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Alma Woodsey Thomas passed over four decades ago but her work has enjoyed renewed popularity partly due to First Lady Michelle Obama. She was born September 22, 1891 in Columbus, Ga. before moving to Washington, D.C. as a teenager.

Thomas had hopes of becoming an architect, but those dreams were dashed due to sexism and racism of the time. However, the artistic student found a way to study Fine Art at Howard University and in 1924, she became the school’s first graduate in that discipline.

After some training as a schoolteacher, Thomas devoted the rest of her career to teaching at D.C.’s Shaw Junior High School where she also established a community arts program. During her time teaching, Thomas earned a master’s in Art Education from Columbia University in the early ‘30’s.

Retiring in 1960, Thomas devoted the rest of her life to art, later attending American University to study the emerging “Color Field” style of abstract art. At the time, abstract art was still a developing scene and Thomas, along with several other artists known as the Washington Color Field Painters of the Washington Color School, helped to bring the style to prominence while also refining their skills.

In 1972, at the age of 80, Thomas became the first Black woman to have a solo art exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. Thomas passed in 1978 with her work enjoying measurable fanfare among art enthusiasts.

When the Obamas placed two of her pieces in the White House in 2009 in their private residence, it helped bring awareness to her work, which led to the historic 2015 hanging of one of her paintings in a public viewing area. The news of Thomas’ first generated renewed interest in her artwork, and now several of her pieces have been displayed at several museums and collections.