Alma Thomas was 80 years old when she became the first African-American woman to exhibit solo at The Whitney Museum of American Art. It was 1972, a little over a decade after Thomas devoted herself to a career as an artist. This was not a late career course change though, it was the culmination of a life lived, and dedicated to the arts. In many ways Thomas was a sieve of the world she knew. She chose to focus her artistic output on the beauty she found in her everyday experiences. She based her art on the things that gave her joy.
“Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” — Alma Thomas
In the 1950s Alma Thomas lived in Washington, DC where an abstract art movement dubbed the Washington Color School came to fruition. The emphasis was on form through pure color. It was this idea of working with color, in the abstract, that sparked Thomas’s nature paintings and propelled her into the public’s eye.
How to Approach Alma Thomas Art
Much of Thomas’s work is rooted nature. Art was not readily available to her as a child in Georgia. One thing she did love, was walking through fields of wild flowers. It was the colors that sparked her imagination. This love of flowers would follow her through the years, and fuel her early artistic successes.
Starting in the mid 1960s, Thomas began painting beds of flowers as she imagined they appeared from above. We can see this in works like “Light Blue Nursery,” 1968, and “Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses,” 1969. If you have seen photos of the Dutch tulip fields, you can see the resemblance.
Thomas used small bricks of color to create her paintings. These bricks were the key building block to all her mature works. While her love of flowers started in Georgia, she frequently painted flowers that bloomed around her neighborhood and throughout the nation’s capital. Her family moved to Washington, DC. in 1907. She often traveled around the District of Columbia visiting sites like the National Arboretum. She used these locations, and the city’s flowering trees, and plants as inspiration for her works.
She began to layer colors on top of each other. She worked with fewer colors, forming them into more intricate patterns. In “White Roses Sing and Sing,” 1976, white mosaic tiles play on top of a green landscape. A few splashes of yellow pop up to round out the floral motif.