By D. Kevin McNeir
The ongoing pandemic, now into its second year, may have many people fearful of the future and unable to find enjoyment in what some have described as the “new normal.”
But as one pioneering artist and educator, Alma W. Thomas, helped us realize, there’s beauty all around us – particularly in the “everyday.”
And now, through Jan. 23, you can experience her breathtaking paintings in the District as The Phillips Collection continues its commitment to showcasing the works of African-American artists whose creativity and talent lives on – well after their deaths. Under the direction of cultural and educational institutions across D.C., residents and visitors can celebrate Thomas’s life with a variety of programs, events, and a major exhibition at The Phillips Collection, honoring her contributions to our cultural heritage.
“Alma W. Thomas: Everything is Beautiful” delivers a new perspective on the artist’s long life (1891-1978) and her career – one defined by constant creativity.
The retrospective chronicles her journey from rural Georgia to the District where she became the first Black woman featured in a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art at age 81.
Through artworks and archival materials, this exhibition demonstrates how Thomas’s wide-reaching artistic practices extended far beyond her studio, shaping every facet of her life – from community service, to teaching, to gardening.
The oldest of four girls, Thomas and her family migrated from Columbus, Georgia, to the District hoping to escape the racial violence of the South. Segregation notwithstanding, D.C., as the nation’s capital, still offered more opportunities for Blacks than most cities during that era.
As a child, she dreamed of being an architect and building bridges. But few women architects existed a century ago – certainly not Black. So Thomas decided to matriculate at Howard University. By 1924, she had distinguished herself as the first art department graduate at Howard University.
A constant learner, she studied the latest developments in art, visiting museums in New York, Europe, and D.C., including The Phillips Collection.
For 35 years and in a segregated city, she empowered art students at Shaw Junior High School to see beauty in the everyday and brought exhibition opportunities and cultural enrichment to Black youth.
Teaching allowed her to support herself while pursuing her own painting part-time.
Thomas’s early art was realistic, though her Howard professor James V. Herring and peer Loïs Mailou Jones challenged her to experiment with abstraction. When she retired from teaching and began to give her undivided attention to her art, Thomas finally developed her signature style.
In 1966, she debuted her abstract work in an exhibition at Howard at the age of 75. She would become a role model for women, African Americans, and older artists. And age would not hinder her abilities or success. She serves as the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and exhibited her paintings at the White House on separate occasions.
Thomas’s home, located at 1530 15th Street, NW, served as her artistic epicenter. There, she created small watercolors, aerial landscapes and brightly patterned large-scale abstractions that reflect her local surroundings, her fascination with space, and her dedication to the environment. Along with these themes, the exhibition explores her interests in performance, puppetry, costume design, and fashion.
“Everything is Beautiful” contextualizes Thomas’s art and life within her creative community, delving into her association with Howard University, American University and the Barnett Aden Gallery, which she helped co-found.
Some of her works can be seen placed alongside examples by her friends and contemporaries, including Loïs Mailou Jones and Morris Louis, who also helped shape the D.C. art scene. The exhibition offers an intimate look at this inspiring cultural icon who used her imagination and ingenuity to lead a rich and beautiful life.
Washington Post reporter Kelsey Ables described the work of Thomas in a Sept. 2021 report as follows: “For Thomas – who died in 1978 but lived long enough to go from what she called “horse and buggy times” to the 1969 moon landing – the rush of modernity demanded expression . . . Look at any of Thomas’s works, and her awe at the universe – at any scale – united them. An energetic harmony seems to pulse from the light at her fingertips out to the light of the stars. Her medium is motion.”
If you have never witnessed the brilliance of the artist Alma W. Thomas, you have denied yourself a mind-blowing, eye-opening experience.
The Phillips Collection has virtual tours available as well as limited opportunities for residents to visit the gallery. But time remains of the essence.
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