Alma Thomas Coloring Page

All About Alma Woodsey Thomas

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Video Transcript:

Hey there, I’m Yvonne and you’re watching Color and Chill, the show that soothes your eyes, your ears, and your soul. If you’re looking for videos to relax you, tell you stories, teach you new things, or just keep you company, I’m here for you. Just focus on the brush strokes on the screen and the sound of my voice and let yourself be carried away into a state of peace and calm. This is another episode of “Facts to Fall Asleep” and in this video, we’re going to be learning about American artist, Alma Woodsey Thomas. Now, as always, I’m going to be speaking quietly and slowly in order to help relax and soothe us but if you’re here because you googled Alma Thomas and you’re just looking for a few specific facts and don’t really feel like sitting through the whole video, then take a look in the description below because I’ve listed some of the topics we’ll be covering with time codes so you can feel free to just skip around and find out what you really want to know about Alma Thomas.

So, let’s all just settle down into a comfy spot and take a deep breath in now, and then let it out again slowly and we can get started.

Alma Woodsey Thomas was a Black American artist who only really began professionally producing art after her retirement from teaching in her late sixties and she didn’t have her first solo exhibit until the age of 75. That alone is inspirational in terms of the message of “it’s never too late to follow your passions,” but on top of that, she was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and her paintings have been exhibited at the White House three times, with her painting “Resurrection” to be the first work by an African American woman to hang in the public spaces of the White House as part of its permanent collection. Pretty impressive, right? But let’s start at the beginning… 

Alma Woodsey Thomas was born on September 22, 1891, the oldest of four sisters. Her parents were John Harris Thomas and Amelia Cantey Thomas. Her father was a businessman who owned a bar in town and her mother was a dressmaker and a designer. They met at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and then moved to Columbus, a small town in western Georgia, a few years before their first daughter, Alma Thomas was born. Their large Victorian house on Rose Hill overlooked most of Columbus. From a young age, Thomas was exposed to history, art, and culture through her family life. Her mother played the violin, painted, and sketched, in addition to being a master dressmaker, and her family would frequently host literary and artistic salons. Thomas was a creative child who liked making puppets and sculptures out of the clay from the river behind her home and she found inspiration in the nature there and at her grandfather’s plantation in Fort Mitchell where she spent many summer vacations. She didn’t take her first true art class until high school though. As a child, Thomas dreamed of becoming an architect and building bridges. 

Although her family was highly respected within the local Black community, the South was still very segregated and Thomas began to become more aware of the racism around her as she grew older. Later, as an adult, she commented on how she was treated as if she was a child by white people long into her teen years and was never given the respect of being called “Miss” despite the expectation that she use formal terms like Miss, Mr., and Mrs., when addressing white people, even those younger than her. On Thomas’s 15th birthday, the Atlanta Race Riots occurred. Shortly after, she moved with her family to Washington, D.C., both in response to the riots and in order to escape some of the pervasive racism they were experiencing in their day-to-day lives in the Deep South. In Columbus, black people weren’t even able to use the public library or attend the local high school and most black students in town stopped their education after the 8th grade. But Thomas’s parents didn’t want that for their children so they packed up and moved north. Though Washington D.C. was still segregated at the time, there were more opportunities for them there than in most American cities. When they arrived, Thomas’s mother told her daughters to remove their shoes and kick the “Georgia dust” from their feet, with the expectation that they were never to return to the Deep South.

Along with some of her relatives, Thomas’s family purchased a home in the D.C. Shaw District, a neighborhood named after Colonel Robert G. Shaw, who led African American soldiers in battle during the Civil War. Her family was part of the black middle class and the Shaw District was a well-off black neighborhood but that doesn’t mean Thomas didn’t feel homesick for Columbus and Fort Mitchell. Many of her aunts remained in Georgia and Washington D.C. was much colder than what she was used to. Still, she was able to begin high school and though the schools in D.C. were still segregated as well, they had more resources than the schools she’d attended in Georgia and Thomas was amazed and appreciative of this. She attended Armstrong High School, and did very well in her science and math classes but this is also when she got her first taste of formal art education. 

“When I entered the art room,” she said of her high school, “it was like entering heaven. The Armstrong High School laid the foundation for my life.” Along with art, Thomas took sewing, hat making, cooking, and she excelled in architecture courses as well; one of the models that she created in school was even exhibited a few years later at the Smithsonian. However, becoming an architect wasn’t really a feasible career for women, especially black women, at the time, so when she graduated from high school in 1911, Thomas took a course in teaching kindergarten at the Miner Normal School instead. Though she had both hearing and speech impediments that made public speaking very difficult, she persevered, determined to continue her recently deceased grandfather’s legacy of helping the community. She worked as a substitute teacher in the Washington D.C. public schools for a few years and then taught kindergarten for several years at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware. This position required her to move away from her family for the first time in her life and she spent six years at the school. During this period, she began making marionette puppets. Though she enjoyed her job and was certainly dedicated to her young pupils, as her thirtieth birthday approached, she decided to make a career change and enrolled at Howard University in 1921.

Because of her previous teacher training, she was able to enter the school as a junior. Though she planned to study home economics, with a specialization in costume design, she switched to a fine arts major and graduated as the university’s first Fine Arts program graduate in 1924. This is only the beginning of firsts for Thomas throughout her life. It’s possible, that with her graduation, she was also the first African-American woman to earn a Bachelor’s in art, and maybe even the first American woman of any race to achieve this. That doesn’t mean she left school as an accomplished painter however. Despite what her future might hold, at Howard, she had focused on sculpture and her painting was described as “academic and undistinguished.” Thomas’ early work was a very realistic style but her professors and peers challenged her to experiment with abstraction, which she would eventually do and which would be much closer to the style of art she’s really known for now.

The same year that she graduated from Howard, Thomas got a job teaching art at Shaw Junior High School in Washington D.C. As much as she loved art, she felt it wasn’t practical to try to sustain a career as a full-time artist, knowing it could take years to gain the experience and reputation to be financially successful. At first, she had a hard time teaching young teens, being used to kindergarteners, but eventually she found her groove and ultimately taught at the school for more than 35 years until she retired in 1960. For most of her time teaching at Shaw, it was a segregated Blacks-only school. Though she didn’t expect every student to be a great artist, she did demand that they behave well and were kind to one another, valuing “character” extremely highly. So devoted to teaching art to her students she was, that she even started a community arts program as well. 

During this time, though she wasn’t able to dedicate herself completely to her artwork, she did earn a Master of Arts degree in Education from Columbia University, spending five summers studying in Manhattan, and returning to teach at Shaw during the rest of the year. Not only did she enjoy the art education, but she also enjoyed the summers of freedom from her family’s ever watchful eye in D.C. Her master’s thesis focused on the making of marionettes.

In 1943, Thomas cofounded and served as the vice president of the Barnett-Aden Gallery, which would eventually host almost two hundred exhibitions, with work by artists of all racial backgrounds, and both male and female artists being represented. 

Throughout the 1950s, Thomas took art classes at the American University in Washington, studying art theory, with an emphasis on color, knowing that she would soon retire from teaching and determined to be ready to pursue art full-time when she did. This is also the period when she began to transition from painting with oils to painting with acrylics and watercolors and she began experimenting with abstract art rather than the realistic style she’d produced before. Around this time, she became associated with the Washington School of Colorists. As a group, these artists pushed the bounds of color and disregarded traditional rules and structure for color use. This would undoubtedly have a big impact on her signature style, which would soon emerge. Additionally, she exhibited academic still lives and realistic paintings in group shows with other Black artists. Even though her artwork was good enough, none of them were singled out or recognized as being extraordinary. It wasn’t until she was able to devote herself completely to her artwork that she really began to excel and earn recognition.

February 1, 1960 was Thomas’s final day of teaching at Shaw Junior High School and she’s recognized as an outstanding teacher who’d touched a countless number of young lives during her teaching career. Feeling that she’d paid her debt to society and honored the sacrifices her parents and grandparents had made for her through teaching, Thomas was now ready to devote herself to creating her own artwork, at the ripe age of 68. In 1963, she attended the March on Washington and later painted “March on Washington, 1963” in remembrance of the day. This is one of the few pieces of art that she ever created which focused on political, social, or racial issues. In fact, Thomas really didn’t want to be labeled as a “black artist” at all. Having faced racism and segregation through her whole life, she was tired of it and, for the most part, allowed her artwork to be inspired by other subjects instead, such as nature, light, and color. On this topic she was quoted as saying “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”

It was also around this time that she began to struggle with arthritis so painful that she couldn’t even hold a brush, let alone paint with it. Again, she persevered and continued working through the pain each day until she was able to manage completely. She would find creative ways to accommodate her arthritis, such as placing the canvas between two tables that she could support her arms on and she began creating artwork that made use of small painted squares of color, woven together in geometric patterns on the canvas, which was possibly easier than traditional styles of painting. She began creating watercolor and acrylic paintings that were inspired by nature and the ever-changing light patterns on the trees and flowers outside of her window. Her signature style began to develop: mosaic-like vibrantly colored patches, applied in concentric circles or vertical stripes. The painting I’m recreating on your screen today is called “Springtime in Washington.” Completed in 1971, it’s a shining example of the style she was known for. 

Though Thomas avoided social issues, she did, however, allow her artwork to be influenced by the space race of the sixties, so thrilled by it she was. She completed an entire series of paintings called “Space” or “Snoopy” based on the 1969 Moon Landing. A few of the paintings from this series now hang in the National Air and Space Museum. One of these paintings entitled “Blast Off,” completed in 1970, looks like a large red mosaic triangle with a pink and yellow stripe up the middle and may not be recognizable as the tip of a space ship, unless you’d been told it was. She used about twelve different colors strategically placed on the canvas to create a sense of motion in the painting, and I highly suggest you take a look at it and others from this series.

Thomas wrote of the space race “Not only can our great scientists send astronauts to and from the moon to photograph its surface…but through the medium of color television, all can actually see and experience the thrill of these adventures.” Having grown up before television and preferring radio, this was one of the rare occasions when Thomas truly appreciated the invention of TV and allowed herself to be sucked in by its powers.

Though Thomas’ style may seem simplistic and easy to emulate, that’s not the case. Each piece was meticulously planned out, with shapes and colors chosen to convey light and mood. For each painting, she would complete many pencil and watercolor concept sketches before attempting a final painting. 

In 1970, when Thomas was 79 years old, her art began being highly recognize and sought after. In 1972, she was invited to present a one-woman show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. Not only was she 81 years old at the time, but she was also the first Black woman to have a solo show at the museum. She attended the opening in a brightly colored dress, full of energy, despite her health problems, ready to relish in her achievements. She said in her speech, “One of the things we couldn’t do was go into museums, let alone think of hanging our pictures there. My, times have changed. Just look at me now.”

Thomas chose to never get married, instead saying that she was “married to her art.” Living until her death in her family’s home in D.C. with her youngest sister, when asked about her life choices she replied, “what man would have appreciated what I was up to?” Today her decision to not marry or have children may be accepted without the bat of an eye, but in the early to mid-1900’s she was a rebel, refusing to play by society’s rules.

In 1972, right before another showing at a museum she’d not been allowed into just decades earlier, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., the city’s mayor named September 8, 1972 “Alma Thomas Day,” a surprise honor she greatly appreciated.

As she approached her death in 1978, Alma struggled to continue painting, despite her arthritis and other health concerns that left her wheelchair bound. She was frustrated to be caged in an old woman’s body she said and added that “if I could only turn the clock back about sixty years, I’d show them!” From 1976 to 1978, she completed a series of paintings, the final being a piece she called “Rainbow.” At first glance, Rainbow appears to be mostly shades of blue, covered by white patches but when you look closer, you can, in fact, see an array of colors beneath the milky squares.

On February 24, 1978, Alma Thomas passed away during a heart surgery at eighty-six years of age. She had given instructions for her funeral services to be joyful and for her body to be buried in the Lincoln Cemetery. She touched the lives of countless children and adults alike through both her art and her teaching career and her artwork continues to be revered and shown in galleries and museums today. With a style that children can appreciate and easily emulate, art projects based on her style are often taught in elementary school art classes and in 2015, Michelle Obama had her piece “Resurrection,” restored and unveiled as part of the White House permanent collection during Black History month. It’s now hung prominently in the Old Family Dining Room, an honor Thomas would surely have appreciated.

Now, as we close out this video, I want to thank you so much for spending time with me and learning something new tonight with me. If you’re still awake and want to learn more, check out some of my other “Facts to Fall Asleep” series and my “Soothing Sleepy Stories” as well, which feature classic fairy tales and more, that aren’t just for children! If you’ve enjoyed this video, please hit the like button and subscribe to this channel so you can come back and color and chill with me often. Finally, to finish, here’s one more quote by Alma Thomas that I think perfectly sums up everything we’ve learned about her and that is:

“Creative art is for all time and it is therefore independent of time. It is of all ages, of every land, and if by this we mean the creative spirit in man which produces a picture or a statue is common to the whole civilized world, independent of age, race and nationality, the statement may stand unchallenged.”