Alma Thomas: 1891-1978


Born on September 22, 1891, in Columbus, Georgia, Alma Woodsey Thomas grew up in a family that encouraged education and appreciation of literature and the arts. In 1907, the family moved to Washington D.C., partly due to the Atlanta race riots, but also because Washington had better education and employment opportunities for African Americans than most other cities at the time. That same year, Thomas enrolled at Armstrong Manual Training High School where she excelled at math, and was exposed to the visual arts.

Thomas attended Miner Normal School (today, the University of the District of Columbia) in 1911 studying kindergarten education. She received her teaching certificate in 1913 after which she taught for four years at Thomas Garrett Settlement House in Wilmington Delaware. Thomas returned to Washington in 1921 to study home economics at Howard University. Initially intending to pursue a career as a costume designer, she switched her studies to the newly created fine arts department and in 1924, became the first graduate of the program.

In 1925, Thomas began working as an art instructor at Shaw Junior High School in Washington D.C. – a career which she would remain at for 35 years. With a desire to cultivate appreciation for art in young people, Thomas organized the School arts League based at Shaw as well as organizing the school’s first art gallery.

Between 1930 and 1934, Thomas earned her masters degree in fine arts education from the teachers college at Columbia University. In 1943, she was vice-president of the Barnett Aden Gallery – the first private gallery to welcome art created by artists of any race, colour, or creed.  While there, Thomas was able to increase her awareness of art trends and directions. As well, she was involved with the Little Paris Studio where artists met and worked together, improving their skills, exchanging critiques, and holding exhibitions.

Thomas initially painted realistic images but moved toward abstract painting in 1950, when at the age of 59, she returned to school taking art classes at the American University.  She studied with Robert Gates, Ben Summerford, and well known painter Jacob Kainen with whom she became close friends. A passion for learning, Thomas continued her evening and weekend classes for ten years.  During that time, her painting evolved from realism to cubism, abstract impressionism, and finally her own style of abstract art.

In 1960, Thomas retired from teaching to focus exclusively on her art.  Her primary inspirations were her observations of nature and the abstract patterns of light created when shining through flowers and plants. Her paintings reflected this with their bold colours and short jagged brush strokes.

Thomas’s work began receiving recognition in the late 60′s and early 70′s.  She had solo exhibitions at Howard and Fist Universities, at the Franz Bader Gallery in Washington, and was included in the US Department of States Art in Embassies Program. In 1972, she was the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

From the 1970′s onward, Thomas minimized the number of colours in her paintings and experimented with optical effects. Her brush strokes had the appearance of wedges and commas and created rhythmic patterns that often resembled mosaics. During these last years of her life, Thomas was challenged by arthritis and deteriorating eyesight, but she continued painting, drawing on nature and music for inspiration, up until her last days.

Alma Thomas died on February 24, 1978 in Washington D.C. from complications following surgery. Today, her paintings are on display in major art museums and university galleries across the United States.

Sources: Alma W. Thomas: A Retrospective of the Paintings, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Jean Arp: 1886 – 1966


Born on September 16, 1886 in Strasbourg (then part of Germany), Jean (Hans) Arp was a pioneer of abstract art and a founding member of the Dada movement.  After studying at the Kunstschule, Weimar from 1905 to 1907, Arp attended the Académie Julian in Paris.

In 1909, Arp moved to Switzerland where in 1911 he was a founder of and exhibited with the Moderne Bund group. One year later, he began creating collages using paper and fabric and influenced by Cubist and Futurist art. Arp then traveled to Paris and Munich where he became aquainted with Robert and Sonia Delaunay Vasily Kandinsky, Amadeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, and others.

In 1915, with the onset of World War I, Arp moved to Zurich, feigning mental instability to avoid military service. It is here where he met and collaborated with Sophie Taeuber, creating tapestries and collages, and whom he married in 1922.

In 1916, Arp became part of the founding group of the Zurich Dada artists. Their aim was to encourage spontaneous and chaotic creation, free from prejudice and the academic conventions that many believed were the root causes of war. For Arp, Dada represented the “reconciliation of man with nature and the integration of art into life.” At the end of the war, Arp continued his involvement with Dada promoting it in Cologne, Berlin, Hannover, and Paris.

Although Arp was committed to Dada, he also aligned himself somewhat with the Surrealists, exhibiting with the group in Paris exhibitions in the mid 1920′s. He shared their notion of unfettered creativity, spontaneity, and anti-rational position.

Arp and his wife also had close ties to Constructivist groups such as De Stijl, Cercle et carré, Art Concret and Abstraction–Création, all of which aimed to create a counterbalance to Surrealism as well as to change society for a better future.

In the early 1930′s, Arp developed the principle of the “constellation,” and used it in both his writings and artworks. While creating his reliefs, Arp would identify a theme, such as five white shapes and two smaller black ones on a white ground, and then reassemble these shapes into different configurations.

In the 1930′s, Arp began creating free-standing sculpture. Just as his reliefs were unframed, Arp’s sculptures were not mounted on a base, enabling them to simply take their place in nature. Instead of the term abstract art, he and other artists, referred to their work as Concrete Art, stating that their aim was not to reproduce, but simply to produce more directly. Arp’s goal was to concentrate on form to increase the sculpture’s domination of space and its impact on the viewer.

From the 1930′s onward, Arp also wrote and published poetry and essays. As well, he was a pioneer of  automatic writing and drawing that were important to the Surrealist movement.

With the fall of Paris in 1942, Arp fled the war for Zurich where he remained, returning to Paris in 1946. In 1949, he traveled to New York where he had a solo show at Curt Valentin’s Buchholz Gallery. In 1950, Harvard University in Cambridge, MA invited him to create a relief for their Graduate Center. In 1954, Arp was awarded the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Venice Biennale. Retrospectives of his work were held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 1958 and at the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, in 1962.

Jean Arp died June 7, 1966, in Basel, Switzerland at the age of 80. His works are in major museums around the world including a large collection at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Strasbourg.

Sources: Guggenheim Museum, MoMA

Grandma Moses – Anna Mary Robertson Moses: 1860-1961

A Beautiful World - Anna-Mary-Robertson (Grandma) Moses 1948

Born on September 7, 1860, Anna Mary Robertson Moses (aka Grandma Moses) was one of the most successful and renowned artists in America and possibly the best known American artist in Europe.  Born in a farming community in Greenwich, New York, Moses had little formal education and left home at the age of 12 to work as a hired girl on a nearby farm. She worked in this capacity until the age of 27 when she married Thomas Salmon Moses, a worker at the farm .

Anna and Thomas invested in a farm in Virginia where they remained for twenty years.  During that time, Moses had ten children (5 died in infancy).  The couple returned to New York in 1905 and settled on a farm in Eagle Bridge.  Thomas died in 1927 and Anna remained on the farm until 1936 when she retired and went to live with her daughter.

Moses’ earliest works were in embroidery which she began making in the 1930s. It was not until her late 70s, when arthritis prevented her from continuing with her craft, that she took up painting. A self taught artist, her first paintings were copies of prints and postcards. Moses soon began painting her own scenes with subject matter based on her memories of the rural countryside and farm life. In 1938, Moses’ paintings were on display at Thomas’s Drugstore, Hoosick Falls, NY when engineer and art collector, Louis J. Caldor discovered them and bought them all.

The following year, Moses’ work was included in an exhibition of “contemporary unknown painters” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1940, Moses had her first successful solo show “What a Farmwife Painted” at the Galerie St. Etienne. Media and viewers alike were charmed by Moses “down-home” personality and the simple realism and nostalgia of her paintings. Her ability to capture optimistic scenes of rural activities such as maple sugaring, soap and candle making, haying, etc., were welcomed by a world recovering from WWII and facing the new threat of the Cold War. Soon, other solo shows followed in the US and abroad and Moses developed a large international following. European critics described her work as “lovable,” “fresh,” “charming,” “adorable” and “full of naive and childlike joy.”

Moses was a prolific painter and created more than one thousand paintings in her lifetime. Her works have been reproduced on holiday greeting cards, tiles, fabrics, and in books.  In 1949, President Harry S. Truman presented her with the Women’s National Press Club Trophy Award for outstanding accomplishment in art. In 1951, Moses appeared on the Edward R. Murrow television show “See It Now”, and in 1952, she published her autobiography “Grandma Moses: My Life’s History”.  In 1953, Moses was on the cover of TIME Magazine, and in 1960 on the cover of LIFE Magazine celebrating her 100th birthday.  Moses also received honorary doctoral degrees from Russell Sage College in 1949, and from the Moore Institute of Art, Science and Industry in 1951.

Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses died on December 13, 1961 at the age of 101. Of her death, her physician, Dr. Clayton E. Shaw, said “she had died of hardening of the arteries, but the best way to describe the cause of death”, he suggested, was to say “she just wore out.”

Sources: New York Times, Orlando Museum of Art, Galerie St. Etienne

Romare Bearden: 1911 – 1988

Romare Bearden Empress of the BluesBorn on September 2, 1911 in Charlotte, North Carolina, Romare Bearden was a multi-talented artist and one of America’s foremost collagists.  Bearden’s family moved to New York City in 1914 in an attempt to distance themselves from Jim Crow’s “separate but equal” laws.

Bearden initially studied at Lincoln University but transferred to Boston University where he was the art director of Beanpot, a student humour magazine. He then completed his degree in education at New York University.  At NYU, Bearden was enrolled in art classes and was a lead cartoonist and art editor for the monthly journal “The Medley”.  During his University years, he published numerous journal covers and wrote many texts on social and artistic issues.  Bearden also attended New York’s Art Students League, studying under German artist George Grosz. Bearden served in the US Army between 1942 and 1945 and returned to Europe in 1950 to study art and philosophy at the Sorbonne with the support of the GI Bill.

From the 1930′s to the 1960′s Bearden was a social worker with the New York City Department of Social Services and worked on his art in his free time.  He had his first successful solo exhibitions in Harlem in 1940 and in Washington DC in 1944. In 1954, he married dancer and choreographer Nanette Rohan, with whom he shared the rest of his life. During this time, Bearden was active in Harlem’s art scene and was a member of the Harlem Artists Guild.

Bearden was a prolific artist who experimented with numerous mediums including watercolours, oils, collage, photo montage, prints, and costume and set design. His inspiration was gathered from his lifelong study of art from the Western masters, African art, Byzantine mosaics, Japanese prints, and Chinese landscape paintings. Bearden is best known for his collages which were featured on the covers of Time and Fortune magazines in 1968.

Bearden was active in numerous arts organizations and was a respected writer and spokesperson for the arts and for social causes. In 1964, he was appointed as art director of the African-American advocacy group, the Harlem Cultural Council.  He was also involved in the establishment of art venues such as The Studio Museum and the Cinque Gallery that supported young minority artists. Bearden was also a founding member of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1972.

Bearden’s work is on display in major museums and galleries in the United States including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Bearden received numerous honorary degrees including doctorates from the Pratt Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Davidson College, Atlanta University, and others.  He received the 1984 Mayor’s Award of Honour for Art and Culture in New York City, and the National Medal of Arts, presented by President Ronald Regan in 1987.

Romare Bearden died in New York on March 12, 1988 from complications due to bone cancer.  His estate provided for the Romare Bearden Foundation which was established  in 1990 and whose purpose is “to preserve and perpetuate” his legacy.  The foundation also supports the “creative and educational development of young people and of talented and aspiring artists and scholars”.

Related Books:
Romare Bearden

The Art of Romare Bearden

Conjuring Bearden

Sources: Romare Bearden Foundation, National Gallery of Art, Artcyclopedia, New York Times, Wikipedia

Man Ray: 1890 – 1976

Larmes-(tears)- Man Ray-1930Born Emmanuel Radnitzky on August 27, 1890 in Philidelphia, PA, Man Ray was an influential artist, best known for his avant-garde photography. He was a leading figure (and the only American) to play a  significant role in the Dada and Surrealist movements.

Ray grew up in Brooklyn, New York and showed artistic ability at an early age.  He studied drawing under Robert Henri and George Bellows at the Francisco Ferrer Social Center (Modern School). Upon his completion of his classes, Ray lived in the art colony of Ridgefield, New Jersey. There, he illustrated, designed and produced small pamphlets (Ridgefield Gazook – 1915) and A Book of Diverse Writings.

Ray had his first solo show at the Daniel Gallery in New York in 1915 and shortly after became interested in photography.  Around the same time, he became friends with Marcel Duchamp with whom he founded the Society of Independent Artists in 1916.  In 1920, along with Duchamp, Katherine Dreier, Henry Hudson, and Andrew McLaren, Ray founded the Société Anonyme, a group that sponsored lectures, concerts, publications, and exhibitions of modern art.

In 1921, May Ray moved to Paris where he settled for twenty years.  He became involved with Dada and Surrealist artists and writers such as Jean Cocteau, Max Ernst, Dali, Eluard, Picasso, and others.  While in Paris, Ray worked with different media and produced a variety of works.  In 1922, he began experimenting with his version of a photogram which he called a “rayograph” – the process of creating images from placing objects on photo-sensitive paper.  Ray likened his technique to painting saying that he was “painting with light”.

In the 1920′s and 30′s Ray earned a steady income as a portrait photographer and as one of the foremost fashion photographers for Harper’s Bazaar, Vu, and Vogue.   In the late 1920′s Ray won recognition for his experiments with Sabattier (solarization process) and many of the Surrealists followed his example of using photography in their works.

Man Ray also made his mark in the avant-garde film circles in the 1920′s. In “Le Retour à la Raison”, he created his first “cine-rayographs’ – sequences of cameraless photographs. Other films including “Emak Bakia” (1926), L’Etoile de Mer” (1928), and Les Mystères du Château de Dé” (1929) are now classics of the Surrealist film genre.

At the beginning of World War II, Man Ray left Paris and moved to Los Angeles in 1940 where he focused on painting and creating objects. While there, he also met and married Juliet Browner, a dancer and artists’ model. He remained in LA until 1951 when he returned to his home in Paris where he continued working in a variety of mediums – his photography having the greatest impact on 20th century art.  In 1963 he published his autobiography, “Self-Portrait”.

Man Ray died in Paris on November 18, 1976. His epitaph at the Cimetière du Montparnasse, reads: “unconcerned, but not indifferent”. Juliet Browner died in 1991 and she was interred in the Ray’s tomb. Her epitaph reads, “together again”. Browner set up a  charitable trust and donated much of Ray’s work to museums.

Sources: MOMA, Guggenheim MuseumWikipedia Images: USC, Ciudad de la Pintura