Beauty Abounds in Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas
Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas
Written by Jeanne Walker Harvey and Illustrated by Loveis Wise
Published in 2022 by HarperCollins Publishers
Ages PK – 6
In a picture book as vivid and colorful as the art it celebrates, author Jeanne Walker Harvey and illustrator Loveis Wise collaborate to introduce young readers to the life and work of Alma Woodsey Thomas. Alma was the first Black woman to have a solo art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art and she created the first artwork by a Black woman to be displayed as part of the White House’s permanent collection. While highlighting her accomplishments, the narrative emphasizes Alma’s early appreciation of the beauty of nature, the joy she found in making art, and her commitment to providing art education to underserved children in Washington, DC. Harvey’s text is poetic, drawing readers into the sensory experiences that inspired Alma: “She fell back on the grass beneath poplar trees and gazed at quivering yellow leaves that whistled in the wind.” Wise’s illustrations vibrate with vivid color and provide readers with a gallery walk of images that emulate Alma’s distinctive style. The back matter includes an author and illustrator’s note, sources and notes, and an illustrated timeline that maps Alma’s life (1891-1978) to the events in the United States that shaped her experiences and her work. This stunning book holds beautiful lessons about the power of women, art, nature, education, and joy.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom
Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you!
More About Alma. Use the resources linked in the Further Explorations section below to learn more about the life of Alma Woodsey Thomas and to view examples of her art. Students may be inspired to learn about how Alma overcame severe arthritis and developed her most distinctive artistic style in her later years. Show students excerpts of the National Gallery of Art Talk: An Evening Celebration of Alma Thomas, which provides an excellent overview of her work and elements from her personal life. Another picture book biography about Alma Thomas may be available through your local library system: Alma’s Dream written and illustrated by Obiora N. Anekwe.
Women Artists. Read Ablaze with Color in a Solar System Text Set featuring women artists. Collaborate with your local librarian to gather a collection of picture book biographies of women artists. (Those featured on The Classroom Bookshelf include Georgia O’Keefe, Augusta Savage, Teresa Carreño, Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, Josephine Baker, Invite students to go deeper to learn more about one of the women artists to whom they have been introduced. Students can then create new texts to share their learning. Consider having students create a graphic representation of their subject’s lives. Share the biography comics (including one on Alma Thomas) in Drawn to Art: Ten Tales of Inspiring Women Artists as possibilities for mentor texts.
The Joy of Making. From childhood, Alma Woodsey Thomas experienced the joy of making; she crafted and decorated clay bowls, surrounded by family members who also created works of art. Ask your students to identify the ways in which they are makers – what do they build, construct, and create? Invite them to bring in examples of their making to share with classmates. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry for With My Hands: Poems About Making Things for a collection of teaching ideas related to making.
Honoring Teachers. Ablaze with Color could be included in a Solar System text set featuring the lives of teachers, particularly those, who like Alma, fought injustice and segregation (share images of Alma Thomas’s 1963 painting ‘March on Washington.’ Book titles that you could use include Midnight Teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and Her Secret School; Soldier for Equality: Jose de la Luz Saenz and the Great War; The Teachers March! How Selma’s Teachers Changed History; Side by Side: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez = Lado a Lado: la Historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez; Steamboat School; and Someday is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-ins. Engage students in a discussion of all the people that serve as teachers in their lives. What settings do they learn in beyond school – who are the people who mentor, guide, and teach them in all the realms of their lives? Invite students to consider what they could compose, create, or make to honor and celebrate their teachers.
The Colors of Nature. Throughout her life, Alma Woodsey Thomas found solace and beauty in the natural world around her. Her abstract art reflects the colors and patterns she saw in the world around her and imagined in the galaxy above. Collaborate with the art specialist in your school or with a local artist to provide students with an opportunity to paint nature, using photographs of different landscapes or spacescapes as well as outdoor experiences for inspirations. Students can either emulate Alma’s style or they can create their own. If time allows, an exploration of nature paintings from across the globe and in a variety of styles can serve as inspiration and an opportunity for art education.
Abstract Expressionism. Alma Thomas is named as a contributor to an art movement known as The Washington Color School. The Corcoran Gallery’s exhibition video features the artwork of the male artists associated with this movement. Also share this National Gallery Talk Clip (28 minutes in) to see Alma’s work exhibited alongside the work of the male artists. Learn more about this style and its relation to Abstract Expressionism. Collaborate with you art teacher to provide students with the opportunity to experiment with color and form in painting.
Timelines in Biography. The back matter of Ablaze with Color includes a wonderful illustrated timeline that aligns key moments in Alma lie with key events in United States history. Study this timeline with your students, inviting them to discuss how this timeline enhances their understanding of the historical context for Alma’s work. Gather a collection of nonfiction books that include timelines and examine the variations that can be found: How are they organized and structured? What visual elements are included? What can you infer about how the author of the text chose which dates to include? How does the timeline in the back matter enhance a reader’s understanding of the main text? Some books that we suggest that include timelines are: Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball, Let the The Children March, Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution, Strong Voices: Fifteen American Speeches Worth Knowing, and We Are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know (a search for ‘timeline’ on this site will yield additional examples). After working with text sets of biographies about the same subject, invite your students to create timelines of the subject’s life, drawing on what they liked best in the mentor texts that they studied.
Diversity in Art. Alma Woodsey Thomas has the honor of two firsts in art history: she was the first Black woman to have a solo art exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Art and she created the first artwork by a Black woman to be displayed as part of the White House’s permanent collection. Explore the online resources about the White House art collection and watch Michelle Obama describing the installment of Resurrection in the White House family dining room. Read a range of picture books about the lives of Black visual artists to learn more about the racism and barriers that Black artists encountered when sharing their work. Suggested picture books featured on The Classroom Bookshelf include: Radiant Child, Dave the Potter, Dream Builder, A Splash of Red, and Between the Lines. Collaborate with your local librarian for additional titles. As an extension, learn more about the galleries and museums in your local area and survey the diversity of the artists whose work is celebrated in these spaces.
Watch First Lady Michelle Obama’s powerful introduction!
Anekwa, O.N. (2019). Alma’s Dream. Xlibris.
Brown, M. (2010). Side by side: the story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez = Lado a lado: la historia de Dolores Huerta y Cesar Chavez. Ill. by J. Cepeda. Rayo.
Duggleby, J. (1998). Story painter: The life of Jacob Lawrence. New York, NY: Chronicle.
Halfmann, J. (2018). Midnight teacher: Lilly Ann Granderson and her secret school. Ill. by L. Ladd. Lee & Low.
Rhuday-Perkovich, O. (2018). Someday is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-ins. Ill. by J. Johnson. Seagrass Press.
Schroeder, A. (2009). In her hands: The story of sculptor Augusta Savage. Ill. by J. Bereal. New York: Lee & Low.
Tonatiuh, D. (2019). Soldier for equality: Jose de la Luz Saenz and the Great War. Abrams.
Wallace, S.N & Wallace, R. (2020). The Teachers March! How Selma’s teachers changed history. Ill. by C. Palmer. Calkins Creek.
Whitehead, K. (2008). Art from her heart: Folk artist Clementine Hunter. Ill. by S. Evans. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
About Erika Thulin Dawes
Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.
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