Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.
Anney: And I’m Anney from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.
Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about the artist Alma Thomas.
Anney: Alma Thomas was an American artist and educator known for her signature painting style using bright colors and patterns inspired by nature. She became a full-time artist later in her life.
Maureen: Let’s learn more about Alma Thomas’s life by reading a book.
This book is called Ablaze With Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Loveis Wise. Special thanks to Harper Collins Publishers for permission to use this book.
Alma always felt her best when she was outside soaking up the sparkling colors of nature. In the garden at her house on a hill, she skipped around circles of flowers. Pastel purple violets and crimson roses crowned by bright green banana leaves.
Anney: She fell back on the grass beneath the poplar trees and gazed at quivering yellow leaves that whistled in the wind. Alma waded in the blue hues of a brook and basked in the warm glow of sunsets.
Maureen: Alma was always on the go, never wanting to sit or cook or sew like her three younger sisters. She wanted to make things, things she could hold.
Alma scooped up moist red clay from the banks of the nearby stream. She shaped small bowls and cups to dry in the sizzling sun.
Anney: Inside her house, Alma’s world was also full of color and creativity. Her mother designed dazzling dresses, singing as she sewed. Her aunts painted petals and patterns, and Alma dipped her brush in tiny pots.
Although Alma felt joy at home, she and her sisters were sad they couldn’t attend the school just two doors away, the white school. And they couldn’t enter museums or the town library.
Maureen: So Alma’s parents filled their home with books and created their own place of learning.
They invited teachers into their living room to talk about people and places around the world, famous stories, and ways of thinking. Even though Alma didn’t understand all that was said by the grown-up, she watched and listened.
Anney: When Alma turned fifteen and couldn’t attend the local high school, her family decided to move to the North. Away from the injustices of the South.
After the train crossed the state border, Alma’s mother told her girls to take off their shoes and shake out the Georgia sand. And never go back again.
The family moved into a house in Washington, DC, where Alma would live for most of her life. A house with a flower garden, a patch of nature that always made her happy.
Maureen: When Alma grew up, she studied art in college. She chose to share her love of art by teaching at the local school. But even in the nation’s capital, the schools were still segregated and access to art limited.
Alma was determined to bring art to the young in her neighborhood. Just as her parents had brought learning into her home when she was young.
Anney: Alma invited children into her living room and taught them to make wooden marionettes. They performed their own plays when they weren’t allowed to see puppet shows downtown.
In her free time, Alma painted, studied, and shared ideas with her artist friends. Sometimes their work was exhibited together.
Mainly, though, she devoted herself to helping children, leading field trips and art clubs and setting up the city’s first gallery in a school.
Maureen: Finally, when Alma was almost seventy years old, she stopped teaching and focused on her own art.
Sitting in her favorite red chair, she stared at patterns of light and color twinkling through the leaves of her holly tree. Just as she had watched the fluttering leaves of the poplar trees when she was a young girl.
Anney: Inspired by what she saw, Alma began painting in a new style. Circles and stripes. Dashes and dabs. Ablaze with color. Soft colors, bright colors.
She created colors and patterns she remembered from her childhood days in the South and from what she saw now at her favorite park nearby.
Maureen: She painted how she felt on the inside when she experienced nature outside. The wind. The sunshine. The flowers. How nature made her heart sing and dance, even when life could be hard and unjust.
Anney: Alma imagined soaring high in an airplane, even though she had never been in one. Gardens and trees below became streaks and smudges.
Amazed by space travel, new at the time, Alma envisioned traveling aboard rockets with astronauts. The starry sky and zooming spaceships glimmered as dashes and swatches.
Galleries began showing Alma’s new artwork. And then…the unexpected happened.
Maureen: The Whitney, a famous art museum in New York City, featured Alma’s Paintings of Earth and Space. The first solo show by a Black woman.
Thrilled by the honor, Alma greeted crowds gathered at the museum, a place where everyone could visit.
Anney: Later that year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a large museum in DC, also showcased her paintings. The mayor proclaimed September 9 as “Alma Thomas Day” to celebrate her art, and all she had done for the city’s youth.
Maureen: Sadly, Alma didn’t live to see the momentous day when the first Black president and First Lady chose Alma’s painting as the first artwork by a Black woman to be displayed in the White House, the home of the president’s family and a symbol of the American people.
Anney: Alma’s art shimmered above a long table in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, where famous leaders, teachers, and artists gathered. Just as people had gathered in Alma’s childhood home. Just as children had gathered in Alma’s DC house.
In Alma’s piece, yellow dashes twirl. Circles upon circles swirl. Orange Red Purple Blue
A soft, quiet center, a green of nature. A painting of hope and joy. Ablaze with glorious color. Alma’s colors.
Now that we’ve learned more about Alma Thomas’ life, let’s look at a few examples of her work. Here are three of her paintings from the Hirshhorn collection.
Let your eye wander across all three artworks. Take a moment to look closely and choose one painting to focus on. Choose one line of shapes in that painting to explore. What color is the line? What shapes do you see? How many places can you find that color in the artwork? Repeat this exercise with another line of shapes in the artwork. Do you notice any patterns? These paintings from left to right are titled: Earth Sermon- Beauty, Love and Peace, Watusi (Hard Edge), and Sky Light.
At first glance, Alma Thomas’s paintings may seem simple. But when you look more closely, you notice how her patterns and shapes are irregular and complex. She used organic shapes (natural or imperfect shapes), rather than geometric shapes like a circle or square. The spacing between shapes creates a mosaic or puzzle-like effect. In many of her paintings, it’s the imperfection in the pattern—a break or a larger line—that draws our attention to certain areas.
Alma Thomas once said, “A world without color would seem dead. Color for me is life.” Thomas was an expert at color theory - the science and art of mixing colors. When Thomas planned her paintings, she created smaller canvases with her color choices. Notice her use of color in each of her paintings. How do her color choices make you feel?
When we look closely at Thomas’s careful use of color and patterns, we can see her paintings are not so simple after all.
Her art was inspired by nature right outside her window. She recalled, “I looked at the tree in the window, and that became my inspiration.” Many of her paintings are named after the natural world including Sky Light and Earth Sermon- Beauty, Love and Peace.
Beyond her own window, Thomas was excited about the changes happening during her lifetime, such as high-powered planes. Thomas began to imagine what she would see if she were in an airplane. She said, “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.” This idea transformed her paintings. She began making paintings with streaks of color. The streaks are abstract versions of things in nature, like trees and flowers. At the time, Thomas had never been in a plane, so she had to use her imagination!
Alma Thomas was also inspired by music and created a series of music-inspired paintings. The brush strokes in some of her paintings evoke the rhythm and movement of music.
Here are a few more examples of her work from other Smithsonian museums: The Eclipse, Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music!, Autumn Leaves Fluttering in the Breeze, and Spring; Delightful Flower Bed.
Maureen: Thanks for sharing all of that, Anney! I find Alma Thomas’s work to be so fun and playful – I think it would be a wonderful topic for a whole set of postage stamps. For now we can find one Alma Thomas painting on a stamp, which we will see in a moment. First let’s look at a few stamps that help tell her story.
This stamp of Washington DC reminds me of Alma Thomas in a few ways. You can see the row houses that are found in many DC neighborhoods. Alma Thomas lived in this row house on 15th street for 70 years. Not only was it her home, it was also her art studio, and the source of much of her artistic inspiration.
Here’s a photo of Alma Thomas painting in her home studio. Like Anney told us, she often painted the trees she could see out of her window, and the plants she had in her beloved garden. She once said about the holly tree in her yard that inspired her: “There are six patterns in there right now that I can see. And every morning the wind has given me new colors through the windowpane.”
This stamp also shows the famous Washington cherry blossoms, which Alma Thomas painted a few times. The painting you see here is called Wind and Crepe Myrtle Concerto, and it was inspired by the soft pink tree blossoms, that are similar to the cherry tree blossoms.
These stamps are about education, which was a huge part of Alma Thomas’s life. The first stamp says “Public Education” and the second one says “Helping Children Learn.” Alma Thomas worked very hard to receive her own education, and she became the very first student to earn a fine arts degree from Howard University, and she went on to study at Columbia University and American University. But what was even more important to her was teaching children about art. She spent 35 years as an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, DC, and she started community programs to give children access to art. Alma Thomas once said, “People always want to cite me for my color paintings, but I would much rather be remembered for helping to lay the foundation of children’s lives.”
This set of stamps is called “To Form a More Perfect Union” and it features artwork by ten different artists, including this one by Alma Thomas. Sadly, the United States has a stretch of history when many of the laws were very unfair for Black people. The Civil Rights Era was a time during the 1950s and 60s when many people were pushing to get these unjust laws changed so that all citizens in the United States would have the same rights, no matter what they looked like or what their background was. These ten stamps all show important events that happened during the Civil Rights Era.
Alma Thomas lived during this time, and faced many injustices during her life because of her skin color. She believed very strongly that Black people should have the same rights as everyone else. So she proudly participated in a famous event called The March on Washington in 1963. She was 71 years old and she marched with hundreds of thousands of other people to stand up for equal rights for all. She heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak in Washington DC on that day, and she felt inspired to put the event into this painting, called March on Washington.
Let’s take a closer look at the painting on the stamp. You can see part of a large crowd, with people carrying signs. It shows all different kinds of people coming together to share the same message. Can you feel the energy in the painting?
This painting is in a different style from so many that Alma Thomas made, but it shows us an important part of her life and her history. Featuring her artwork on a postage stamp helps share Alma Thomas’s experience with so many others. When these stamps came out, the United States Postal Service printed 70 million copies of them. This small stamp with this big message of the importance of equality has travelled all over the country and the world on letters and packages. I think Alma Thomas would be so proud to have her painting used in this way to help make a better world.
Anney: That was a lot of fun exploring the life and work of Alma Thomas. If you’d like to learn more about her, check out the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s website for more content and resources.
Maureen: Thanks so much, Anney, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. If you’d like to learn more about art on stamps and about a whole lot of other topics you can check out the National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!