Soon her attention turned to imagined windows: Thomas depicted floral fields as she imagined they might look from an airplane rushing through the sky. She painted Earth, seen from a spacecraft.
For Thomas — who died in 1978 but lived long enough to go from what she called “horse and buggy times” to the 1969 moon landing — the rush of modernity demanded expression. In her work, the same jovial brushstrokes that send flowers stirring into song in the National Gallery of Art’s “Red Rose Cantata” capture the blur of fire from a space shuttle taking off in “Launch Pad,” a work in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (and on view at the Kennedy Center’s Reach). Look at any of Thomas’s works, and her awe at the universe — at any scale — unites them. An energetic harmony seems to pulse from the light at her fingertips out to the light of the stars. Her medium is motion.
These days, modernity has lost its thrill. Airplanes and cars pollute. Private rocket ships are launched by billionaires. Even the natural world seen from our windows comes coupled with the poignant awareness of climate change. We tend to think about our own era’s technological advancements not on aesthetic but on moral grounds: New technology either saves or destroys (more typically the latter). Seeking beauty in everything, as Thomas did, can feel outmoded. Optimism is not exactly in vogue.
But maybe it could be.
Former first lady Michelle Obama — who added an Alma Thomas work to the White House collection in 2015 (the first work by a Black female artist) — will open the National Gallery’s symposium on Thomas virtually, on the artist’s birthday, Sept. 22. The following weekend, the Gallery will host an in-person community celebration of Thomas, complete with a presentation of her work “Red Rose Cantata, coloring activities, a floral display modeled after her painting “Pansies in Washington” — even Alma Thomas-inspired gelato. A selection of Thomas’s space-related works are on view at the Reach, and you can also find a few on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The celebrations include talks, workshops and other programs, all leading up to a major retrospective of her work, “Everything is Beautiful,” opening at the Phillips on October 30.
The exhibition aims to explore Thomas’s long-held influence, beyond the commonly told tale of an artist who skyrocketed to success late in life. Sure, her most significant achievements — including 1972 solo shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art — came in her eighth and ninth decades, but that didn’t mean she spent her first seven outside the art world entirely. Thomas moved to D.C. with her family in 1907, fleeing racial violence in her native Georgia. She became the first fine arts graduate at Howard University in 1924, and by the 1940s, Thomas had become a regular on the D.C. art scene. In 1943, she helped found the Barnett-Aden Gallery one of the first Black-owned galleries in the city — and one of just two that operated without segregation. She spent 35 years as an art teacher at the District’s Shaw Junior High School, before devoting all of her time to painting in retirement.
Thomas’s work has long been associated with the Washington Color School and, more generally, abstract expressionism, embracing the color psychology of the former and the action-packed canvases of the latter. Yet, she does so to different ends: She paints not the nothingness of abstraction, but nature.
Washingtonians can see D.C. afresh through her eyes: as a place with pops of colors, bursts of motion and energy. Thomas looked to the city’s cherry blossoms and Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens for material. In the catalogue for the Phillips exhibition, her circular compositions are likened to D.C.’s many traffic circles: “Springtime in Washington” evokes flowers in a roundabout, whizzed past in a car. For decades, her home at 1530 15th St. NW — between Logan and Dupont circles — was a well of inspiration. Today you can’t miss the house — across the street, the pavement has been painted to emulate her style.
For Thomas, the dissemination of her artistic vision in all forms — from frozen treats at the NGA to face masks at the Phillips Collection to an asphalt mural — feels uniquely fitting. Thomas lived her art. She showed up to gallery openings in clothing custom-made to match her work (her mother was a dress designer). Her creative practice extended to puppets, ceramic, metal sculpture and plantings. And she immersed herself in her own work, hanging her paintings in her bedroom so that she could look at them when she woke up in the middle of the night.
Standing in front of her work, you can see why. Looking at “The Eclipse,” on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t literally illuminate a dark room. The dabs of rainbow colors add up to concentric swirls of color, swelling into a chorus of undulating lines. At first, looking at the off-center abstraction, it’s as if you’re seeing an eclipse from a free fall. But the yellow light seems to emanate from the canvas, to reach for you, to catch you.
And that’s what Thomas wanted. “I’ve never bothered painting the ugly things in life,” she said. “No. I wanted something beautiful that you could sit down and look at.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the year the Barnett-Aden Gallery was founded. The article has been corrected.
Alma Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful
Various locations. Complete information is available at phillipscollection.org/alma-w-thomas-everything-beautiful.
Dates: Through January. The National Gallery of Art’s Wilmerding Community Celebration of Alma Thomas takes place Sept. 24-26 in the museum’s East Building, from 1 to 5 p.m. “Everything Is Beautiful” opens at the Phillips Collection on Oct. 30 and runs through Jan. 23
Prices: Many events are free, including the NGA’s community celebration. Admission to the Phillips Collection show is included in museum admission: $16; $12 for seniors: $10 for students and teachers; free for members and ages 18 and younger.