Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978), local D.C. artist, celebrates a birthday on September 22. Thomas, who created abstract paintings that exhibit intense colors, irregular patterns, and expressionist brushstrokes, derives her inspiration from the natural world, often indicated by the titles of her paintings. NMWA’s Iris, Tulips, Jonquils and Crocuses features her signature style of fragmented rows of color that create a sense of play between the paint on the canvas and what lies beneath it.
Thomas moved from Georgia to Washington, D.C., in 1907 with her family and spent the remainder of her life working as an educator and artist. Though she started pursuing painting late in her life, she was the first student to graduate from the newly-formed Art Department at Howard University in 1924. Thomas was encouraged to take up abstract painting by her professors Loïs Mailou Jones and James V. Herring. After taking marionette-making classes in New York City during the summer of 1935, she worked with Jones to create colorful string-operated puppets. Thomas would fashion the puppets from balsa wood and create costumes, while Jones brought the toys to life, using watercolors to paint the faces. During this period, African Americans were not permitted to attend the National Theater in Downtown Washington. The two women created puppet troupes and sponsored performances at local venues such as the Phillis Wheatley Young Women’s Christian Association, Howard University Gallery of Art, and Shaw Junior High School for the minority community. Thomas produced popular children’s classics as puppet shows and wrote scripts as well. Over the years, Thomas remained in contact with Jones through the Little Paris Studio classes held by Jones and artist Celine Tabary twice a week on Jone’s rooftop for local black artist. Jones and Thomas’s working relationship developed into a lifelong friendship. Both of their paintings, along with the work of Gene Davis, Jacob Kainen, and others, were exhibited at Barnett Aden Gallery, the first gallery in the metropolitan area to break the color barrier.
This fall NMWA will hold a retrospective of Loïs Mailou Jones, who was also known for her use of bright, rich colors. Jones’s many students at Howard also include David Driskell, Elizabeth Catlett, and Sylvia Snowden. The exhibition includes a broad range of her work from textile designs to portraits, Impressionist style works to Africa- and Haiti-inspired paintings. Loïs Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color opens October 9, 2010. Come by to compare color in the works of these two artists!