Happy Birthday, Alma Thomas

Celebrating Alma Thomas’s 130th birthday with a comic about her life and work

Alma Thomas comic cover
Cover from Beneath the Holly Tree: The Story of Alma Thomas. Illustration by Lauren Lamb.

Our new digital comic series, Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists, highlights the careers of visionary and rule-breaking artists, such as Alma Thomas, known for her colorful and bold patterned abstractions. In fact, Thomas was one of the reasons the project was conceived. I live in downtown Washington, DC, in the Shaw neighborhood, which is where Howard University, Alma’s alma mater, is located. One day, I stumbled upon Alma’s house in nearby Logan Circle. It’s a lovely stand alone, brick house on 15th Street NW, with a large bay window at the front. (I only wish I could have seen the garden in the back that inspired Thomas’s work). I kept wondering how many people passing by knew about the artist, and how we could tell her story, particularly to inspire young people. Being a fan of children’s picture books and graphic novels, I felt visual storytelling was the way to go. 

a young girl in her garden with red flower petals falling

From Beneath the Holly Tree: The Story of Alma Thomas. Illustration by Lauren Lamb.

Lucky for us, we built a rewarding collaboration with the talented illustration students at the Ringling College of Art and Design. Ten women students were selected to tell the stories of ten women artists in our collection. In Beneath the Holly Tree, illustrator Lauren Lamb creates a colorful homage to Alma Thomas—what inspired the artist as a young person and how her artworks bloomed from a place deep inside her. Thomas’s colorful paintings often take their cue from the natural world, including gardens, and later in life, man’s exploration of the galaxy.

Thomas spent the rest of her life in DC, living in the same house her father purchased in 1907. It is still a private home, listed on the Registry of Historic Places. She became a beloved public school teacher, then recommitted herself to painting after retirement. She became a notable member of the celebrated Washington Color School. This period proved incredibly important for Thomas and brought her the recognition she so richly deserved. SAAM has the largest public collection of works by Alma Thomas, including thirteen that were bequeathed to the museum by the artist after her death.

For the artist’s 130th birthday, we invite you to read the comic and share with your friends and young people in your life.

Want to learn more about Alma Thomas’s practice? A recent blog post by SAAM’s conservation department reveals how the artist adapted her working methods later in life due to personal health challenges.

We'll be taking a closer look at Alma Thomas's evolving practice in our forthcoming exhibition, Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas, opening at SAAM in 2023.

Media - 1980.36.2A-C - SAAM-1980.36.2_1 - 83164
Alma Thomas, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of the artist, 1980.36.2A-C