Alma Woodsey Thomas was an American Expressionist painter, art educator, and one of the greatest colorists of her generation. “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”
In 1972, at age 80, Thomas was the first African American woman to receive a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. This was followed by a retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Born in Georgia, she moved with her family in 1906 to Washington D.C. because of the race riots in the South. In 1921, she became the first art graduate of Howard University. Taking a teacher’s postgraduate course at Columbia University brought her into contact with avant-garde art. Thomas taught art for 35 years in a segregated junior high school in Washington D.C. while always making her own artwork.
After retiring from teaching, Thomas took painting courses at American University in the 1950s. She shifted from representational or figurative painting to abstraction. She created a personal style of brilliantly hued, short brushstrokes in dazzling striped and circular compositions, inspired by patterns of light from her garden and by images from the Apollo moon missions. Thomas achieved great success as “the first African-American woman to receive national critics’ acclaim as a nonfigurative painter.”
Thomas’s engagement with flowers and nature is distilled in her large-scale canvases, such as “Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers” 1968. These works highlight her signature style of broken stripes of almost every color in the spectrum. Her paintings, influenced by imagery from early space flights, include “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset” 1970. Here she paints an orange orb brimming with rows of staccato brushstrokes.
Her work is in the collections of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the White House collection, Columbus Museum, Phillips Collection, National Museum of Women the Arts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.