Azaleas from 1969 is a prime encapsulation of Alma Thomas’ exuberance as she thrived in a milieu that was distinguished by social reform, educational development and pure artistic expression. She continuously pursued aesthetic beauty both as a teacher and within her own creative artistry. This culminated with a late in life, meteoric rise to popularity that was punctuated by two major solo exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in 1972 and, most notably, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (also in 1972) where she was the first African American woman to receive a solo exhibition in the museum’s history. Two decades after Thomas' passing, the Fort Wayne Museum of Art organized the first traveling retrospective of Thomas’ work for which Azaleas was selected to be prominently featured as the front cover of the exhibition catalogue. The 53 works included in the show exuberantly traced the progression of her oeuvre and herald the present Azaleas as one of, if not the most, important works in the artist's long career. More recently, Alma Thomas’ Ressurection from 1966 was acquired by the White House Historical Association and is celebrated as the first work by a female African-American artist to enter the esteemed permanent collection, marking a shift in the art historical narrative.
Azaleas brilliantly captures the intimacy of Thomas’ gesture, the kaleidoscopic vivacity of her brushstroke, and the way in which her abstraction hints at the vast natural world that inspired her for over 86 years. Thomas’ distinctive fusion of vibrant color, dense paint application and energetic patterns remains as remarkable today as it was during her remarkable lifetime. Azaleas is from the pinnacle of Thomas’ evolution and marks the moment she discovered her true personal style that exploded upon traditional Abstract Expressionist and Washington Color School practices through experimentations with abstraction, color, line and pattern. As explained by Barbara Gold, “[Thomas’s canvases are] amazingly perceptive about color and organization...she paints with verve, an unjaundiced eye, a freedom that is given to few” (Barbara Gold in Exh. Cat, Fort Wayne Museum of Art (traveling), Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings, 1998, p. 39). Azaleas is composed of bright poppy red, royal blue, sunny yellow and Day-Glo highlights as seen in nature on a sunny day. Unlike Thomas’ striped, Gene Davis-like works, and circular, Kenneth Noland-inspired works, the present example embodies the natural world that so vividly inspired her oeuvre. Thomas lived in the same house on Fifteenth Street in Washington, D.C. until her death in 1978 and wrote of her home: “I discovered that it was the light glittering through a holly tree near the bay window of my home that attracted my fancy...the colors are the children of light and the light reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world.” (Alma Thomas quoted in Ibid., 40). Azaleas sweeps across the canvas as if the brightly colored azalea flowers are dancing in the wind amidst kaleidoscopic hints of lush green foliage and stained-glass pink, purple, red, and yellow petals.
Alma Thomas was born in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia. She moved as a teenager to Washington, D.C. with her parents and three sisters, seeking respite from racial violence in the Deep South and stronger educational opportunities. Thomas studied at Howard University, the nation’s leading historically black institution, where she was the first to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Art thanks to the mentorship of Professor James V. Herring, who remained a guiding light throughout her career. Following graduation, Thomas went on to teach art for thirty-five years at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, D.C.’s public school system. When she was not teaching in the classroom, Thomas devoted her spare time to earning her masters degree from Columbia University while simultaneously mentoring students, She worked to cultivate their appreciation for the arts by fostering in them an awareness of their artistic and cultural heritage. Sam Gilliam recalls Thomas’s appreciation for works seen with students in Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection saying, “Alma was different; she responded to the Rothkos, the Louises, the Nolands. It was extraordinary” (Sam Gilliam in Ibid., p. 38). This appreciation for her fellow artists and her brave quest to create a body of works that were all her own ultimately drove Thomas to establish her own place within the history of art.
Following decades as an educator, Thomas shifted her focus to foster her own career as an artist and became one of the most celebrated African-American female artists. Thomas once again returned to the classroom, this time as a student, at American University, where she was inspired by the vast variety of practices, which ultimately lead her to abandon figuration entirely and experiment with a radical new abstract structure. By the mid-1960s, Thomas’ careful observations of nature became the chief source of her artistic output. She was often enchanted by the abstract patterns created by sunlight shining through flowers and foliage, which connected her to her roots in Georgia and the garden tended to by her mother, aunts and sisters in Washington, D.C. First as a painter of realistic compositions, she later abandoned this stylistic preference to experiment with more geometric forms and her deep love of nature resulted in the creation of rhythmic, color-filled canvases such as Azaleas—characterized by short, jagged brushstrokes—full of joy, love and beauty.
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