Alma Thomas: exuberant colors

Winter 2020.2021

Now regarded as a major American painter, Alma Woodsey Thomas (1891-1978) spent most of her life as an art teacher in Washington D.C. public schools. Only after retiring was she able to devote herself to her own paintings, and create the work for which she is best known. She used “exuberant” colors to depict the world around her, interpreting it through her abstract expressionist style. “Man’s highest aspirations come from nature,” she wrote, “A world without color would seem dead. Color is life. Light is the mother of color. Light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors.”

Born in the late eighteenth century, when horse-and-buggies were still a common sight on city streets, the Apollo space program in the 1960’s captivated Alma’s imagination. Witnessing the moon landing on color TV “set [her] creativity in motion,” and she went on to create a series of paintings interpreting difference aspects of space with bold colors and patterns, many of which use a mosaic style of brushstrokes.  

Inspired by these pieces, Methow Valley elementary students created their own bright and colorful works of art, working with Methow Arts teaching artist Bethany Wray through the Youth Arts Initiative program–a pilot program aimed at delivering consistent, sequential, high-quality arts education that builds a foundation in artistic technique and understanding.

Methow Valley kindergarteners assembled rainbow mosaics; 1st & 2nd grade students mixed primaries to create secondary colors, then painted in a circular pattern with rhythm and movement; and 3rd grade students mixed tertiary colors by mixing one primary and one secondary color.

Alma Thomas saw national recognition of her work in the final years of her life, and her pieces still reside in the collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other distinguished galleries. She was the first graduate of the Howard University Art program – possibly the first African American woman in America to earn an art degree – and in 2015 her painting Resurrection was the first piece by an African American woman to hang in the White House. Though being both Black and female had presented considerable challenges in her career, she refused to be defined by anything other than her art itself.

Methow Arts facilitates a regional consortium of public schools, businesses and community entities that bring ideas and resources to arts education. Through this partnership, Methow Arts maintains the arts as essential and central, providing opportunities for students to gain essential skills in the arts through residencies with artists. Lessons both deepen and expand other learning areas through the arts, and provide art specific learning. Learn more about our education programs HERE.

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