.C. junior high school. She was devoted to her students and organized art clubs, lectures, and student exhibitions for them. Teaching allowed her to support herself while pursuing her own painting part-time.

Thomas’ early art was realistic, though her Howard professors Loïs Mailou Jones and James V. Herring challenged her to experiment with abstraction. When she retired from teaching and was able to concentrate on art full-time, Thomas finally developed her signature style.

She debuted her abstract work in an exhibition at Howard 1966, at the age of 75. Thomas’ abstractions have been compared with Byzantine mosaics, the Pointillist technique of Georges Seurat, and the paintings of the Washington Color School, yet her work is quite distinctive.

Thomas became an important role model for women, African Americans, and older artists. She was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, and she exhibited her paintings at the White House three times.

National Museum of Women in the Arts