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Luce Foundation Center for American Art

Painting: 20th century: Red Abstraction
Alma Thomas

Alma Thomas

(born Columbus, GA 1891 -- died Washington, DC 1978)

"What I would rather do is to paint something beautiful." Thomas, quoted in Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, 1981

Alma Thomas grew up in Columbus, Georgia, then moved to Washington, D.C., in 1907 with her family. In high school, she described the art classroom as a "beautiful place" that was just like "entering heaven" (Munro, Originals: American Women Artists, 1979). In 1921 she was the first student to enroll in Howard University’s fine arts course, where she painted still lifes and made ceramic sculptures. Thomas taught art to junior high school students in Washington for more than thirty years, postponing any serious painting until after her retirement in 1960. She organized several marionette plays for the students, combining her love for theater and stage design with her skills as a sculptor. (Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978, 1981) Thomas started out as a representational painter but soon turned to abstraction, creating colorful images inspired by the patterns in nature. In 1972 she was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Image Credits: Portrait of Alma Thomas by Laura Wheeler Waring, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1977.121