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Alma Thomas Became a Nationally Recognized Painter after 38 Years Teaching Public School

March 6, 2018
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colorful stripes
Alma Thomas, “Earth Sermon – Beauty, Love And Peace” (1971), acrylic on canvas,72 x 52 1/8 in. (182.9 x 132.3 cm). Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., The Martha Jackson Memorial Collection: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, 1980.

Alma Thomas (American, 1891-1978) spent 38 years as a Washington, D.C., public school art teacher before her painting career took off.

In 1972, in her 80s, she was the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Thomas is regarded as a key figure of the Washington Color Field School of paintings, thanks to her signature abstract and colorful work inspired by nature. From her window, she enjoyed watching the changing patterns that light created on her trees and flower garden, and her titles often reflect the influence of flowers and natural order.

The Smithsonian’s collections hold many examples of Thomas’ art, including her 1971 painting “Earth Sermon – Beauty, Love And Peace” in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The Alma Thomas papers, which you can explore online, are in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.