Artist Spotlight: Alma Woodsey Thomas

Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today places abstract works by multiple generations of black women artists in context with one another—and within the larger history of abstract art—for the first time, revealing the artists’ role as under-recognized leaders in abstraction.

Orion (1973)

By: Alma Woodsey Thomas (b. 1891, Columbus, Georgia; d. 1978, Washington, D.C.)

NASA’s burgeoning space program during the late 1960s and ’70s inspired Alma Woodsey Thomas’s painting Orion. Though the title references the constellation Orion, the painting speaks more to the mystery of outer space as a whole. Orion’s rhythmic red tile-shaped brushstrokes evoke the velocity required for a spacecraft to break through Earth’s atmosphere.

Alma Woodsey Thomas (American, 1891-1978), Orion, 1973, Oil on canvas, 53 3/4 x 64 in., NMWA; Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Thomas became Howard University’s first fine arts graduate in 1924, after which she taught art classes in Washington, D.C., public schools for nearly four decades. Thomas retired in 1960 and, due to her developing arthritis, considered giving up painting. However, Howard University offered to host a retrospective of her work in 1966. Thomas, determined to create new works for her upcoming exhibition, delayed her retirement. It was during this time that she developed the abstract, colorful, mosaic-like painting style for which she became best known. It wasn’t until 1975, at the age of 84, that she became the first black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

One of the older artists featured in Magnetic Fields, Alma Woodsey Thomas was a pioneer in abstraction for black women artists. In another claim to posthumous fame, an untitled 1968 painting by Thomas hung in the White House dining room during the Obama administration. Both of these works involve her characteristic use of short, punctuated brush strokes, arranged in lines and circles that conjure images of rain, flowerbeds, and sunlight. Another painting by Thomas in NMWA’s collection, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses (1969), is currently on view on the museum’s third floor.

Thomas’s primary source of inspiration was nature, which she communicated through her use of vibrant, optimistic color. In the case of Orion, one of her later paintings, she turned her fixation on the natural world skyward to observe stars in the night sky.

“The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me,” said Thomas. “Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Learn more through the Magnetic Fields Mobile Guide.

—Ilayda Orankoy is the 2017 fall publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: August 5, 2016

Alma Thomas at the Studio Museum in Harlem continues to make headlines. A painting in NMWA’s collection, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, is on view in the exhibition.

Thomas had “one of the great, late-blooming careers in American art during the post-World War II era,” writes the New York Times. At the age of 80, Alma Thomas became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Front-Page Femmes

Photographer Kathy Shorr documents the scars of survivors of gun violence.

Lucy Sparrow’s first installation in New York will be a corner shop where people can browse 8,000 items—all hand-sewn from felt and available for purchase.

Rebecca Louise Law re-creates Dutch still-life paintings as 3-D sculptures and photographs their decay over time.

Mariko Mori discusses her translucent ring sculpture, sponsored by the Olympics and mounted above a waterfall in Rio de Janerio.

Juxtapoz shares South African artist Barbara Wildenboer’s book sculptures.

Turkish painter and journalist Zehra Doğan was detained in Turkey after the failed military coup.

Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s comprises over 150 works by 48 international female artists.

artnet shares seven facts about Abstract Expressionist painter Hedda Sterne (1910–2011).

Artsy discusses the forgotten legacy of Beatrice Wood.

Ten paintings of Brandi Twilley’s childhood home in Oklahoma, which burnt down in 1999, comprise the exhibition The Living Room.

ArtInfo shares Marina Abramović’s 1975 film Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful.

This summer, New York-based painter Nicole Eisenman will occupy a workshop on the Greek island of Hydra.

Comedian Ali Wong discusses her first comedy special, filming while pregnant, and female comics.

Hyperallergic asks Elizabeth Sackler about the Sackler Center First Award, Angela Davis, and mass incarceration.

Heather Headley returns to Broadway after 15 years in a revival of The Color Purple.

A new book about Agnes Martin emphasizes the importance of the artist’s early works.

Jesmyn Ward invited prominent writers and thinkers to reflect on black life in America and contribute to her essay collection The Fire This Time.

Cate Blanchett will perform 13 separate roles in German cinematographer and video artist Julian Rosefeldt’s film installation Manifesto.

Ava DuVernay will direct the film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time—making her the first woman of color to direct a film with a $100 million budget.

Alice in Black and White explores the life of photographer Alice Austen (1866–1952), including her relationship with Gertrude Tate.

Shows We Want to See

Anicka Yi, whose work will be on view in NO MAN’S LAND: Women Artists from the Rubell Family Collection, presents new work in Germany.

She: International Women Artists Exhibition, on view at the Long Museum in Shanghai, features 108 works by 100 female artists from 13 countries. The Art Newspaper reports that the exhibition’s four sections span ten centuries.

Nancy Mitchnick’s exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit features oil paintings of landscapes and post-industrial Detroit that Hyperallergic says “ricochet out into the real world, conveying a sense of how a place looks based on how it feels.”

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Art Fix Friday: July 22, 2016

Eighteen women artists share advice for young artists in an article for artnet.

Ebony G. Patterson says, “Being an artist is not a sprint, it’s a marathon” while Marilyn Minter encourages young women artists to “Go with your gut, even if it goes against all rational thinking.” Mariko Mori imparts, “Never compare your career with other artists.”

Front-Page Femmes

Mexican artist Teresa Margolles builds a concrete shelter in Echo Park incorporating debris from homicide scenes as a monument to 100 forgotten victims.

The Washington Post interviews Iranian artist Atena Farghadani, who was released from prison two months ago.

Greek artist Despina Stokou writes an article about navigating art-world sexism.

Hyperallergic reviews The Woman Destroyed, featuring works related to femininity and the deconstruction of the female body within art history.

MoMA acquired Faith Ringgold’s American People Series #20: Die, which was on view at NMWA in 2013.

Slovakian artist Mária Švarbová stages eerie photographs of pastel-colored swimming pools.

Niki de Saint Phalle’s previously unseen works are on view in London.

Activist and comic Joyce Brabner says, “Any work a woman does has value.”

Louise Hearman won the 2016 Archibald prize.

Amy Cutler collaborated with a musician and a stylist for an interactive installation involving 800 feet of braided hair.

Juxtapoz highlights Rachel Kneebone’s fractured porcelain figures.

Google commissioned two women artists to create a mural using spreadsheets.

Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama illustrated The Little Mermaid.

Dorothea Tanning’s 1969 soft-sculpture “suggests a domestic world where desire finds odd outlets and fetishes take hold.”

Seattle-based artist Kate Alarcón transforms paper materials into flowers.

Women writers like H. M. Ward find success by self-publishing their work online.

More than 150 literary figures call for the release of imprisoned Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour.

Cyntha Ozick discusses reading as a child and how to create good villains.

Filmmaker Rebecca Miller discusses her fifth feature film, Maggie’s Plan.

Ava DuVernay’s new documentary explores the U.S.’s sky-high incarceration rate.

Screenwriter Melissa Mathison, best known for E.T., passed away before the completion of The BFG.

Six hundred pieces of music left behind by Jane Austen’s family are now available online.

The all-female Ghostbusters movie earned $46 million in its opening weekend.

Shows We Want to See

Alma Thomas at the Studio Museum in Harlem features works from every period of the artist’s career—including a work on loan from NMWA. ARTnews shares review excerpts from their archives about Thomas’s colorful abstractions.

Hyperallergic reviews Generations: Joyce J. Scott | Sonya Clark and writes that Scott “challenges art world taboos against beauty and humor.”

Whitechapel Gallery will host the first U.K. exhibition of the Guerrilla Girls—or “feminist masked avengers”—titled Is It Even Worse in Europe?

—Emily Haight is the digital editorial assistant at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Women’s History Month: Can You Name #5womenartists?

Did you know that even though women make up 51% of visual artists today, in the U.S. only 5% of work on museum walls is by women? It is no surprise that if you ask someone to name five artists, they will likely list prominent male artists.


Share social media posts with #5womenartists; Photo: Laura Hoffman, NMWA

This March, for Women’s History Month, NMWA leads a social media campaign to help everyone answer the question, Can you name five women artists? Join the museum and other institutions, including the National Gallery of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Guggenheim Bilbao, to share stories of women artists using the hashtag #5womenartists on Twitter and Instagram. Find out more about the initiative in this artnet article.

Are you interested in participating? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  1. Challenge your friends and family to name five women artists.
  2. Tell us who your favorite women artists are and why.
  3. Share a work by a woman artist at a museum or gallery near you.
  4. Explore NMWA’s artist profiles to discover artists you may not know.

Left to right: Artwork by Alma Thomas, Rosalba Carriera, Maria Sibylla Merian, Hester Bateman, and Frida Kahlo; Photos: NMWA

To kick off the month, learn more about five women artists from the museum’s collection who broke barriers and influenced future generations:

In 1921, Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891–1978) was the first fine arts student to graduate from Howard University in Washington, D.C. During her 35-year career as a teacher at a D.C. junior high school, she was devoted to her students and organized art clubs, lectures, and student exhibitions.

Rosalba Carriera (1675–1757), a member of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, was responsible for elevating the status of pastel from its use for sketches to a respected medium in its own right. Over the span of its existence, the Academy, which had approximately 450 members in total, only admitted 15 women.


Visitors examine Petah Coyne’s work; Photo: Laura Hoffman, NMWA

At the age of 52, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) and her young daughter embarked on a risky trip to the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. She recorded indigenous flora and fauna and helped 18th-century scientists understand metamorphosis.

Hester Bateman (1709–1794) inherited her husband’s silver workshop after he died. She made the business profitable and her descendants helped the workshop thrive until the mid-19th century. The key to her success was the integration of modern technology with classical design—a cost-effective way to attract middle-class buyers.

Referenced in her New York Times obituary as the “wife of Diego Rivera, the noted painter,” Frida Kahlo (1907–1954) soared in fame posthumously. She became the first 20th-century Mexican artist to have work acquired by the Louvre. In the 1980s, numerous books were published about her work by feminist art historians and others.

Stacy Meteer is the communications and marketing associate at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Playful Pathmakers

Dynamic women designers and artists from the mid-20th century and today create innovative designs, maintain craft traditions, and incorporate new aesthetics into fine art in Pathmakers: Women in Art, Craft, and Design, Midcentury and Today, now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Each week, compare and draw parallels between works on view in Pathmakers and NMWA collection favorites.

On view in Pathmakers

Polly Apfelbaum, A Handweaver’s Pattern Book, 2014

Apfelbaum is perhaps best known for her “fallen paintings”—large-scale installations consisting of hundreds of hand-cut and hand-colored velvet fabric pieces arranged on the floor. Her complex, color-charged work in Pathmakers similarly defies the boundaries between art and craft and between painting and sculpture.


Installation view of A Handweaver’s Pattern Book at NMWA; Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Who made it?

American contemporary artist Polly Apfelbaum (b. 1955) was born in Abington, Pennsylvania, and currently resides in New York. She earned her BA at SUNY Purchase College and her BFA at the Tyler School of Art. Apfelbaum finds inspiration in structures, systems, and most importantly, color. Apfelbaum stated, “I can’t imagine too much color.” A singularly inventive artist, she creates works that push past traditional disciplinary forms into the realm of pop culture.

How was it made?

Apfelbaum’s installation was inspired by a book of the same name—A Handweaver’s Pattern Book. Originally published in 1944 by Marguerite Porter Davison, the reference manual catered to women with an interest in weaving during the post-war period. Apfelbaum translated the book’s weaving designs into three-by-five-foot rectangular panels of synthetic velvet. Using a found plastic punch card as a stencil, the artist colored fields of evenly-spaced dots with a marker. Her method and materials give the work a shimmering, vibrating effect. Hung around the gallery walls, 40 panels are accompanied by strings of ceramic beads suspended from the ceiling. Apfelbaum’s work is representative of the exhibition’s section dedicated to contemporary women artists and designers who reflect and expand upon the works of earlier generations. Presenting an alternative to traditional painting, Apfelbaum responds to the history of handmade textiles.

Collection connection

In NMWA’s collection, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses (1969) by Alma Thomas also contains dynamic colors and pointillist forms. Thomas’s painting resembles a mosaic of lozenge-shaped brushstrokes where tiny tesserae arranged in long bands form a unified image. Known as “Alma’s Stripes,” this abstract style became Thomas’s signature method toward the end of her career.

Alma Woodsey Thomas, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969; Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Alma Woodsey Thomas, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969; Acrylic on canvas, 60 x 50 in.; NMWA, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Like Apfelbaum’s work, Thomas’s painting contains kaleidoscopic, eye-popping color. Thomas often found inspiration in the colors and patterns in her garden. Although Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses may seem spontaneous, Thomas deliberately planned her works. She often made watercolor sketches or placed free-hand pencil marks on the canvas as a guide (some of which are still visible).

Visit the museum and explore Pathmakers, on view through February 28, 2016.

—Sarah Mathiesen was the fall 2015 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Artist Spotlight: Alma Thomas


Orion, 1973, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Orion, 1973, National Museum of Women in the Arts

NMWA is proud to have two works by Alma Thomas. The mesmerizing paintings—created when the artists was nearly eighty years old—have been visitor and staff favorites.

Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1891, but moved with her family in her teens to Washington, DC, for the city’s educational opportunities for African Americans. Driven by her passion for both teaching and learning, Thomas received a teaching certificate and taught for several years before enrolling at Howard University. Although she planned to study costume design (she loved putting together marionette plays with her students), she was fascinated by abstract painting and encouraged to study art by the Howard Art Department Chair James Herring. In 1924 she became Howard’s first fine arts graduate and the first African American woman to hold a fine arts degree—a testament to her talent and confidence, considering she grew up at a time when blacks had limited access to colleges and museums.

For the next 35 years, after receiving a masters in arts education at Teachers College, Columbia University, Thomas taught at Shaw Junior High School, where she also organized the School Arts League Project and established the public school system’s first art gallery. She relished in cultivating the creativity of her students.

Alma Thomas in her studio

Alma Thomas in her studio, c. 1968, Photo by Ida Jervis, Courtesy Archives of American Art

During her distinguished teaching career, Thomas painted on the side and was active in the growing arts community. She was involved with the Little Paris Studio artists’ group (formed by Lois Mailou Jones and Celine Tabary) and helped found the Barnett Aden Gallery, the first privately owned gallery in segregated Washington to cross racial lines. Through the gallery, she familiarized herself with modern artistic trends and prominent artists, curators, and critics. Thomas turned more heavily towards abstraction in 1950 when she began taking night and weekend classes (for the next ten years) at American University with Jacob Kainen, Robert Gates and Joe Summerford. Through her close relationships with Gene Davis and Morris Louis (part of the Washington Color School), she changed her style from realism to cubism to abstract impressionism, slowly mastering the expressive potential of color.

Thomas retired from teaching in 1960 to focus on her art. During the 1960s and 70s, as her work began receiving more recognition, she incorporated a more intense color palette and experimented with optical effects, painting flowers and trees as seen from space. She was inspired by nature, particularly the interplay of light and shadow as the wind blew through the holly tree outside her living room window. “Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors,” she said.

Detail of Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, National Museum of Women in the Arts

Detail of Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, 1969, National Museum of Women in the Arts

It wasn’t until after a major solo show at Howard University Gallery of Art in 1966 that Thomas developed her signature style of rectangular brushstrokes arranged like a mosaic (she called them “Alma’s Stripes”). Art critic Peter Schjeldahl of the New York Times said of her 1972 exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (Thomas was the first African American woman to have a solo show there), “She is a gifted, ebullient abstractionist…[whose] best pictures are loose, gridlike arrangements of more or less uniform vertical brushstrokes, sumptuous and strongly rhythmic in color and full of light.” Despite growing health problems, Thomas continued to paint until she died in 1978. Her row house on 15th Street, NW, where she lived for more than seven decades, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Come enjoy two amazing works by Thomas at NMWA today!

Vivian Djen is the managing editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts