Alma Thomas (1891-1978), the nationally acclaimed abstract modern artist, was born in Columbus, Georgia, and moved to Washington with her family in 1907. By the end of that year they moved into the house on 15th Street. Thomas graduated from Armstrong Technical High School in 1911. Two years later she graduated from Miner Normal School with a certification in teaching.
In 1921 Thomas enrolled in the home economics department at Howard University. After Thomas took two classes in the Art Department, James Herring, founder and chair, encouraged her to change her major. She did so and in 1924 became the Art Department's first graduate. Thomas is believed to be the first black female in the United States to graduate with a degree in fine arts. Thomas then received an M.A. in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. In 1925 she began her long career in the DC Public Schools, teaching art at Shaw Junior High School for 35 years. Her achievements there include initiating the public school system's first art gallery.
Thomas continued to paint while she taught, and her home kitchen doubled as her studio. Art historians suggest that she did her best work after she retired in 1960, when she had more time to devote to her art. Thomas was a master at color. In marked contrast to her peers, she preferred painting abstract compositions to working in social realism. She was active in two artist communities: the Washington Color School and “The Little Paris Studio,” a group of artists formed by Lois Mailou Jones, Celine Tabary, and the Barnett Aden Gallery.
Thomas's work is found in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art, and many others. Her home was listed on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 1985 and on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.
National Museum of Women in the Arts, http://www.nmwa.org/collection/profile.asp?LinkID=753
The Search for Freedom: African American Abstract Painting, 1945-1975 (New York: Kenkelaba Gallery, 1991).
Lowery S. Sims, “Alma Thomas,” in Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (New York: Carlson Publishing, 1993), 1165-1166.
Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 1998).
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