“I decided to try to paint something different from anything I’d ever done. Different from anything I’d ever seen. … So I sat down right in that chair, that red chair here in my living room, and I looked at the window. … I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the windowpanes. I got some watercolors and some crayons, and I began dabbling. And that’s how it all began.” –Alma Woodsey Thomas
Artist and educator Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) was a “lifelong learner.” When Thomas finished primary school, her family moved in The Great Migration from Georgia to Washington DC, where her education, advocacy, and art would flourish throughout her lifetime. When Thomas first “entered the art room” in high school, she described how it felt “like entering heaven”. After a stint as a kindergarten teacher, she attended Howard University in 1921—at the age of 30. And as Thomas taught in the, then segregated, Shaw Junior High School she continued to pursue her arts education (from sculpture to painting) until her retirement–at age 69. And that is when her art blossomed.
Alma Thomas working in her studio, ca. 1968. Photographer: Ida Jervis.
From: Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Alma’s studio was in the kitchen of her family’s home, where she set up the space to continue to paint large scale while battling arthritis. Her distinctive and abstract style, which she described as “Alma’s stripes,” evolved alongside her illness: “The works have changed in many ways, but they are still all little dabs of paint that spread out very free.”
The dabs of paint spread out not just through her artwork but into the culture around her. She trailblazed as the first Black woman “to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art”1 and to have her work added to the White House Collection. In 2014, the Obama Administration added “Resurrection”–which Thomas created at age 74 (“Resurrection” by Alma Thomas – White House Historical Association).
Her work captures the beauty of the world around her–the titles of her work find inspiration in music, nature, and outer space–and an energy we can all tap into when we interact with her work. At 78, she lamented the feeling of being “caged” in an elderly body while having “the energy of a twenty-five-year-old mind”2. And it is in the agelessness, the timelessness, the colors, the “little dabs of paint that spread out very free” that the legacy of Alma Thomas’ work lives on. As she said: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”
Now it’s your turn to let the “tree outside the window” and “little dabs of paint that spread out very free” become your inspiration.
Explore Thomas’ work through your own creativity:
TRY: A creative prompt from The Hershorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
EXPLORE: Creative exercise from The National Gallery of Art
USE: A lesson plan from The Phillips Collection
Learn more about Alma Thomas’ life:
Visit Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001 in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s collection.
EXPLORE our interactive from the Crooked Tree Arts Center Block Party:
- Explore images of Alma Thomas’ work.
- Let your mind go.
- Take two minutes and use art supplies (we suggest crayons and watercolors) to fill a circle with color, just color, no symbols.
- Then think for a moment about your work, just for a moment: what were you thinking, where did your mind go?
Visit LWD’s Bookshop and our growing Alma Thomas Book List
Click to browse.
1. Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey p. 271
2. Quoted in “Remembering Alma” by Adolphus Early in A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891–1978 by Merry A. Foresta