Though she never planned to be an artist, Mickalene Thomas has emerged as an art world phenomenon. Using oil painting, photography, and colored crystals, she has created a bold body of work that tackles themes of "self-image, eroticism, black female celebrity, and the marketing of black urban identity," according to the Rhona Hoffman Gallery. With bright colors, unconventional materials, and a heavy nod to 1970s imagery, Thomas' work has also set the mainstream media abuzz, attracting an audience well beyond the art world, a fact which Thomas relished. "I am proud to be able to exhibit my work and inspire young people," she told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "Especially young black women so they know that they are beautiful, that they don't have to hold onto any negative stereotypes."
Discovered Art Through Therapy
Mickalene Thomas was born January 28, 1971, in Camden, NJ and raised mainly by her grandmother in a community of strong women. "In my family growing up, the women were always the ones who were powerful and they exuded this charisma of empowerment that I hold onto and always remember," Thomas told CBB. "I had some difficult times, but these strong women were always a constant." She also found inspiration in her Aunt Corinne who took her to galleries and academic lectures. "She made sure I was aware of the world outside of my life," Thomas continued. However, by high school, Thomas was experiencing some difficulties at home and decided to move to Portland, Oregon, where she finished her senior year at Marshall High School in 1989.
Thomas recalled to the Williamsburg Quarterly, "I started making art during high school but thought I lacked the talent to become a true artist." Instead, when she enrolled in Portland State University she pursued pre-law studies. Still, she had a strong desire to express herself and was also drawn to the stage. She took two years of theater classes before the anxiety of auditions kept her off-stage for good. "It was too nerve-wracking," she told CBB. "I was not the type of person who could sit through them. They made me feel insecure." Instead, she focused on law, landing a job at a local firm where she eventually became a law clerk.
Around that time, Thomas got swept up in the thriving art scene of downtown Portland. "A lot of my friends at the time were artists and it was exciting to me to see their work in the galleries," she told CBB. She began working at The Green Room Café, which was a meeting point for the city's creative minds, but didn't pursue her own creativity until some harsh issues from her past resurfaced and a friend suggested she try an art therapy retreat. "I began dealing with the issues by painting self-portraits and portraits of my mother," she told the Williamsburg Quarterly. "Afterwards I was completely rejuvenated and excited."
Learned Fundamentals of Art on Her Own
Thomas bought a batch of oil pastel paints and began an intensive course of self-education. "I had no art training at all," she told CBB. "So I'd go to Powell's bookstore in Portland and sit there in the aisles of the art sections and look at different artist's books." She was drawn to diverse talents including William H. Johnson, Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Henri Matisse. "This is how I educated myself about art, just finding what I was inspired by," she continued. Thomas also found personal inspiration when she saw a show of photographs by Carrie Mae Weems at the Portland Museum. "It was the first time I was exposed to a black female artist's work at a museum," she told CBB. "I had never seen that before and at that time, I didn't know that much about black contemporary artists."
When her boss at The Green Room heard Thomas was painting, a show was immediately planned at the café. The reaction stunned Thomas. "Some of the people that were impressed the most were artists I looked up to, really talented people who were into what I was doing," she recalled to CBB. With their encouragement, Thomas applied to art school and in 1995, left for the Pratt Institute in New York. One of her most inspiring times at the school occurred when she completed an exchange at Southern Cross University in Australia and encountered the work of aboriginal artist Emily Kngwarreye. "I saw an exhibition of her work at the Brisbane Art Museum which featured her Dream Paintings, these huge paintings, 20 by 24 foot, of aerial views of the landscape that were just phenomenal," she told CBB. "Looking at them, I felt like an ant and I embraced that and knew I wanted my work to have the same kind of impact."
At Pratt, Thomas also learned to overcome obstacles to her art. Though she worked three part-time jobs during school, she did not let them interfere with her education. "Since my drawings skills weren't at the level of the other students, I became extremely focused and serious about my goals," she told the Williamsburg Quarterly. "I spent hours at the library studying the old masters, which helped me gain a better understanding of technique and composition." She concluded, "In the end the obstacles become a form of stimulation for my studio practice and keep me from taking situations for granted." They also helped propel her to success as an artist. "Once I made the decision to make art despite the obstacles and to make this my priority, things just opened up for me," she told CBB.
Became Full-Time Artist with a Big-Time Future
Thomas graduated from Pratt in 2000 and immediately began graduate school at Yale University. Though enrolled in the painting program, she told CBB that her best experience at the school came in a photography class. "It allowed me to explore a medium I wasn't familiar with and it opened a new way of making art." Though she began using photography as a model for her paintings, she eventually embraced it as a medium on its own. After earning her master's degree in 2002, Thomas was selected for the prestigious artist-in-residency program at the Studio Museum Harlem which offered her a free work studio, a handsome stipend, and the opportunity to concentrate on her art. Her yearlong program concluded with the group show "Hands On, Hands Down," which the magazine Art in America called impressive. Of Thomas' work which consisted of paintings encrusted with Swarovski acrylic crystals to create portraits of African-American women and wild cats, the magazine wrote, "By translating such pictures into vibrant, crystalline surfaces, Thomas underscores the savage exoticism that is typically attributed to black female sexuality while also invoking the pointillist style of artists like Georges Seurat."
Thomas became known for her use of nontraditional materials. In addition to the crystals, she employed fabric, glitter, and craft supplies bought at suburban arts-and-crafts shops. "I love these items because they have an innate domesticity to them," she told CBB. She used these materials to explore themes of black female power, sexuality, and mystique in work that drew heavily on portraiture. "The women who inspire my portraits are women who personify female power in society and the media," she told the Williamsburg Quarterly. She drew inspiration not only from the women in her own family but from African-American icons Pam Grier and Grace Jones to modern divas such as Lil' Kim and Mary J. Blige. The 1970s also exerted a strong influence over her work in both style, motifs, and the larger-than-life afros sported by her subjects.
At a Glance …
Born on January 28, 1971, in Camden, NJ. Education: Pratt Institute, BFA, painting, 2000; Yale University, MFA, painting, 2002.
artist, 1994—; Studio Museum Harlem, artist-in-residence, New York, NY, 2002-03.
Soka Gakkai International, member, volunteer.
Office—Mickalene Thomas Studios, 20 Grand Ave., 507, Brooklyn, NY 11205.
Though she exhibited in group shows nationwide, Thomas did not land a solo show until she met Chicago gallery legend Rhona Hoffman who sponsored the exhibition "Something About You…" in 2006. Though initially Hoffman had trouble selling the erotically-charged portraits, Thomas told CBB, "She believed in my work and didn't give up on the paintings and from there people started getting interested in them and that opened some doors." Collectors from as far away as Spain began to purchase Thomas' work. Art world acclaim for Thomas spread over into the mainstream media and she was featured in such publications as the New York Times and Essence. By the end of 2007, she was slated to have her first solo museum show at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. She took the success in stride, telling CBB, "I feel really fortunate that I am able to get up every day and work in my studio and not have to be a struggling artist with a daytime job and have art be secondary." She added that "Art is the primary thing in my life and I am proud of that."
"Why Don't We Do It in the Road," Ambrosino Gallery, Miami, FL, 2002.
"Beauty," Kravets/Wehby Gallery, New York, NY, 2003.
"Pantone," Massimo Audiello Gallery, New York, NY, 2003.
"Me, Myself and I," Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL, 2004.
"Hands On, Hands Down," Studio Museum Harlem, New York, NY, 2004.
"It's About Memory," Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, IL, 2004.
"African Queen," Studio Museum Harlem, New York, NY, 2005.
"Maximum Flavor," Atlanta College of Art Gallery, Atlanta, GA, 2005.
"Frequency," Studio Museum Harlem, New York, NY, 2005.
"Brawling Spitfire," Dust Gallery, Las Vegas, NV, 2006.
"My Love is a 187," The Luggage Store, San Francisco, CA, 2007.
"Something About You…" Rhona Hoffmann Gallery, Chicago, IL, 2006.
Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, 2007.
Art in America, February 2004, p. 126.
Essence, November 2005, p. 84.
"Interview with Mickalene Thomas," Williamsburg Quarterly,www.wburg.com/0402/articles/article03.html (April 1, 2007).
"Mickalene Thomas," Artnet,www.artnet.com/artist/423911394/mickalene-thomas.html (April 1, 2007).
"Mickalene Thomas," Rhona Hoffman Gallery,www.rhoffmangallery.com/Root/ARTISTS/THOMAS/Thomashome.htm (April 1, 2007).
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Mickalene Thomas on April 13, 2007.