How can you not love an artist who manages to make glitter a high art? And rhinestones…no longer just for bedazzling! Mickalene Thomas’ art totally got my attention and, more importantly, the attention of the art world. She has received commissions from the Museum of Modern Art, the Department of State’s “Art in Embassies,” and V magazine for a special piece of model Naomi Campbell. And alongside Carolina Herrera and Yoko Ono, Mickalene is one of the 7 featured creative people in Chiara Clemente’s short documentary film, Beginnings, which aired on the Sundance channel.
Mickalene went from not realizing that art could be her career to earning a BFA in painting from Pratt Institute, an MFA in painting from Yale, and praise for her wonderful body of work. A Brooklyn Museum curator has said that in addition to a “bling factor that makes people whip out their iPhones and snap away,” Mickalene’s art grabs people because “her work is also witty and original.”
I was already drawn to her art, but after talking to this grounded and very intelligent artist, I felt like I got a fuller picture of the stories and feeling that go into each piece. Mickalene’s art and the endearing personality behind it are sure to draw you in…and you will certainly come away with new respect for rhinestones.
The bio on your website states that your work introduces a complex vision of what it means to be a woman. What does it mean to be a woman?
It means a lot of things. Women possess a lot of dynamic energy, they take care of a lot of responsibilities – they are wives, mothers, daughters, friends. Women are dynamic in their trajectory of life; they are beautiful, inspiring and charismatic.
The women in my life juggle a lot and maintain themselves despite all they take on. They manage to stay grounded and keep their sensuality. Women share in common the responsibility of what is expected, and somehow we persevere and rise to the occasion.
I also read that you have studied art history. Who are some of the artists that have most positively represented women?
I love looking at Manet’s women; Alice Neel’s portraits; and Carrie Mae Weems’ images. Sometimes an artist’s portrayal of women doesn’t seem appropriate in the context of our current time, but it represents that period of time when it was created. The representation tells a story of that moment in history.
Were you creative as a child?
Yes, I was creative as a child because I was exposed to a lot of different arts programs like dance, painting, or activities at museums. There was a lot of music in the house, as well. I didn’t know that I could make art my career, though.
So who influenced you in that way and showed you that you could be an artist?
When I left New Jersey to go to college in Portland, Oregon, I was around a lot of creative peers…people like Thomas Lauderdale from Pink Martini. They showed me that art could be a real path for me and my family supported my desire to follow my passion.
Your mother is the model in many of your pieces. Is your mother your muse?
She is. It started when I used her in a series of photos for a photography class. Those images became the basis for some of my paintings.
I have a close relationship with my mother. I didn’t live with her all the time when I was growing up because she was a single mother and went to work modeling while we lived with my grandmother, but my brother and I lived with her sometimes and were very much a part of her life.
Our mothers make us and make us who we are. They are like a mirror to us. When I use my mother in my art it implies a deeper relationship in the work, free of exploitation.
A lot of your work features beautiful, strong black women. Do you want to be a black voice or just a voice? Are you trying to raise awareness about certain issues through your work?
The act of being an artist is in itself a political statement. You’re putting yourself out there. I want there to be a universal understanding and an open dialogue. If I am too heavy-handed in my art I think it limits the conversation.
I have done a lot of work that portrays black women, but my new work also features white and other women because we are all connected. I also do landscapes and abstraction. It’s important to me that I am not pigeonholed.
In addition to the strong women who raised you, what other significant things in your life inform your art?
I had an uncle who fascinated me because he was always traveling. I was in New Jersey and he was always off traveling the world. I would ask him a lot of questions when he got back and fantasize about those foreign places. He provided my aspiration to go other places. It was because of this that I chose to go to school initially in Oregon.
Do you think through or plan what you want to create or have a story in mind to tell – or do you just begin and let it unfold?
It depends. Most of the time I plan from an idea or inspiration. For example, landscapes come from the travel I do as an artist. My art has allowed me to go places I never thought possible. I photograph ideas first and use the images to create a collage or painting. I am constantly taking photographs.
When and how did you begin to use rhinestones in your work?
I was attracted to material that was nontraditional for fine art when I was an art student. I liked art that had to do with the craft process. I was looking at a lot of folk art and Haitian voodoo art…I liked how they used everyday material in a high art way.
In graduate school, there were challenges and conversations about my use of glitter and whether it was getting too crafty. I wanted to use glitter and rhinestones in the context of painting. Then I looked at the work of Georges Seurat and his pointillism and I started to use my rhinestones in that way. My older work used to have rhinestones all over, but I’ve scaled back.
I like the way rhinestones both enhance and mask things…it’s a good metaphor for beauty.
Your “Portrait of Mickalena” is a self portrait. What did you want us to know about you through this piece?
That piece is based on an alter ego I created when I was young. Quanikah, the alter ego, was created by me and my friends because as kids we knew that our surnames were slave names, so we gave each other new African first names.
I called myself Mickalena in the title because a lot of people, especially Europeans in the art world, mistakenly add an “a” to the end of my name, Mickalene. It’s as if I have a new artist persona. When I did this piece, I was looking at a lot of Cindy Sherman and Adrian Piper (artists who are known for using their own images in their work.)
The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) commissioned you to do a piece for the window of their restaurant The Modern. How were you selected for this high-profile project?
It started as a conversation with Klaus Biesenbach, director of (the MOMA’s) PS 1 Contemporary Art Center. He suggested that I do the window installation for the MOMA’s The Modern restaurant. The installation space is meant to showcase younger artists. My installation was supposed to be up for a year, which would be around this time, but it seems my work will be up through spring because they are still finalizing who the next artist will be.
How about your work for the US Department of State’s “Art in Embassies” program? Was that a an original site-specific work or did they select from pieces you’d already created? (Mickalene’s work is on display at the US Mission to the United Nations, New York until 2012)
A little of both. Initially, they selected a piece from my body of work and I loaned it to them. Shortly thereafter, the Akron Museum bought it so it had to leave the exhibition. I created a piece that featured red, white and blue.
And the V magazine commission which featured Naomi Campbell?
That was really fun. The commission was to accompany V’s interview with Naomi in honor of her 40th birthday. I started by photographing Naomi and from there created a painting based on the photograph. I think we both enjoyed the process.
As you gain more fame for your work, do you become more conscious of making art that will be reviewed well?
No, I steer clear of that. I can’t allow thoughts about the market or reviews to get into my head or my studio – it’s counterproductive. I have to do what I want to do and have fun in the studio.
What do you hope observers of your work feel or take away from seeing your work?
I hope they feel like I feel when I see a Rothko or a Matisse or an Alice Neel: a physical connection that makes me smile, makes me feel good, and stays with me for a long time. I hope my art inspires people to have a conversation about it, share it, and want to see it again.
My favorite snack is: Cashews
Don’t ask me to: Lie
I would put into a time capsule my: Secrets
My favorite place is: I’m still discovering what that is
When I have a creative block I: Scream really loud and twirl and sing and dance
My favorite mantra is: Cause and effect