Interview with Mickalene Thomas

How has having a child influenced you and your work? You recently started using oil sticks and drippings, which has an almost childlike feel. Exactly. I think having a child right now is allowing me to remember the kid in me, to maintain and hold onto a youthful spirit, not be so rigid and full of this regiment: it has to be like this and this is the system. I want to break my own system. I think that’s what I’m interested in.

You are about to embark on a feature film. How far along are you into the process of getting it together?

Well, I’m just conceiving of the idea. I’m going to meet with a screenwriter and sit down with her.

What do you see your role being, besides the director?

Eventually, not only the director, but also the cinematographer, the DP — behind the camera. That’s something where my aesthetic could really come through. Not just with how the parts are moving within that particular scene, but how the lens is capturing those moments of what’s happening, what you see, and the composition of it. I find people like Julian Schnabel and Steven McQueen are fantastic as visual artists.

Who else? This is interesting.

Cindy Sherman — her images inspire people to make work in various ways by using themselves  — performatively and photographically. As far as writers, Alice Walker. As far as how people dress, I would love to look like Amelia Earhart.

You just did something for W?

Yes, with Jessica Chastain.

I think she is gorgeous, but she is very hard to photograph. Most people do not make her look good. You really got her.

I had a friend, one of the producers of my documentary, and I never told her I was photographing Jessica Chastain. I ran into [the friend] in Miami. She saw the cover there and said, “Oh, she looks like Michelle Pfeiffer from Scarface.” We looked over at each other and I said, “Well, you got it! That’s exactly what I was making her look like. Scarface.” That’s what the inspiration came from. I decided to work within a familiar territory. [I was] thinking about the 70s, the experience, what sort of character I want her to portray. So I pulled up all these images of Michelle Pfeiffer and had the makeup artist and hair stylist really work with that. I said to Jessica: “You’re Michelle Pfeiffer. You’re in Scarface. You’re living this life.” We had fun with that.

If a magazine like Vogue asked you to do a spread or a brand like Bottega Veneta asked you to do an ad campaign, would you be up for it?

I would, because those things are a different audience. I think, as an artist, to explore those territories, it’s just all about the creative process — and it’s fun! To have a dialogue with a different group of people that you don’t normally engage with, who may know nothing about your work or career, it’s exciting. People could see that photograph of Jessica Chastain and be like, “Who is that artist?” Maybe that’s the only way they know me, from that image.

Did W pick the hair, the makeup, and the clothes for that shoot?

That was all me. The makeup artist and hair stylist were very excited, because I know W through Conde Nast. They are a powerhouse industry, and they have their own in-house people who they work with, so believe me, I was very honored and appreciative that when they approached me and I said, “I have my own team that I want to work with,” and they allowed that. My team were like, “Are you sure they’re going to use our names? Are you sure they’re going to allow us to do this?” because they were like, “This is W Magazine! They don’t need us,” . . . but Stefano Tonchi was fantastic.

What camera do you do use now?

The Mamiya 645 . . . I only shoot film.

Many of your photographs feature black women. After photographing Jessica Chastain, would you ever think of doing a series on white women? Do black women inspire you more than white women — physically?

It’s interesting that there are lots of contradictions. I married a white woman. On one hand, there’s this woman painting her desires of black women and she ends up marrying a white woman. I like women. I actually photograph a lot of white women. I have. I’ve done several commissions. One day there will be a show of Mickalene Thomas and all the white women she has painted, most of them big commissions. Jessica [Chastain] is the first public one.

You’re associated with feminist black culture. We talked about you breaking patterns. Do you feel you need to stay close to that?

No. I’m actually really happy for the opportunity to photograph Jessica, because what I think it has done is given me more freedom to photograph whoever I want. I can paint whomever I want. I felt like I was allowing myself this safety net of just staying here, and this wasn’t because of what was expected of me within the art market. I do want to do a series of white women, but women who are completely unexpected.

Such as…?

Martha Stewart.

You’ve talked recently about grad school. Do you think it’s necessary for an artist today?

I’d like to think so. One can have various directions. If someone came up to me and said, “I’m thinking about graduate school,” I’d say: “Go to grad school.” Mainly because the importance of an art education in grad school provides you with a community that you can have for the rest of your life, outside of the art market.

When you’re doing your work, do you call on people from grad school for their opinions?

Sometimes. There are certain people I’m closer to, inevitably. In graduate school, you have to cherish that moment in time, whether it’s a two-year or three-year program — it is immeasurable. The dialogue you’ll have with your peers, the different faculty that may come through, the criticism, what you may learn, just the way of experimenting with your work. Once you get into the selling and the business side, it’s completely different. That’s why I tell my students, “Why rush? Enjoy the moment right here.”

One of the things that attracted me to your paintings, of course, is the “bling” factor. I love it. Does bling equal black or black equals bling? Can you speak to that?

Bling has a history. Rococo, that’s bling. Look at Byzantine [art]. Bling has a history . . . These notions of flamboyancy have a historical place in our world. Are black people known to be peacocks? [Laughs] Some, but not always. I actually resent that the viewer has decided not to look beyond the material and only find relationships with ‘bling equals black equals hip-hop’, because, for me, that has put me in a category and has discredited where I’ve come from, how I’m educated, and why I’m working with certain materials. I feel like they are lazy . . . Actually, one of the reasons I initially started working with the rhinestones is because I was interested in pointillism. I was looking at a lot of French Impressionism. I was working out my ideas through Seurat. I latched onto aboriginal art. I’ve always worked with nontraditional materials — when I was in undergrad and graduate school, I liked craft material, and the rhinestones seemed to express this high and low art in a pointillist way.

Do you feel the same way when they categorize your work as feminist art? Or black art?

Yeah, I do. I feel the same way because I feel like my art has all of those genres, but is about none of those things. What it is, I don’t know. I can’t sit here and tell you. I just make the work, and use genres and images that I’m attracted to in order to create an image that I enjoy.

Do you find any similarity between you and your subjects?

Sometimes I do sometimes find similarities, and I think that’s why I choose some of them. Because I choose them with the idea of portraiture, I see some of myself in them or want to be that person. It’s like emulating my mother. I think we are attracted to people we want to be, or people who remind us of ourselves. The magnetism that happens is why you gravitate together as energies.

How does construction of intimate interior spaces create a metaphor for the status of the female body, either present or absent, as it’s been represented in the history of art?

My interest in this interior space has to do with how we treat ourselves, how we present ourselves and how we want people to see us in the world. Our interiors are sort of the same as these levels of status, expression, and cultural history. There are elements in the interior that define a person, almost like a portrait. You can find artifacts, symbols, or objects that tell you a lot about an individual with an interior space, and I don’t necessarily see it as a feminist space or a masculine space. I don’t know if I’d like to define it as that. I can see why because I think women have a way of constructing spaces completely different than men do. Thinking of me and my brother, how we would see a space and what we would put in it, I think there would be a different warmth that would come through the space.

Why do you always do the corner in your photographs?

When I started out with photographing in my studio, there was always just a backdrop of a flat wall. It was a way for me to create a depth of field with limited space. That way I can get different angles. I also feel like I have a tendency to make things so flat, and it helped me with scale relationships and composition —I could put something down and you can tell where she’s sitting or standing.

What advice would you give to emerging artists or photographers?

Continue to have friends in your studio — have a dialogue with your peers, because if one of those friends makes it, hopefully they will continue the cycle of bringing other people around. It’s a network. The network starts and grows.

More often than not, artists will say that the people who have been the most helpful have been their friends.

Yes. It’s the friends, and that’s why it’s important to have a good network. That’s why school’s important too.

When I say the word “fashion,” what comes to mind? [Martin] Margiela . . . But my ultimate favorite designer is Paul Harnden. He’s an English designer. One of my favorites, from the fabrics to the cuts. His clothes, to me, are beyond luxury — because it’s not about looking fabulous. It’s about feeling good and wearing clothes that just hang on you perfectly, and they’re all hand made . . . It makes you feel like you’re in Europe during the 1940s. He doesn’t do fashion shows and the only place you can get it in New York is at If Boutique.

Where do you see Mickalene five years from now?

[Laughs] I’m laughing at myself because all my friends are like, “I know where you see yourself!” I see myself as an industry.

As an industry, with a lot of assistants.

Not just about a lot of assistants. It’s not about a lot of assistants. I’m interested in creating a space not only where I’m making my art, but also where I’m able to help other people make art and do what they want to do.

Are you talking about a school?   No, I’m talking about being at a point in my career where, if Mickalene Thomas’ Studios can help fund someone make a film, Mickalene Thomas’ Studios will help. That’s what I’m interested in. So, a philanthropist.

Yeah, being a huge philanthropist, I’m interested in that. The idea of generating my funds but in a way that it’s not about being rich, it’s about being rich and developing and helping others develop what they need to do for themselves. I’m interested in that. I’m interested, as an artist, in being in Forbes because of my philanthropy.

That’s a great line to end on. A great way of thinking.

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