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Biographical Note | A Finding Aid to the Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001 | Digitized Collection

Alma Thomas papers, circa 1894-2001

Biographical Note

Washington, D.C. painter and art educator Alma Thomas (1891-1978) was known for her abstract paintings filled with dense patterns of color, and was considered a major artist of the Washington Color School.
Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1894, and was the eldest of the four daughters of John Harris Thomas and Amelia Cantey Thomas. The family moved to Washington, D.C. in 1906 and Thomas was first introduced to art classes at Armstrong Technical High School. Following her graduation in 1911 she took a course in kindergarten teaching at the Miner Normal School, and subsequently worked as a substitute teacher in the Washington, D.C. public school system until 1914, when she took a teaching position on the Eastern shore of Maryland. From 1916 to 1923 she taught kindergarten at Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington, Delaware.
Thomas originally enrolled at Howard University in Washington, D.C. as a home economics major in 1921, but after studying under Lois Mailou Jones amd James V. Herring in Herring's newly established art department, she earned a Bachelor's degree in Fine Art in 1924, and became the first person to graduate from the program. Thomas then began her teaching career at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C. that lasted from 1924, until her retirement in 1960. During this time she established community arts programs that would encourage her students to develop an appreciation of fine arts. Activities included marionette programs, distribution of student-designed holiday menu cards for dinners given for soldiers at the Tuskegee Veterans' Hospital, art clubs, lectures, and student exhibitions. In 1943 she became the founding vice president of Barnett Aden Gallery, which was established by James V. Herring and Alonzo Aden and was the first integrated gallery in Washington, D.C.
In 1934 Thomas earned an M.A. degree in Art Education from Columbia University. At American University in Washington, D.C., she studied creative painting under Joe Summerford, Robert Gates, and Jacob Kainen from 1950 to 1960, and began to break away from representational painting and experiment more seriously with Abstract Expressionism. In 1958 she participated in a tour of the art centers of Western Europe under the auspices of the Tyler School of Fine Arts at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Following her retirement from teaching in 1960, Thomas devoted herself full-time to painting, and continued to develop her signature style. She was inspired by nature and the desire to express beauty through composition and color, and refused to be constrained by societal expectations related to her race, gender, and age, achieving her greatest success in the last decade of her life. Her work was exhibited at the Dupont Theatre Art Gallery, Franz Bader Gallery, and the Howard University Gallery of Art, before she was honored in 1972 with exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Thomas's work has been exhibited at the White House and can be found in the permanent collections of major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.