Alma Thomas is one of the inescapable artists represented in DC art museums; and rightly so! Being an important member of the Washington Color School and the first black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney (as well as purportedly being the first black woman to graduate from a fine art program in the US) is no small feat. Her work is popular amongst Color School fans as well as those of the encompassing Color Field Movement. Fun fact: Thomas’s work is also popular with the Obamas, as she is one of the few women artists selected by Michelle Obama to decorate their private White House residence.
Upon graduating high school in 1911, Alma Thomas studied education; first becoming a substitute teacher and later a kindergarten teacher. Thomas earned her BS in fine arts in 1924, proceeding to teach at Shaw Junior High School until her retirement in 1960 (Where she ran a number of art projects benefiting the school, for example, founding its first art gallery and a community arts program). Throughout her career as a teacher she continued to study art, earning a masters in art education from Columbia University and studying painting at American University.
Thomas had always participated in the DC art community, however her work further evolved and became more highly appreciated following her retirement (A period in which many suggest she created her best work). She was a member of the Washington Color School and The Little Paris Studio. The Washington Color School was part of the Color Field movement, and similar to abstract expressionism in its use of certain tools and techniques, although dissimilar in the psychology behind the work. While many of her peers focused upon social realism during this period, Thomas turned her attention to color and abstract composition. Additionally, her work differed stylistically from many Color Field painters in that she used a primed canvas–allowing paint to build up texturally–and she used color intuitively, feeling constricted by the laws of color theory. Continue reading