Alma Thomas

When I was working on ideas for the Balance for Better Blanket along with the team at KDD&Co., I became especially interested in the work of Abstract American Painter, Alma Thomas.

Alma Thomas, photographed with her brush and works behind her, © Michael Fischer, 1976; Courtesy of National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

To fit the square but in-the-round format of our Square Share template, I focused on Alma Thomas’s painting, Resurrection, which was painted in 1966 and acquired by the White House for its permanent collection in 2015.

Resurrection by Alma Thomas, translated into stranded colourwork

Resurrection - a beautiful painting by Alma Thomas, in which concentric circles of luminous colours are arranged in disciplined yet organic brushstrokes around a glowing centre

I love this painting for many reasons but perhaps most of all for its vibrant colours; the underlying sense of structure and pattern informing the bold brushmarks; and how its religious subject can be appreciated universally as an energising symbol for new life and hope. Resurrection is also the first painting by an African-American woman to be acquired for the permanent collection of the White House. You can read a bit more about its unveiling, acquisition and context here.

In Resurrection, as in many of Alma Thomas’s paintings, I get the feeling she is showing us a very specific way to edit, see, and document the world. Her paintings record life through a particular style of mark-making and her work is immediately recognisable as hers. “The Alma Stripe” is the term she used to describe her distinctive practice of breaking up the surface of her paintings into linear brush strokes. To my knitter’s eyes, there is something about the discipline of how Alma describes the world in lines which is akin to the process of knitting, and especially knitting stranded colourwork, in which colour and pattern are built up round-by-round. I often say to students in my colourwork classes that one of the problems of translating everyday inspirations into stranded colourwork is that this medium is built up round by round, or row by row, when we are used to seeing the world in a much less geometric way. Yet in Alma’s deft brushstrokes, we do find the world apprehended row by row.

An underlying sense of Alma’s hands, their repeated motions, and pattern as an organising principle for colour combine to form a rich, distinctive visual language: Alma’s language. Through her language, the random chaos of lawns and grass-blades are transposed into the crisp and rhythmic lines of Spring Grass, painted in 1973…

Spring Grass, 1973, by Alma Thomas; abstract green brushmarks describe the geometry and chaotic patterning of blades of grass

…white roses are described as jewel-like shards of petal-tones in White Roses Sing and Sing, painted in 1976…

White Roses Sing and Sing by Alma Thomas, 1976, rhythmic patterned brushmarks in white and yellow on a ground of green sing to the colours and details of white roses blooming

…and the Apollo 11 lunar landing on the Moon, watched on television by Alma, is expressed in the ecstatic lines and upward-moving marks of Blast Off, painted in 1970.

Blast Off by Alma Thomas, a vast orange and yellow triangle suggests the vapour trails and engine fires of a rocket, while blues and pastels speak to ideas of the sky

I have been thinking very much about Alma Thomas, and it is perhaps no surprise that her work has ended up becoming a focus for my joyful art sessions with my six-year-old-niece which you may remember my mentioning here.

Collaged image featuring my screen, my interpretation of Resurrection as a watercolour, the Alma Thomas painting which we were using as a reference, and my niece's version of the painting (bottom)

In this collage of images you can see my watercolour version of Resurrection, Alma Thomas’s painting which we were using as a reference, and my niece’s version of the painting at the bottom.

What’s been really exciting is learning that the rest of my niece’s class are all learning about space at the moment, and space travel, and that our painting sessions exploring Alma Thomas’s work have fed into the work done by the class.

I was thinking about this the other day, watching the Perseverence Rover landing on Mars.

Mars Dust, painted by Alma Thomas in 1972 - a deep blue ground of paint covered in vivid reds

Alma Thomas painted Mars Dust in 1972, following an artist statement from 1971 in which she said “today not only can our great scientists send astronauts to and from the moon to photograph its surface and bring back samples of rocks and other materials, but through the medium of color television all can actually see and experience the thrill of these adventures. These phenomena set my creativity in motion”.

Mars Dust speaks to the massive dust storm which ravaged Mars from September 22nd, 1971, (incidentally this was Alma’s 80th Birthday) through to January 1972, and is suggestive of the indigo-infinity of space and the brooding reds with which Mars is popularly associated. Yet Alma’s energetic and emphatic brush-strokes say something, too, about the excitement of space travel, and the new ways of thinking about the world and its place within the Universe which it enabled. Many of Alma’s paintings are about viewing the Earth from the sky – a visualising perspective which was difficult to imagine before the widespread availability of images of Earth taken from the sky, from the atmosphere, from space.

There is so much more to say about Alma Thomas which I shall save for later posts; I’m still making my way through the superb monograph about her work published by DelMonico Books but if you know of any further references for her work, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. For now I find myself just thinking that so many things in the world – from blades of grass, to white roses, and even recent and older experiments in space travel – look richer and more interesting, having been rendered so thoughtfully by her considered hand.

3 thoughts on “Alma Thomas

  1. Her square in the blanket also inspired me with stranded knitting, combining colors in a new way for me. So far it’s just a swatch but I never know when it may show up in a project. I just love her work! Having studied art for years academically, I was dismayed that I had not come across her before. Thanks for bring her to my attention!

  2. Two things:
    In your knitted square, I love the kaleidoscopic effect that the decreases create, which is especially pronounced as you move closer to the center. Now I’m thinking about how to do that in my knitting, maybe in a circular yoke?
    I love Alma’s work but didn’t know much about her until this post. I have a print of Resurrection hanging on my classroom wall, but I only knew she was an African American woman. Thank you for this- now I love her work even more.

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