Lesson 1: Alma Woodsey Thomas
In this lesson, students will learn about Alma Woodsey Thomas, and will create realistic and abstract landscapes.
Students will learn about Alma Woodsey Thomas, and will discover the use of abstract expressionism and bold color, while learning that realistic works can lead to abstract works and an appreciation of abstract thinking.
Note: This Post-it® activity is an optional pre-lesson exercise.
Gather together Post-it® Notes in three specific sets: Yellow lined, solids in a variety of colors, and larger two-toned style (gray with a top line or texture line).
They will be used as follows:
- Lined yellow for parents' participation
- Solid colored for student participation
- Larger gray with headline for faculty, staff, and administration participation
SET UP AND PREPARE
Concept: On the classroom window an abstract image of a garden will be constructed using Post-it® notes written on by students, faculty, and parents. The process helps us to view things both realistically and abstractly. Say nothing of what the intention is—you want to create a bit of intrigue. Note: Only allow writing on the nonsticky side of the Post-it® notes. The sticky side will become the solid color seen from outside the classroom.
Remind all groups involved that all people are artists, and everyone has a talent. Accept all answers.1. At the beginning of class ask students to write the following on their choice of colored square Post-it® notes: "I am an artist when I..." Have them finish this sentence and write their name on it as well. Then have them randomly place the Post-it® notes on a window or door to the classroom. Make sure you have one for every student.
2. Ask the faculty, staff, and administration to do the same as the students—using the largest Post-it® notes—and make sure they sign them.
3. Place these Post-it® notes on the bottom portion of the glass in a row, to represent the nourishing ground of the garden. Faculty, etc., provide the nutrient-rich ground for learning.
4. At an event (back-to-school night, PTA meeting, class play, parent-teacher conferences), ask parents to write the same sentence, answer it, and sign their name on the yellow Post-it® notes. Parents are the top layer, the sun that shines on the students and helps them grow in the learning environment.
5. Collect parent Post-it® notes and place them randomly on the window.
6. When students are not around, rearrange their solid-color Post-it® notes into columns over the row of faculty/school notes. Columns of color placed randomly (or patterns) should climb at different heights. Place the parents' lined yellow notes coming down into the columns representing sunlight. Fill in all columns so the grid is full and solid. The finished product should resemble the painting: Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses by Alma Woodsey Thomas.
7. Written comments should be readable to all who pass by the classroom. Let a week go by, then students should be asking, "What is this about?" "Why did we do this?" Out of curiosity, they should be stopping to read what was written.
8. When you are ready to begin the Alma Woodsey Thomas project, draw attention to the window and describe it as a garden. Ask if students see it as one element. Note that there are only colored squares and no edges of leaves, or shapes of flowers, just pure color and pure abstract thinking and seeing.
1. Discuss the images of Alma Woodsey Thomas. Specifically: Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses (1964). Ask students what is the first thing they notice about her work (e.g., bright colors, looks like stripes).
Draw attention to the pre-activity of Post-it notes on the classroom window. Explain how they were arranged to represent three levels. The faculty and staff of the school represented the first level or ground of a garden, nutrient-rich soil where seeds are planted. The bright-color notes are the second level that the students wrote on, representing the flowers, growing from the ground. The third layer represents the parents' Post-it notes and the sunlight needed for growth to occur. Ask them to see the window as a garden now, not just statements about how each individual is an artist.
2. Compare the window activity and images of Iris, Tulips, Jonquils, and Crocuses. Draw attention to the fact that in both works the concept of lines or shapes has been reduced to marks of color. The pure color patterns of the garden have become the focus of the artwork. Explain that this is what abstract art does, it changes our focus to see more than reality.3. Introduce background information about Alma Woodsey Thomas and her work.
Alma Woodsey Thomas was born in 1891 in Columbus, Georgia. In 1907 her family moved to Washington, D.C. Alma had hoped to pursue her interests in architecture or as a bridge-building engineer. These were careers not generally open to women at this time. While she did not build bridges of structure, as a teacher she built bridges of ideas and concepts for children in poverty through the world of art. Alma Thomas is celebrated as a woman of many firsts: she is the first African-American woman to receive a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Howard University (1924) and the first African-American woman to earn a master's degree in art from Columbia University (1934).
Alma's early works were representational. She studied under Joe Summerford, Robert Gates, and Jacob Kainen at the American University, where she worked with abstract concepts and techniques. Throughout her career as an educator she worked with the poorest children of Washington. Thomas's mature work has been compared with Byzantine mosaics, the pointillist technique of Georges Seurat, and the paintings of the Washington Color School, yet her work is quite unique and distinctive. She has exhibited her work at the White House on three occasions and was the first African-American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her inspiration was her garden, choosing not to engage in issues of heritage or politics—she was a colorist: an artist who focuses on uses of color in abstract applications.
4. Explain to students that they will learn that abstract images come from reality-based observations. Have students draw a traditional landscape of the area they live in. They should use colored pencils or oil pastels to create the work. The focus of the work should be a tight close-up with large and clear images in the foreground. When students have completed the landscape, discuss how realistic the images are. Lines and textures are visible. The viewer can identify the different parts of the landscape (mountains, rivers, types of plants). Explain that now the focus is switching to just the aspects of color, not shape or form or line. They are going to remove those elements from the landscape, leaving columns and rows of color.
5. Using watercolor pencils or water-based oil pastels, have students begin a second work, while looking at their realistic landscape.
6. Discuss the concepts of columns and rows looking carefully at Thomas's work for reference. Note how she paints dabs of color going up and down in what appear to be rows and columns. Using their landscape for color reference students will follow the same technique using the same colors as their own work, and creating the colors in a grid-like presentation. Students will fill their paper with only dabs of color, no lines or curves of flowers or other parts of their landscape.
7. Display both the realistic landscape and the abstract work together. Have students discuss positively how they see the same images. The abstract of the landscape is clearly visible—in color.
8. Have students write an essay on how their work is similar to Alma Woodsey Thomas's work. They should include how abstract work can represent the essence of reality.
Alternative Projects and Extended Lessons
For students who have difficulty with the transfer to abstract, have them grid the paper in 1½-inch to 2-inch squares creating columns and rows. They can overlay a grid line on their realistic landscape, if necessary. They should, square by square, transfer color from the realistic landscape to the abstract work in progress. This process eliminates any white space around the dabs of color, but achieves the consistent grid of abstract concepts. Display both works together and have the students write down the process of creating abstract images from realistic works.
Other resources include:
1) Barnwell, Andrea D et al. (Buick, Kirsten P; Denny, Margaret; Fox, Martin; Jankauskas, Jennifer; Narowcki, Dennis A; Pascale, Mark; Pinder, Kymberly N; Walker, Andrew J.) A Portfolio of Works by African American Artists Continuing the Dialogue: A Work in Progress
2) Bearden, Romare and Henderson, Harry. Thomas, Alma. A History of African American Artists from 1972 to the Present
3) Bontemps, Arna Alexander. Forever Free: Art by African-American Women 1962-1980
4) Collins, Lisa Gail. The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past
5) Farrington, Lisa E. Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists
6) Foresta, Merry A. A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891-1978
7) Fyfe, Joe. Alma Thomas's Late Blossoms
8) NMWA: National Museum of Women in the Arts
9) Perry, Reginia A. Free Within Ourselves: African-American Artists in the Collection of the National Museum of American Art
10) Smith, Jessie Carney. "Thomas, Alma." Notable Black American Women
11) Thomas, Alma W., Fort Wayne Museum of Art. Alma W Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings. Pomegranate
12) Thomas, Alma Woodsey. AskArt.com: The Artist's Bluebook
(list from Charles T. Butler, Columbus Museum, 2004 online Alma Thomas search)