“We placed the painting directly in visitors’ line of sight, across from the doorway and centered right between a pair of towering windows, so that its warmth would greet you the moment you stepped into the room.” -Michelle Obama
And greet you it did.
Why Michelle Obama selected Alma Thomas’s Resurrection to be the centerpiece of the newly decorated White House dining room under the 2012-2016 Obama administration seems obvious.
Resurrection is arresting. One cannot help but be mesmerized by the concentric rainbow and engulfed in its emanating radiance. When we awake we are changed, enlightened and glowing ourselves - a theme across the artist, Alma Thomas’s, works.
“Color is life,” Thomas said. And while playing with color and light was a cornerstone of Thomas’s work, she didn’t venture into the abstract until the 1950s while taking classes at American University. Having abandoned the confines of realism, Thomas quickly joined the ranks of her contemporaries in the Washington Color School.
The Washington Color School was a school of thought, an artistic practice that was specific to D.C. from the 1950’s-1970’s, and it differed from previous movements in a few ways. Rather than drawn forms, Washington Color School Painters used broad strokes of color to distinguish geometric shapes and patterns, also known as color field painting. With a goal of creating an optical experience for the viewer, the audience became the center of the work rather than the artists themselves. Use of acrylic paints was a common thread of Washington Color School painters. Acrylics were a relatively new invention. By diluting acrylics, artists found a method that allowed the paint to soak into a canvas, further emphasizing the two dimensional effect of flat paint.
In addition to being part of a new artistic movement, Thomas was a pioneer of her own style. She was 75 years old when she developed the seminal style she’s known for, her distinctive “Alma lines,” which came about as a consequence of severe arthritis. At the time, Thomas’s arthritis had left her more or less housebound and giving up on painting.
She spent a lot of time gazing out her windows, admiring nature. One day Thomas noticed that the Holly tree outside her sitting room window obscured a sunbeam, casting a fractured pattern of light against the wall. The pattern inspired her, and henceforth, her work was similarly characterized by broad, short strokes of color. Her “Alma lines'' resemble kaleidoscopic interpretations of her environment, reminiscent of Byzantine mosaics, stained glass, and - to those of us raised in the 90’s - “magic-eye” autostereograms (which, if you looked at long enough, would reveal a hidden 3D image).
But Alma was a pioneer in her life too.
Born in 1891, into a middle-class Black family in the Deep South, Alma was raised around art, music, and time spent in nature. But there wasn’t much of a future for her in Columbus, Georgia - an area fraught with racial tension and violence and where there were no schools for Black children beyond Junior High.
The Thomas family moved to the metropolis of Washington D.C. where Alma excelled in setting a few precedents for Black women.
Alma Thomas was the First Black woman to graduate from Howard University with a degree in Fine Arts. She was also the primary investor and Vice President of the Barnett-Aden Gallery, the First Black-owned, for-profit, art gallery. She was the first Black woman to have a solo art exhibition at The Whitney Museum of Art in New York City (when she was 80!).
And in 2014, post-mortem, she became the first female Black artist to be added to the White House Collection.
In reviewing Alma Thomas’s range of works, one might think she spent a lifetime painting, but it wasn’t until she retired from teaching art at the age of 69 that she fully immersed herself in her own work. And it was another six years before she developed her unique and remarkable style. Having this context reveals Resurrection’s literal meaning. As long as we’re alive, we have an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, even in the midst of great pain and at times because of it.
Michelle Obama selected Resurrection not only because of its brilliance and inspiration, but having the artwork of a pioneering Black woman and prolific artist hanging in a public space in the White House was also part of the equation. About choosing Resurrection, Michelle said, “I wanted to make sure that other little Black girls growing up would see that they belonged in the people’s house too.”