Alma Thomas died in February last year at the age of 86.Hors concours in many ways, she did not find herself as a painter until the decade of the '60s, when she was in her seventies. Also she was black, came from the Deep South, and spent most of her life teaching in the public-school system of Washington, D.C. But what she turned out in the last years of her life won her one-person shows at the Whitney Museum and the Corcoran Gallery in 1972, smaller annual shows here and there afterward and national recognition.
Her handling of color was what revealed her as the artist. The fact that her emergence as a colorist coincided with the flowering of the Washington-based movement of Color-Field painting gave her canvases their look of contemporaneity. Under these circumstances, how misapplied was the parochialism by which Thomas was repeatedly included in shows of Afro-American artists. She saw a world of things in many hues with no ethnic twist.
I visited her two months before she died, still at work in her little house at 1530 15th St. NW, crammed with paintings and an orderly richness of books, papers, artists' announcements. She liked to keep in touch. The front rooms were lit through tall Victorian windows-old District of Columbia architecture. A central bay window was full of dark-green leaves of a big holly tree that pushed against the glass from outdoors. One saw through those leaves a flicker from behind, a sense of space, sunshine, flashing cars. When I came that late-autumn day and looked around as I do to find what the artist's eyes rest on in working time, I saw that window-tree (as Robert Frost would say) and thought to myself: there , It was one of my better insights.
In fact some of her works look as if a dark glassene surface had been stretched and stretched till it broke in many places to let a luminous underneath layer show through. Mauve breaks to reveal greengolden; scarlet breaks to white; dark blue to yellow. These fields of color were her impressions of natural phenomena. Spring flowers break through the crust of earth. White azaleas break through the dark woods. On a blue-black Washington night, stars break through in the same crystalline patterns a young Georgia O'Keeffe saw one Texas night 60 years ago.
There is a metaphorical digression to be made from those dark-surfaced paintings with colors within. I find a bitter pathos in the lives of the people this artist grew up among. Alma Thomas inherited tenacity, imagination and will. She dreamed of being a "great architect," or of building bridges. She had about as much chance of developing herself in those directions as she had of going to the moon alongside the astronauts she admired. Instead she spent 35 years teaching art.
I devoted my life to the children and they loved me," she says here. The irony, of course, is that it was "color," for which, for a long time, she says she felt no special affinity, that turned out to be the passport to a life of a mainstream cultural prominence.
"I was born in Columbus, Ca., in 1892, in a Victorian house that stood high on a hill a little off from the city. It was the first with my maternal grandfather, who lived across the Chle neighborhood, so white people came and built houses all around and there was a white school two doors away from us. I didn't go to it, of course.
"Summers we spent with my naternal grandfather, who lived across the Chatahoochee River in Alabama. He had about a thousand acres there, a marvelous plantation. He had a white half brother he looked after all his life. They went to the Civil War together; then after they came back and settled in Alabama, their plantations were right next to each other; in the beginning his brother even allowed some of Grandfather's children to go to school with his own children. My mother was too young for that, but the oldest boy and two or three of my aunts went, and later they went on to college at Tuskegee and Atlanta University.
"I remember the times we went to their plantation. It was a beauty. I remember the lovely fowl, every kind of fowl. There were peacocks. In the afternoons we would sit on the front porch while they came and put on their display for us. And there were beautiful pigeons, fantails and ducks. And every kind of animal, pigs and goats, horses and ponies.
"Then, too, I would go wandering through the plantation finding the most unusual wild-flowers. And the cotton-oh, that was a gorgeous sight: as far as you could see, beautiful flowers, white with a bit of pink, bell-shaped. I haven't painted that yet, but I do want to someday-paint my memories of that cotton.
"Then there was my grandfather. He raised horses and sold them. He looked after the community, helped the old people who lived on the farm when they became ill. In the mornings, he would go down to the post office and get the papers and come back. And then we would all sit in the sun and he read the paper. Then he discussed politics-all the affairs of the world. We would be hanging around him, around his neck. He had very gorgeous hair, and some would be patting his beard and some would be patting his beard and some his hair, and he would go on discussing what was in the paper. And when he got through, he would line us up for a spelling bee or some game. And meanwhile, our aunts would be sewing or knitting or combing the cotton out, weaving or spinning on the wheel."
EM: "Did you paint or draw in those days?"
AT: "No. We didn't know anything about that in that day and age. But there was one thing I did. There was a little brook running down below our house, and water tripping down the hill. That water had some kind of acid that changed the clay to different colors. I would get little cans and put the separate colors in separate cans. Then I'd take them home and make things out of it. I had never seen anyone do that at all. Little cups and little plates. The truth is, I was always building something."
EM: "Who else was in your family?"
AT: "Three other girls, younger than me. Then, my mother was a dress designer, outstanding in colors. Everything she made was like a painting. She sat at the sewing machine, and at night we would hear her singing as she sewed. That's why I am as I am. So that young people come around me, those who want to be painters and those who love art. I got that from my grandfather and my mother.
"And my father. He gave his soul to us. He looked Italian; like my mother's father, he had a white father. His white half brother built houses; that's how we got the one on the hill. So we lived in the best place, you might say, for a Negro at that time, where there were the blacksmith and doctors' offices and the post office and the coal yards. And in our house we always had books and papers. My aunts who were teachers had cultural clubs. White professors from Atlanta would come to lecture once or twice a month. I still have the books today that were bought at that time. Latin books and Shakespeare and the history of the world."
EM: "And history of art? Did you go to museums?"
AT: "Museums! They had none way back in that day. There was nothing like that. Mercy, this is back in the beginning of time! There was only one library in Columbus, and the only way to go in there as a Negro would be with a mop and bucket to wash and scrub something.
"But there were people then who painted on velvet-you put in the petals and other patterns, and all those paints were around when I was little. I loved to use the paints, and to make things. But education was the important thing. I was aware early on that one of the ways to get ahead was to become a professional, like a lawyer. But I was born with a hearing and speech impediment, so I couldn't go that way. My mother always thought that was because, before I was born, a lynch party came up the hill near our house with ropes and dogs, looking for someone. They got to the top and found my father there. They recognized him for the most respected Negro in Columbus and didn't bother him, but it frightened us, and Mother said it caused my deafness.
"Eventually, my aunt and uncle who lived in Washington invited the whole family to move up here so we children could finish our education. So we came and stayed.
"I went to Armstrong High School, a new trade school. When I entered the art room, it was like entering heaven. A beautiful place, just where I belonged. I stayed three or four years and took all the art courses as well as sewing, millinery, cooking. The Armstrong High School laid the foundation for my life.
"Later I went to the teacher-training school, but I didn't do so well there. There were many smart ones who could express themselves better than I. But I went into kindergarten training and found again I could make things. From my architecture studies at Armstrong, I learned to construct little buildings out of cardboard. I made a little modern schoolhouse, for one, that was shown at the Smithsonian in 1912.
"Later I went down to Delaware and stayed for six years running a kindergarten and a settlement house. And then the war was over, and there came a turning point. There was no more of the old ways of teaching. Now they used the Montessori method. I told my mother I would have to change my life, that technology was taking over. But at the same time I had developed an interest in costume design. So in the end, I went to Howard University to get a degree in costume design. And the first year there I happened to meet a professor James Vernon Herring. He opened the first art department at Howard, and he asked me to be his student. I was happy about it, thought I had been out of school and teaching for six years. But he said, 'Don't worry, I'll stick with you as long as you want me to.' So I did. And I was the only one in his first class to get a Bachelor of Science degree, in 1924.
"He became my mentor and took me under his wing. He had beautiful books. He would take the books and explain the artists to me. And so I came to know the great artists.
"After graduating, I taught art here in Washington, 35 years in one room. I devoted my life to the children, and I think they loved me, at least those did who were interested in art. Even after I retired in 1960, I devoted my time to the children who lived nearby. Rounding my neighborhood were the slums of the world. On Sundays those children would be running up and down the alley. So I got them to clean up and come to my house and we made marionettes and put on plays."
EM: "And you were moving then toward becoming an artist."
at: "Yes. Back at Armstrong I was known as being excellent in architecture. I wanted to be a sculptor, or a great architect. I always said I'd loved to build beautiful bridges. At Howard I began working in sculpture, and later on, when I went to Columbia University for my master's degree, I worked in sculpture again. And then during the 1950s I studied painting at American University and made a trip abroad to study the art of Western Europe.
"At the American University, I was doing representational painting. But I wasn't happy with that, ever. Then, in 1964, I had a terrific attack of arthritis. i thought, This is the end, I'll never be able to move my arms again, or walk. Just then I was offered retrospective of my paintings, at Howard University. I thought about it. I recovered my health. And I said, 'I'll try.'
"I decided to try to paint something different from anything I'd ever done. Different from anything I'd ever seen. I thought to myself, That must be accomplished.
"So I sat down right in that chair, that red chair here in my living room, and I looked at the window. And you can see exactly what I saw, right before my eyes, from where I was sitting in the chair. Why, the tree! The holly tree! I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration. There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the windowpanes.
"I got some watercolors and some crayons, and I began dabbling. And that's how it all began. The works have changed in many ways, but they are still all little dabs of paint that spread out very free. So that tree changed my whole career, my whole way of thinking. I never even go to the other windows anymore. I used to, but then they put up houses and cut off the view. When they put in those high buildings, I said to the other trees, 'Goodbye.' I was sick when I couldn't see them come in red in the spring and go out red in the fall. But through that one window I could see the light, how gorgeous it is. And every morning since then, the wind has given me new colors through the windowpane.
"I've never bothered painting the ugly things in life. People struggling, having difficulty. You meet that when you go out, and then you have to come back and see the same thing hanging on the wall. No. I wanted something beautiful that you could sit down and look at. And then, the paintings change on you. All you have to do is put natural light on them. Light is the mother of color, and no place stays the same. Look in that corner. It's dark. Look over here, and you see light.
"And then-since we're not living in the horse-and-buggy days-I began to think about what I would see if I were in an airplane. You streak through the clouds so fast you don't know whether the flower below is a violet or what. 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. And so I began to paint as if I were in that plane. And at that time I hadn't ever been in one!
"From then on, I just painted. The next year, in '67, there was a show of black art at George Washington University and I was included. My banner year was 1972. My break-through. I presented my pictures at the Whitney Museum in New York, and about 12 New York art critics wrote about my work. Later on, Harold Rosenberg wrote in The New Yorker that I brought joy to the '70s!"
EM: "Do you think of yourself as a black artist?"
AT: "No, I do not. I am a painter. I am an American. I've been here for at least three or four generations. When I was in the South, that was segregated. When I came to Washington, that was segregated. And New York-that was segregated. But I always thought the reason was ignorance. I thought myself superior and kept on going. Culture is sensitivity to beauty. And a cultured person is the highest stage of the human being. If everybody were cultured we would have no wars or disturbance. There would be peace in the world."
EM: "Tell me how you work on a painting these days."
AT: "I make a lot of little color sketches. I have hundreds of them. And I keep up with what's going on. I buy all the art magazines, and many of the new books. And I go to exhibitions. I like to feel myself part of this day in time.
"I also visit places like our arboretum here in Washington, not to paint but to get impressions. My painting 'Washington in the Springtime,' for instance, shows the city putting out all those gorgeous tulips, pansies and jonquils in the spring. I leave behind me all those artists who sit out in the sun to paint. I leave them back in the horse-and-buggy times when everything moved slowly. I get on with the new."
EM: "Are you a religious person, would you say?"
AT: "I think the religious part is helping people. Always being out to help somebody. To help the children.But my real belief is in my art, in beauty. I say everyone on earth should take note of the spring of the year coming back every year, blooming and gorgeous. CAPTION: Picture, "Oriental Garden Concerto," courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art.