Open Studios: The Role Model


If the role of an artist is to lead, uplift or provoke society with emotions, color and texture, artist Mickalene Thomas has left no stone unturned. Her techniques and subjects are inspiring many around the globe to reconsider how women and femininity are personified in art and culture. Thomas, a prolific contemporary artist whose visionary pieces confront current cultural and sociopolitical issues like identity, inequality and racism, has quickly made her mark on American art history. Her work often features mid-century interiors covered in bold mixed prints behind stalwart women that pull you into the piece with their gaze and invigorating self-awareness.

The large-scale pieces, which blend vibrant materials with iconic art history and pop culture references, have made their way into shows and collections at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, just to name a few. Thomas was just honored at the Tribeca Ball with an honorary doctorate degree from the New York Academy of Art, where two scholarships will be awarded in her name. And this September she will be producing a show at Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts. Here, she shares more about her work and hopes for the future.

The vast body of your work includes commanding collages and paintings of empowered women in vibrant interiors. What is your purpose in featuring interiors?
The aesthetics of my surroundings growing up definitely had a powerful impact on me as an artist. There’s a clear sense of nostalgia in my work, and my practice has always demanded personal reflection and inspiration. I come from a strong matriarchal family that had an amazing sense of style, strength, elegance and self-awareness. These attributes strongly influenced my way of being and my desire to create the images I make today. However, it wasn’t only the women in my life growing up, but also the domestic environments I lived in as a child. That urban aesthetic is extremely visceral and informs a great deal of my practice, such as the tableaus and interiors I create. These spaces I construct aren’t necessarily a direct replica of the places I grew up in, but they are definitely meant to behave as a pastiche of various spaces that I recall as a child.

Do the interiors in the pieces reflect the design of your own home?
The interiors I depict in my paintings reflect various domestic aesthetics. Although I do gravitate toward modern design, I appreciate the comfort of color and pattern. So, throughout my home, like my collages, there’s an eclectic combination of design.

Does the multilayered collage technique you often use represent the complexity of the story you are telling?                                                                         In some ways it does. When I construct a collage I am taking the narrative of the subject and placing it in an abstracted context; in that way there is a little experimentation with storytelling. I am also interested in the relationship between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. For example, the eye may initially perceive something as a two-dimensional image, but the execution of a collage can create a three-dimensional impression by employing a sense of motion and rhythm. Collage is not just about layering or deconstructing space and material, it is its own ideology: a way for people to use their available resources to create a social, political or cultural narrative.

Your work exemplifies how beautiful images can shift conversations on race, gender issues and more. Are there any new techniques or subjects you plan to approach?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                My hope is to work more with film and utilize more silk-screen techniques and archival images. Not necessarily simultaneously, but in various iterations within my practice. I do have aspirations of making a feature film and I think my interests would naturally lead me to focus on forms of inequity.

How does the rhinestone emphasize the story behind each piece?                                                                                                                                                          I started playing around with rhinestones when I became interested in notions of pointillism during my undergrad years. They provide a perfect combination of content and process, and as a “decorative” material they serve to dispute the traditional conception of a painting. Material and texture are significant aspects of my work, and the use of materials like the rhinestone alludes to the way we adorn our environments and ourselves.

What responsibility do you believe artists have when creating work for the public to study?
I believe the responsibility artists have to themselves is to make work that they believe in and stand behind, regardless of public discourse. Our only true responsibility is for us to take the public on a journey through our creative vision.

You have made your mark on American art history. Do you hope to see your own work reimagined by future artists?
Absolutely. The best compliment to an artist is to know that students see you as a mentor. Hopefully while they are looking at my work they are also seeing the artists who have inspired me.

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