What makes a muse? Mickalene Thomas on the power of the model

Updated 31st May 2016
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What makes a muse? Mickalene Thomas on the power of the model
Written by Allyssia Alleyne, CNN
Mickalene Thomas' first book comes as a bit of a surprise. While the New York-based artist is known for her striking large-scale paintings -- embellished with rhinestones, sequins and glitter -- her monograph is dedicated to her photography.
The book's subject matter, however, is true to form. The sensuously posed black women on its pages -- adorned with costume jewelery, elaborate makeup and colorful clothes -- have long represented the heart of Thomas' practice. The book is aptly named "Muse".
"'Muse' is a way of celebrating all of these women and what they have to give in these images," the artist says from her studio in Brooklyn. "For me, it was very much the personal relationship, and also the historical relationship that I have with the women and the world."

Model as muse

Mickalene Thomas was born in New Jersey in the 1970s and has degrees from Pratt Institute and Yale University.
Her work has been presented at the Brooklyn Museum, MoMA PS1 and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and this October she will show new work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
While the images are decidedly contemporary, Thomas often draws from the past. Influences like Edouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Henri Matisse and Romare Bearden can be traced in the poses and composition of her paintings, photos and collages.
But when it comes to her models, she has moved beyond the traditional relationship between artist and sitter, observer and observed.
Typically, her models are not strangers. Eschewing agencies and Craigslist (not that she hasn't gone down those routes before), Thomas prefers to pull from her immediate circle -- friends, friends of friends, family, lovers -- and work with them often.
"Why not work with them?" she says. "It's very important for me to work with women who are part of my life, part of my world, my experience."
The worlds she creates for her models through hyper-detailed sets seem ripped from vintage issues of Jet magazine, all wood-paneled walls, soul records, clashing patterns and animal prints.
"I create these theatrical moments that can call up some familiarity for (the models) at the start of the process," she says. "There's a bond that's already created before we go into a collaborative process of image-making together."

Finding inner beauty

Thomas first took up photography while pursuing her MFA in painting at the Yale University School of Art. Her mother, Sandra Bush, a former fashion model, was her first subject.
It was in her that Thomas initially recognized the "particular prowess" and vulnerability she sets out to capture in all of her portraits, "the natural glamor and elegance that is really beautiful to see in a person who is comfortable in their skin."
While her charismatic mother brought a natural verve to photos, Thomas observes that many of her other models seem to adopt a new, more confident character once they've been transformed by costume and cosmetics.
"A lot of these relationships are built up because I use the same women over and over, and that relationship -- like any friendship -- becomes a trust,"Thomas says.
"And so some of the genuine aspects of herself and her unique beauty and individuality begin to manifest."

Spreading inspiration

But for Thomas, these photos represent something beyond just a beautiful photo.
"I think of them a lot of the time as self-portraits," she says. "It's not conveyed in how I look or dress, but it's an inner thing -- that desire and aspiration -- that's there."
She hopes other women and girls will respond to her work similarly, finding themselves inspired by the models regardless of their own backgrounds or appearances.
"Any women -- regardless of race, cultural identity or ethnicity -- could look at these images, and something about (the model) -- her elegance, her glamor, her vulnerability, her confidence, her stance, her composition -- will remind them of themselves."