Saturday Studio: Celebrating our Reopening with Alma Thomas

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

An exhibition shot of Alma Thomas' nature inspired painting surrounded by other works by women from FWMoA's permanent collection.
Alma Thomas on display at FWMoA in “By Women: A Selection from the Permanent Collection” curated by Assoc. Curator of Special Collections & Archives Lauren Wolfer. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

FWMoA reopens TODAY with two new exhibitions, Salvador Dali’s Stairway to Heaven and By Women: A Selection from the Permanent Collection. We previewed By Women in last week’s “Saturday Studio” with a fiber artwork by Claire Zeisler, and today, we’re taking inspiration from another work from the show in celebration of its opening.

Alma Woodsey Thomas’ Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass is another of my favorite works in the collection. We normally don’t delve much into artist biographies during “Saturday Studios”, but Thomas has such a fascinating and inspiring story that hasn’t yet been told here, so we will briefly scratch the surface! She was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1891, but at age 16 her family relocated to Washington, D.C. to escape the racial violence of the deep South and to seek better educational opportunities. She was interested in art from a young age and wanted to study architecture, but at the time that was not an acceptable choice for a young African American woman. She taught kindergarten for a few years before attending art school, becoming the first graduate from Howard University’s Fine Art program and one of the first African American women to earn an art degree. She taught art at the junior high level until her retirement in 1960 when her career as a full-time artist formally began. In 1972, at age 81, she became the first African American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. In 1998, twenty years after her death, FWMoA organized a major retrospective of her work, hosting the first stop on a tour that ended at Thomas’ birthplace in Georgia.

The poster for Alma Thomas' retrospective, which premiered at the FWMoA. The poster features one of her mosaic paintings that looks like an eye or the sun.
A poster from Thomas’ FWMoA-organized retrospective hangs on my office bulletin board (right by my kitchen lithograph and a fabulous coloring page left by a visitor. Photo courtesy of Alyssa Dumire.

Alma Thomas was often associated with the Washington Color School like her friend, the color field painter Morris Louis, but she resisted the application of labels or categories. During a time when many other African American artists were tackling racial and social issues in their work, she was sometimes criticized for creating abstractions that didn’t directly seek to fight oppression or express her identity as a Black woman. She instead spoke of the power of pure creativity to move beyond such worldly issues and sought to express herself in a way that transcended race or gender.

The Alma Thomas painting this "Saturday Studio" uses for inspiration. Set against a white background, the artist used various shades of green and teal to create a mosaic of abstract tree leaves and grass.
Alma Thomas, American, 1891-1978. Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass. Acrylic on canvas, 1973. Gift of Vincent Melzac, 1976.04. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Take a look at the painting above. What do you see? I see a brick-like array of short brushstrokes in various shades of teal on a white background. Many are roughly rectangular in shape, although some are more irregular–no two are exactly alike! I notice, too, that the individual blocks of color come together like a mosaic to form larger shapes. There is a definite sense of rhythm in the way the strokes dance down the canvas. The title, Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass, tells us about Thomas’ inspiration, and although the work is abstract, it does remind me of sunlight shining on the lawn and feels like a breath of brisk morning air. Thomas developed her signature style seen here after observing the changing patterns of light on the trees and gardens outside her window.

Let’s try it! Take a look out your window or go for a walk. What do you see? What colors catch your eye the most? Do you notice any movement? How could you incorporate these into an artwork?

Today, we’re creating a paper mosaic inspired by Alma Thomas. Using torn scraps of paper rather than paint is a little more forgiving–we can move them around as much as we want before gluing them down.

Here’s what we need:

  • Paper scraps of various colors (alternatively, you can paint your paper to be whatever colors you choose!)
  • Another piece of paper in the size you want your finished work to be (white or a color)
  • Glue or glue stick

First, think back to the nature you observed when making your color choices. Consider using a limited color palette like Wind Sparkling Dew and Green Grass, which we would say is monochromatic since it uses only shades of the same color. I chose to use greens and blues with a few splashes of yellow and coral, inspired by early summer flowers and sunlight. I wanted a darker shade of blue-green but didn’t have paper in that color, so I painted some white paper and let it dry.

Construction paper in multiple colors torn into various sized rectangles.

Now, tear your paper into rough rectangular shapes. They won’t be perfect and that is what we want! The smaller your pieces, the more you will need to use in order to fill your paper, and the more time it will take to do so.

You can move your mosaic tiles around until you find the composition you like best, and then glue them down.

Alma Thomas often used pencil to draw the general shapes of her compositions before filling them in with paint. You can do the same, or just lay out your paper pieces before gluing them down, tearing more as needed and shuffling them around until you’re happy with the composition. She also often worked in vertical stripes or blocks of color, or sometimes in radiating circles as in The Eclipse, the work shown on the poster above.

TIP: Don’t do this near an open window on a breezy day! Your artfully arranged mosaic might blow away if you’re not careful (mine did…but luckily I photographed it first!).

Glue your pieces down, starting at one side of the page and working your way across. That’s it!

The finished product features a mosaic of construction paper tiles in blues, green, black, yellow, and coral.

FWMoA is back to regular hours, so come visit, then create your own work inspired by what’s on view! Be sure to share it with us if you do.

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