Muses: Alma Thomas

A couple of weekends ago, I went to a talk given by the curator of an art museum. The curator used the example of an exhibit he was currently working on: a retrospective of the artist Alma Thomas

Red Roses Sonata

Her work sings to me. Mosaic geometries that vibrate with hue and saturation. Spheres that radiate color, trapping the eye. Blue that falls apart like leaves, or rain or snow. Colors that work together, in spite of their instinct to clash. Brightness falling from the air. Spectral chaos contained in matte precision.

A member of the Washington Color School movement, Thomas was the first African American female artist to have a solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum. The curator talked about how Thomas vacillated between being an African American artist and being an American artist, and how it was a constant struggle throughout her career. Sometimes, she was just an artist whose work was in conversation with other artists like Morris Louis and movements like Lyrical Abstraction. Other times, she took upon herself the mantle of pioneer, and accepted that she was a black woman operating in a structure that was stacked against her. Much of her identity was filtered through the lens of the Talented Tenth/ Uplift the Race aesthetic but that shifted over time as all things do.

All of this to say: sometimes, I’m a Black and Queer writer. My identity fuels my creativity. Other times, I am just an author who channels the visions my muse sends to me. Sometimes I have to strategically play the Game, other times, I am an Aesthete hermetically sealed in my airless mansion of art. There are times when I want people to read my work and be struck by the numinous quality that’s at the heart of all great work. Yes, my writing centers marginalized people. It is also ‘in conversation’ with other writing, from James Baldwin to Tanith Lee to bell hooks. When you are an artist of color, people often don’t recognize your works complexity. It’s an eternal struggle.