When I first saw Alma Thomas's abstract paintings on display at the Studio Museum of Harlem in New York City, I forgot for a minute that it was 100 degrees outside and my jeans were giving me a heat rash. The large canvases, full of heavy, deliberate strokes in blues, greens, and yellows, were not only of a different time, but exuded an uncanny, less oppressive warmth. From early works like 1959's Yellow and Blue, with its red base and central splash of deep mustard, to iconic canvases like the bubble-gum pink Cherry Blossom Symphony (1973), Thomas invited me to be curious and playful in the traditionally formal space of a gallery.
Alma Thomas, who died in 1978 at age 87, was the first person to receive an undergraduate fine-arts degree from Howard University, in 1924. After she graduated, she was a junior-high-school art teacher in Washington, DC, for 35 years. She really began honing her craft in her 70s, using abstraction to depict natural and scientific phenomena — a space shuttle, a cherry blossom, the wind. Thomas's work has gained attention in recent years, especially when she became the first black woman to have her work featured in the White House. But she also experienced success in her lifetime — a rarity for many artists, especially for women and women of color. In 1971, Thomas took part in the groundbreaking "Contemporary Black Artists in America" group exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York; a year later, she became the first black woman to have a solo show there.
The Studio Museum's associate curator Lauren Haynes writes that Thomas "pointedly rejected painting about struggle and crisis." She believed instead that the beauty she generated offset the world's horrors and inhumanities. I particularly gravitated toward Thomas's approach to historic events like the March on Washington and the US space program.
Thomas, who once said, "I've never bothered painting the ugly things in life," made work that implores the viewer to find grace around every corner, in unexpected places, as she does in March on Washington (1964), in which blurred figures of protesters fill the canvas with arms raised and placards in hand. Each person is outlined as an individual, but they are faceless and grouped together, emphasizing the power of collective action. In her graphite-and-acrylic piece Apollo 12 "Splash Down" (1970), Thomas imagines the end of the mission, when the space shuttle lands in a body of water via parachute. We see pale-orange dashes at the top of the canvas wind down through reds, greens, and blues to settle into a dotted violet line along the bottom, emulating the parachute's descent into the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Apollo mission. It's a great example of Thomas's celebrations of the superhuman feats of technology alongside the exquisite simplicity of the sea rising to meet the sky.
Thomas also found beauty close to home, especially after arthritis kept her there more. That confinement led her to more closely observe her garden and its ever-changing colors, as seen in Iris, Jonquils and Crocuses (1969), in which Thomas imbues innocuous flowers with multidimensional richness and importance; the flowers hang heavy like ropes from the top of the canvas in stripes of blue, orange, and yellow, daring the viewer to ignore their majesty.
As Thomas's work becomes more popular today, both at the Studio Museum and elsewhere, art critics and patrons are clearly interested in seeing more of it. Her excitement and boundless curiosity about the future challenged me to rethink my assumptions about abstraction and age, as she defied stereotypes about senior citizens' engagement with the world. She also reminded me that small moments are not insignificant ones; rather, it's the details that make a grand work shine. "She just pumped … enthusiasm into her work," says art-history professor Darby English, "and it just comes right back out at you."
That enthusiasm is contagious, even to a cynic like me. Standing in front of her works, I vowed to enjoy my own life with as much zeal as I could possibly manage — a silent promise that felt like a battle cry. Alma Thomas's paintings are like bright lights in a dark tunnel, sparking joy in the face of uncertain political and social climates. Looking for refuge on a sticky day in the city, I felt instantly at ease amid the vibrancy and unapologetic pleasure she injected into her work — the best medicine for a worried mind.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a writer and editor living in Toronto.