Alma Thomas was a Black female artist who depicted the light around her through her art, even as it was dimmed by the shadow of dominance by white male artists. Taking inspiration from her garden in Washington, D.C, Thomas painted the relation between the plants and the surrounding environment using an array of colors and abstract shapes.
In 1970, Thomas said, “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than man’s inhumanity to man.” The moods and tones conveyed by Thomas’ art are refreshing and remind art lovers and the rest of the world to find the beauty in all things, despite the negative energy that might surround them.
Given the time period in which Thomas was creating her art, one can begin to understand why it was so important to her to paint positive and light images. The Civil Rights era of the 1960s was a time of great strife and tyranny, and her art was the breath of fresh air that the Black community needed. Since Thomas’ death in 1978, her artwork has been showcased in more than five museum exhibitions around the United States, and most recently, her art is currently featured at the Studio Museum in Harlem, located at 144 W. 125th St. Much as Thomas’ art played a key role during the Civil Rights era, it can also be of great significance to the Black audience of Harlem. The recent, and not so recent, shootings of Black men have the community rethinking the stability of their lives and the country in which they live. Perhaps the Alma Thomas exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem has more to offer than just pretty colors and interesting shapes.
When asked how Thomas’ art was fitting for a Harlem audience, Lauren Haynes, co-curator for the exhibit, said, “I think what we strive to do here is to have a range of exhibitions and to work within our mission to include art from Black artists. She [Thomas] created most of her work during the last 18 years of her life, after a full career as a teacher, and she was dedicated to learning about art for those years of her life. She spent summers here and took classes at Columbia and spent time in Harlem, so it’s really interesting to have another look at her work here.”
The exhibit is divided into four sections, based on either the type of painting or the tone of the piece. The first section is Abstraction, a collection of Thomas’ works that differed in style from her usual aesthetic. The first piece of art in the section is Thomas’ depiction of the March on Washington, “Sketch for March on Washington,” An oil-on-canvas piece that uses a combination of moody colors that both blend and are distinct enough that one can differentiate members of the march from the picket signs that they are holding up. The subtle blending of the colors creates a rhythm throughout the painting that reminds the observer of the steady chants of individuals marching to the Lincoln Memorial. Besides this major piece, other pieces in the section feature the same moody color palette and blending of colors and shapes.
The second section is Mosaic, a collection of works that makes most art-lovers fall in love with Thomas’ art and unique uses of color and shapes. Here, every brush stroke and use of color is intentional and every piece is as striking, as vivid, as the next. One piece in particular, “Hydrangeas Spring Song,” is breathtaking and filled from corner to corner with a collection of different-sized brush strokes and shades of blue. A variety of shapes and lines accurately symbolize the fluidity and intricacy of the hydrangea plant. Other pieces are just as intricate, taking full advantage of different shapes, shades of color and detailed relations between harsh and clean lines.
The third section is Faith, a collection of paintings that feature a more uniform approach to painting. Many of the pieces in this collection contain a cohesive color scheme, as do many of Thomas’ paintings, and strong brush strokes. Furthermore, many of the pieces in this section showcase Thomas’ experimentation with the contrast between colors and use of large shapes. For example, in the painting “Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset,” Thomas uses the shape of a circle as the main focal point of the piece, which from the title represents the Earth being wrapped in a sunset. Once again, Thomas uses colors of the same scheme for both the foreground and background of the image, which is both pleasing to the eye and accurately depicts the phenomenon in the title.
The fourth and final section is Space, in which Thomas revisits the idea of painting historical events, much like Thomas’ “Sketch for March on Washington.” This section in particular is very interesting for the viewer, as matching the art to the event that it is trying to depict (found in the title) is like a puzzle. On the wall of this section of this exhibit, there is a quote from Thomas that says, “I began to think about what I would see if I were on an airplane. You look down on things. You streak through the clouds so fast you don’t know whether the flower below is a violet or what. You see only streaks of color.” Instead of explicitly illustrating every subject or object in the event, Thomas, as she said herself, uses streaks of color. The shape that those streaks of color form take the place of those objects and space, and presents them in a more abstract and interesting way. For example, in the painting “Splash Down,” Thomas paints the Apollo 12 mission landing on the moon and uses a plethora of colors and shades to differentiate every key piece of the event and scene.
The Alma Thomas exhibit is on display through Oct. 30. For more information, visit www.studiomuseum.org/exhibition/alma-thomas or call 212-864-4500.