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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Alma Woodsey Thomas

Alma Woodsey Thomas
When I retired after teaching art in the public schools for some twenty-six years, there opened up for me a whole new life, filled with so many possible paths the proverbial "crossroads" began to look more like a delta with waterways fanning out in every possible direction. I found a new role model. Like myself, she was an art teacher in the public schools. She hung in there for thirty-eight years. She was 66 years old when she left teaching to begin painting full-time. Like myself, she had a masters degree in art and some post graduate studies as well. I wish I could go on drawing comparisons but that's about where they end. She lived to be 86 years old and died in 1978 bearing the accolades of artists, politicians, educators, and former students all over the country. Myself, I'd be happy just to live 86 years.

Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in 1891 in the blackest section of Columbus, Georgia, in the deepest part of the deep south. In 1907, she moved with her parents to Washington, DC, with hopes of becoming an architect or a bridge-building engineer. She ended up building bridges, but not the kind she originally envisioned. She built bridges from poverty to the world of art for thousands of children in the mostly black Shaw Junior High School in Washington. She was the first African-American to ever receive a bachelors degree in the fine arts (Howard University, 1924) and the first African-American woman to ever gain a masters degree in art (Columbia University, 1934). During the 1950s, she studied under American University artists such as Joe Summerford, Robert Gates, and Jacob Kainen. It was from them she picked up her love for abstraction.

Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses,
1969, Alma Woodsey Thomas
Alma broke the mold for black artists. She was a woman, she never married, she was educated, she was an explorer, and most of all she did not feel bound to exploit her black heritage. She was a colorist, but beyond that all other labels fail to stick. Eschewing racial themes almost entirely, she drew her inspiration from her garden, her flower box, and nature in general, yet you'll find few pretty posy pictures among her work. Her style was controlled and refined, her brushwork heavy, her colors bright, her work totally abstract, as in her 1969 painting, Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses, for example, in which bands of orderly brushstrokes move both vertically and horizontally across the picture plane. During her lifetime, her work found its way into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art (both in New York) as well as the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran, and the Hirshorn Museums in Washington. She has certainly given us "out-to-pasture" art teachers something to live up to.

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