Alma W. Thomas, a Black woman artist, broke color barriers on and off the canvas, yet did not receive national attention until she was 80. Alma W. Thomas was an overnight success, 80 years in the making.
Born a generation after slavery, Alma Woodsey Thomas grew up in the South, in a home where education was a priority. At 16, with racial tensions high and no further schooling options, her family moved to Washington, DC, where she started her incredible life of firsts: the first Fine Arts graduate from Howard University (1924), the first African-American Woman to mount a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art (1972), and the first African-American woman to exhibit her paintings in the White House (2009). All the while, she taught art at Shaw Jr. High for 36 years, pioneered educational techniques, traveled the world, and crossed racial barriers. Yet she did not receive national attention until six years before she passed.
Miss Alma Thomas is the first documentary film that explores Thomas’ incredible life through the lens of curators, art specialists, scholars, and her family, and award-winning actress Alfre Woodard as the voice of Miss Thomas. Released in conjunction with a major four-city museum retrospective, thousands will have the opportunity to learn of her life, work, and continuing influence.
Why Miss Thomas? Why now?
Thomas’s paintings grab the viewer’s attention and form an instant connection to their emotions and mood. While her work is easy to appreciate and quick to understand, her life and struggles are not. Through her passion, she persevered through racism and sexism in the art world to achieve a level of prominence, still rare among African-American artists today.
Connection to Washington, DC
Thomas moved to the District in 1907 at the age of 16 to escape racial violence in Georgia, and to seek the benefits of the public school system of Washington. After graduating from the Armstrong Technical School, she studied kindergarten education at Miner Normal School. Thomas entered Howard University in 1921, as a home economics student, only to switch to fine arts. She earned her Bachelors of Science in Fine Arts in 1924 from Howard University, becoming the first graduate from the University’s Department of Fine Arts. In 1924, she began teaching at Shaw Junior High School, where she taught until her retirement in 1960. While teaching, Thomas was able to earn her Masters in Art Education from Columbia University, and enrolled in American University, where she studied Art History and painting under successful painter Jacob Kainen, and began to experiment with abstraction. The height of her fame was at age 80 when she exhibited at The Whitney Museum (NY) and the Corcoran Gallery of Art (DC). She passed in 1978, still residing in the house her father purchased at 1530 15th Street, NW – now a historical landmark. After her passing, her career and visibility ebbed until 2009 when two of her paintings were placed in the White House as part of Michele Obama’s modern redecoration. Her work, “Resurrection,” was acquired for the permanent White House collection.
Locally, Miss Thomas’s works are part of the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, The National Gallery of Art, The Museum of Women in the Arts, The Phillips Collection, and the Katzen Center at American University.
The film is available beginning July 15 at missalmathomas.com A 72-hour rental is $5. The film may be purchased for unlimited viewing for $20. The Vimeo platform allows users to watch the film on any computer, tablet, smartphone, and smart TV.
(Source: Miss Alma Thomas production press release)