It was at Howard University, where Alma Thomas met professor James V. Herring. You might remember this professor from our coverage of the artist, curator and scholar, David Driskell. To refresh your memory, James V. Herring, was an artist himself and founded the art department at Howard University in 1922. Remember, Thomas enrolled in Howard University to study costume design in 1921.
Somehow, Herring talked Thomas into giving up costume design and becoming his first student in his brand spanking new art department. Because of her familiarity with the creation of marionettes and making puppet heads, Thomas gravitated to sculpting and created small statues, heads of children, along with some cubist-styled modern works.
She didn’t just sculpt, she also painted, although it’s been noted in the book, “A History of African-American Artists” by Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, that her paintings at the time weren’t anything special. They were very academic. But what was special about Thomas herself, was that she’d already been teaching for six years by the time she enrolled at Howard, so she wasn’t some doe-eyed unquestioning student. She challenged Herring constantly and I don’t know how he felt about it at the time, but he had at some point come to respect this about her over their continued 50-year relationship.
Bearden and Henderson state that Herring was a very knowledgeable and able professor and held very high standards – now, as an artist myself, I’m not sure what that last part means exactly, having “very high standards.” But then again, I’m not part of art school academia.
So, after graduating, Thomas became an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School in D.C. – the same school she had directed the marionette puppet shows. Now, it’s not clear if she was still doing the marionette shows while studying at Howard or not, but it’s been reported that being an art teacher at Shaw was a job she thoroughly enjoyed.
While teaching, she continued developing her own work and continued to paint – a lot of it in watercolor. Her art skills began to evolve, but were still quite traditional. In 1939, Thomas entered work (I’m not sure which) at the Department of Commerce exhibition and won first prize.
During the summers, when school was out and her time was completely her own, she’d travel to New York to see the major and not so major exhibitions at the MET, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other museums in the area.
One day, in 1943, Herring, the same art professor who lured her into his art department and away from costume design, asked Thomas to join him and Alonzo Aden (also a Howard University professor), in creating a gallery – the Barnett-Aden Gallery. According to my favorite source, it was the first private gallery in Washington D.C. to break the color line. Well, Thomas jumped at the chance and became the gallery’s vice-president, deeply involved with discussions about contemporary American art and about which artists to exhibit.
This is when Thomas became entrenched with D.C.’s art circles, other gallery owners, curators and critics. Herring, felt strongly about putting high-quality art front and center, regardless of the race of the artist, regardless of the artist’s notoriety. Of course, with these types of barriers out of the way, it was possible to illustrate how the art of African Americans could stand up in comparison to any other reputable artist.
Thomas was right there when Abstract Expressionism emerged out of the Great Depression and in 1946, Thomas joined the group called, “Little Paris.” This was not a band, this was a group of public-school teachers and government employees who sketched and painted together, critiquing each other’s work. The group was formed by the renowned artist and Howard University professor, Lois Marilou Jones. This group was a cushion of support against the discouragement and dismissal of Black artists that prevailed in the area at the time.
Here, I want to take a moment to say that, it is often reported that Thomas didn’t start her art career until after she retired from teaching in public schools. However, it’s important to point out that Thomas was teaching ART! And before that she was studying and practicing art, which in my school of thought, make her an artist already. If you look at the totality of what she had done before she retired, Thomas was an artist a long time ago! She had already been exhibited in galleries. She was in the Smithsonian… I think it is misleading to start her story by saying that her art career began after she retired. This is just the time she kicked it into a higher gear.
Thomas enrolled at American University in 1950, to study painting with Joe Summerford and Robert Gates. Their work as students fascinated her. According to A History of African-American Artists, Thomas said, “The first time I was there, when they put a still life before me, I tried to paint it just as it was. When I looked in another room… they did not copy anything that was set before them.”
Ben L. Summerford, better known as “Joe,” was born in 1924 in Montgomery, Alabama. Summerford ended up teaching at American University for 38 years. He exhibited all the time in D.C. and also exhibited at the Barnett Aden Gallery where Thomas was vice-president.
Summerford believed that a painting should be constructed of paint. For it was all about color or shape that made painting interesting – not how technical, or realistic it looked.
The other student who inspired her, Robert Gates, was originally from Detroit, Michigan. He also ended up studying then teaching at American University. His watercolors are what first put him on the map.
So, after looking at what these dudes were doing, with all their, out-of-the-box thinking, Thomas began experimenting with abstract elements in her work. This is illustrated in her work titled, “Joe Summerford’s Still Life.” Not only these guys, but she experimented with Cubist elements, like those found in the works of Pablo Picasso and George Braque. If you haven’t heard of Braque, he was a French artist who is credited as one of the developers of Cubism. Check out his work titled, “Violin and Pitcher, 1910.”
At American University, Thomas also studied under Jacob Kainen. He was an expressionist artist and later a curator at the National Museum of American Art.
- “Art expert reflects on his work in DC at the nation’s first private gallery owned by African-Americans” by Katherine Saltzman https://thedcline.org/2019/02/26/art-expert-reflects-on-his-work-in-dc-at-the-nations-first-private-gallery-owned-by-african-americans/
- A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson, 1993, Pantheon, pp. 447-453
- About Lois Marilou Jones: https://americanart.si.edu/artist/lo%C3%AFs-mailou-jones-5658
- NASA: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/apollo11.html