Archive for May 17th, 2010

A Career Lesson from Alma Thomas

May 17, 2010

Among the inspiring stories of artists exhibited in the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, there is something uniquely compelling in the life and work of Alma Thomas.  Ms. Thomas, the first graduate of Howard University’s art department in 1924, was an art teacher at Shaw Junior High School from 1924 to 1960.

For 36 years, the kids at Shaw had a real artist for a teacher.  Did they know that she was the first African American woman to have a solo show at the Whitney museum in New York?

Alma Thomas did something we can relate to:  she kept her day job.  All those years of teaching provided financial support, while she worked at her art and community involvement after hours.

Ms. Thomas would love Barbara Sher’s book for creative people, Refuse to Choose 2006).  I find this book unique for the way it addresses the concerns of creative people.  Musicians, artists, dancers, playwrights: Sher recognizes that you have options, that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing for you.  This is a book for Scanners (Sher’s term), those folks who want it all.  Lifetime learners, they find it difficult to let go of all that good stuff out there and focus on one thing.  They’ve been told to:

  • grow up,
  • get serious,
  • pick one thing,
  • specialize, not generalize.

If Thomas had been wealthy, would she have quit the day job and stayed home to paint?

I don’t think so.  She ran all kinds of art education programs in poor neighbors until into her 80s.  As a Scanner, she kept her enthusiasm alive and her commitment to both art and education.

Are you artistic?  Creative in some other way?  Frustrated by those who urge you to grow up (by which they mean settle down, get a job in the business world, make some money)?

Read Sher’s book.  Visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts and get to know Alma Thomas.  Call a career counselor for help in balancing all those interests that you have.  Share a comment about how you find equilibrium among your interests.