What To Know About First Black Woman To Mount A Solo Show At The Whitney Museum Of American Art At Age 81



Alma Thomas, an African-American art teacher in Washington, D.C., is one of the legends who discovered their passion after retiring. She taught art for three decades but never considered painting as a career until she retired. She was inspired by abstract themes and the natural surroundings.

She was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1972, at the age of 81.

She was also the first Black woman whose work was included in the White House art collection. Her work “Resurrection” piqued the interest of the Obamas, who included it in the White House’s priceless collection.

One of her art pieces in 2019 sold for $2.6 million at Christie’s. Here are other facts you need to know about Thomas:

Her creativity was inspired by nature and science

Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891. Her father was a business owner, and her mother was a fashion designer. She grew up with three older siblings. Her mother taught her how to play the violin because she enjoyed playing it.

Her talent for art was discovered at a young age, when she was seen making her own puppets and sculptures. She made handcrafted plates out of clay she dug from the river that ran behind the family’s house.

Because of racial violence in Georgia, her family relocated to Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. in 1907 to be safe. Her parents chose Logan Circle because, despite racial segregation at the time, it was welcoming to black families.


She was the first graduate of Howard University’s fine arts department

She was a standout student at Armstrong Technical High School. Architecture and science were her favorite subjects. She later attended Miner Normal School, where she majored in Kindergarten Education. In 1913, she received her teaching certificate.

In 1915, Thomas worked at the Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington. She was a teacher there for six years. She decided to further her education at Howard University in 1921. She specialized in fine art here. She had intended to study costume design under home economics but changed her mind.

She graduated in 1924 and went to work at Shaw Junior High School, a historically black school in segregated Washington, D.C. She taught in the same classroom at Shaw JHS for 35 years. During her summer vacation, she visited art museums and galleries in New York.


She helped found the first private gallery in Washington to exhibit works by artists of all races

In 1943, Thomas and one of her former professors, James W. Herring, founded the Barnett-Aden Gallery in Washington, D.C. In 1950, she returned to school at American University. Her painting style shifted from figurative to cubist and abstract themes around this time. When she retired from teaching in her late sixties, she became a professional painter.

Her work can be found in the collections of the Hirshhorn Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and many other institutions. Because of their appreciation for color and how they use it, she is frequently associated with Vasily Kandinsky.


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