Alma Thomas’s paintings are jubilant and act as a megaphone for her love of nature and beauty. Every time I see one of her works, joy calls out to me. So, you can imagine how thrilled I was to run across Jeanne Walker Harvey’s Ablaze with Color in my Twitter feed. Jeanne tells the story of Alma’s life and art and exuberance for life. And the illustrations by Loveis Wise are the perfect match for Jeanne’s color-filled text.
Jeanne opens Ablaze with Color with one of Alma’s most famous quotes: Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man. It’s a sentiment that is so needed in the world we live in today. But it also sets the tone for Jeanne’s prose, which celebrates not only Alma’s life, but also the beauty of this world.
Celebrate the life-changing power of art in this inspiring and stunningly illustrated picture book biography of American artist Alma Thomas.
Meet an incredible woman who broke down barriers throughout her whole life and is now known as one of the most preeminent painters of the 20th century. Told from the point of view of young Alma Thomas, readers can follow along as she grows into her discovery of the life-changing power of art.
As a child in Georgia, Alma Thomas loved to spend time outside, soaking up the colors around her. And her parents filled their home with color and creativity despite the racial injustices they faced. After the family moved to Washington DC, Alma shared her passion for art by teaching children. When she was almost seventy years old, she focused on her own artwork, inspired by nature and space travel.
In this celebration of art and the power of imagination, Jeanne Walker Harvey and Loveis Wise tell the incredible true story of Alma Thomas, the first Black woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York City and to have her work chosen for the White House collection. With her bold and vibrant abstract paintings, Alma set the world ablaze with color.
Ablaze with Color includes extensive backmatter with photos, an author’s and illustrator’s note, a timeline, and a list of sources and resources, which will be a great tool for parents, educators, and librarians. Perfect for Women’s History Month and Black History Month units alongside such favorites as Malala’s Magic Pencil, Hidden Figures, and Mae Among the Stars.
Like me, Jeanne is uplifted each time she sees Alma’s artwork. She also shares Alma’s passion for teaching art to children. For many years, Jeanne worked as a school group guide at the San Francisco Museum of Art. Wanting to share her passion, Jeanne has included free art activity sheets on her website. You may find them HERE.
Ablaze with Color, as you see in the blurb above, is also packed with backmatter. My favorite is the timeline that juxtaposes Alma’s life with events that occurred in the United States at the same time. I love how layered this pairing is. So, you can be sure I’m going to ask Jeanne about it.
Ablaze with Color is Jeanne’s sixth picture book. Her seventh, Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Movie Costume Designer Edith Head, will be coming out later this year. But enough of my introduction. I’m turning things over to Jeanne now, who joins us from Sonoma, California, where she lives with her cat, Allie, to tell us What Was on Her…
First Draft of Ablaze with Color (that’s not there now): Great question! As you know, we writers of picture book biographies always have SO much more we want to include in our books based on the fascinating information and anecdotes we uncover in our research. But there’s only so much room. I was interested to learn how captivated and inspired Alma Thomas was by outer space expeditions and discoveries occurring while she was painting. These are some early snippets about her Space paintings that didn’t make it into the book:
“While she paints,
Alma listens to music about space
and a recording of an astronaut
saying, ‘Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!'”
“A spacecraft flies by Mars
taking the first photos
of another planet from space
and captures images
of an enormous dust storm
that begins on Alma’s 80th birthday.
Alma paints Mars Dust
with bright red vertical strokes
over dark fading to light blues–
the red Mars dirt swirling
against the cosmic atmosphere.“
Mind the very first time she saw an Alma Thomas painting: Pure joy sums it up! Her use of vibrant colors and patterns to evoke her feelings about nature and space elicit pure joy. The Chrysler Museum of Art has an amazing virtual walkthrough of the Alma Thomas exhibit that travelled to several museums. I often zoom in on her paintings and am amazed by her artistry. Of course, seeing her paintings in person is the best! And I’m thrilled that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I’ve been a long-time docent for schools, has acquired a beautiful Alma Thomas painting, Cumulus (a title you will appreciate, given your latest book about clouds).
Mind the very first time she saw Loveis Wise’s illustrations: Amazement! They so perfectly capture the essence of Alma Thomas and her paintings. I love this description in the School Library Journal starred review of our book: “Wise celebrates Thomas’s work with saturated, page-filling, vibrant color; the rich, flat, atmospheric compositions fit Thomas’s tessellated style and high-key colors.”
Timeline: I’m so glad you like the timeline! So much of the credit for the idea and design of the timeline goes to the amazing team at HarperCollins – editor Megan Ilnitzki, art director Chelsea C. Donaldson, designer Caitlin Stamper, and copy editor Shona McCarthy. Alma’s lifetime spanned such an amazingly broad span time (1891- 1978) that we wanted to try to capture not only the events in her life, but also what was happening in the U.S. at the same time. And of course, the politics and history of the times influenced and inspired her art, beginning with the discriminatory Jim Crow laws and the Great Migration from the South to the North of more than six million Black Americans seeking to better their lives (including her family moving from Georgia to Washington D.C.). We chose to extend the timeline beyond her life to include the election of President Obama as the first Black US President and then six years later in 2015, the acquisition of Alma Thomas’ s painting Resurrection as the first artwork by a Black woman to be in the White House’s permanent collection. I think the layout of the timeline, with the dates in the center and the accompanying visuals, is so compelling.
Changed life after finishing Ablaze with Color: I continue to be incredibly inspired and in awe of Alma Thomas. She faced so many challenges of discrimination, but, as you noted, she said “through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness.” She dedicated her life to being a long-time arts educator of children and an artist. She reminds me of Joanne Simpson, the protagonist of your book, Breaking Through the Clouds, who not only pursued her passion as a scientist, despite setbacks and discrimination as a woman, but taught and encouraged others in the field. I am moved by Alma Thomas’ conviction that “we can’t accept any barriers, any limitations of any kind on what we create or how we do it.”
Current Agenda: I’m very excited that I’m preparing for the September 2022 release of my next picture book biography about a creative person. Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Costume Designer Edith Head features wonderfully creative and whimsical illustrations by the talented Diana Toledano. Executive Editor Andrea Welch of Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster) and Editorial Assistant Danielle Collins are incredible! I thoroughly enjoyed working with them, and greatly appreciated their expertise and gentle and inspiring editing. I continue to feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to work with so many amazing people in our kidlit industry. I feel like I’ve won the literary lottery being a children’s book author, a childhood dream.
“Most Exciting” list from this past weekend: We discovered a large rattlesnake basking in the sun on a rock wall in our garden here in Sonoma, California. I won’t say it was the first one we’ve come across, but it always gets my heart pumping. The markings are actually quite beautiful, and I’m fascinated that nature has given these creatures a musical instrument, the rattle, to warn others to back off. Fortunately for us, we (including my Allie cat) didn’t bother this snake enough to cause it to rattle. Instead, we quietly backed away and called our local rescuer who came over in her jeep. With a long-handled grabber (my non-technical term), she scooped up the snake and set it into a ventilated bucket with a few other pals. The snakes’ new home will be at a local vineyard that welcomes rattlesnakes as their natural pest control.
Thanks ever so much, Sandra, for all your interesting questions. You always put such care and thought into your interview questions, and it’s a pure delight and honor to answer them.
Thank you so much, Jeanne! I’m even more inspired by Alma than I was before–and that is hard to do! I can’t wait to read Dressing Up the Stars! I’ll be counting the days until September.
If you would like to order Ablaze with Color, click on the book below.
If you would like to preorder Dressing Up the Stars: The Story of Costume Designer Edith Head, click on the book below.
If you would like to know more about me, please visit me at sandranickel.com.