Fellow Acclaimed Artist Xaviera Simmons Interviews Visionary Mickalene Thomas

By Xaviera Simmons | November 16, 2021

As she emerges amid her global series of five exhibitions with the gallery Lévy Gorvy, Mickalene Thomas: Beyond the Pleasure Principle, and a major monograph, fellow acclaimed artist Xaviera Simmons speaks deeply with the visionary Thomas (mickalenethomas.com).

XS: I am so excited to interview you. It’s interesting to think about your work and look through your work from a different lens other than as my friend, an artist, and a person who I’ve known for a long time.

I am going to start with the many shows you have right now. You yourself are a beauty. And then you’re surrounded by beauty? And then the work that you produce is filled with awe, beauty, and sensuality in the big artistic senses of those words and how we define our culture of beauty.Mickalene Thomas, “May 1977” (2021). PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS

Mickalene Thomas, “May 1977” (2021). PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS

Your coupleship is considered a beautiful relationship. The work that you produce is considered aesthetically beautiful also. Your studio, filled to the brim, is almost like a Garden of Earthly Delights. And so I’m just wondering, what does that feel like? What does that mean? That you’re also expanding our definitions of beauty at the same time? Like, how do you situate yourself within all of that abundance?

MT: I appreciate you for looking at my world that way—the things that I do within my world, how I make things and how I engage with others. I just like to bask in it, because I think what makes beauty is hardship. It is struggle and strife. It is unknown and what isn’t beauty. So you need to learn how to create an environment for yourself, because you’ve experienced difficulties in life and know what hardship feels like, so you take even the worst of life experiences and make something beautiful. For me, what I want—in my world, in my life, in my outlook—is happiness, good friends and more opportunity to tell stories. This is why I persevere and pursue things that make me feel good, because I know what it’s like not to feel good. Life is like wabi-sabi. I’m learning to embrace the imperfections in my life and turn it into something beautiful—like a lotus blossom blooming out of a quagmire. You need to have some scars, that murk, that residue. Because without friction, there is no growth, transformation or beauty. Beauty is not just on the surface, It’s also an energy in how you make people feel. I’m learning to understand the profound power of using my intuition as a place to pull from and protect me. Knowing and loving yourself is something I’ve learned over time. It’s a process that I worked through to even be able to be productive for others, you know what I mean? Life is complex, and it should be. Otherwise, our stories would be boring. I look at our world socially, politically, and even personally, it’s filled with obstacles and chaos. As artists, we absorb and pull from our environment and personal narratives that we can work from and use as fuel. I’m constantly thinking of how I can use my hardships and my internal struggle, whether it’s spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, or financial, as a point from which to transform myself? And that’s what I believe in, so that’s where I worked from. I don’t know any other way. Being raised Buddhist, I’m always contemplating, recentering and pulling from my inner self. If beauty is the outcome that people experience with my work—that fills me with joy. I feel that it matters even if you’re the only person in my world that has recognized that... Then I know I’ve accomplished something. Because that’s where change begins—and that’s how you inspire and make an impact. It only takes one person to recognize.

XS: I love that answer. It’s full. I think most people don’t know that you and I both were raised by single parents, single mothers who practiced the same form of Japanese Buddhism. I mean, people know from my biography that I lived with monks, but they don’t know that, like you know, the whole trajectory of growing up in ritual living with a parent who practices this form of Buddhism where the teachings always point you to the lotus coming from the swamp is literally the foundation of how we were both raised. So I think it’s something important here. So, I am glad that you brought it up. I think it’s also something important because I feel like between us there are moments where we don’t have to really speak about things because we get each other and we understand the journey around us.

MT: Look at my little inspiration wall behind me here. You see Tina Turner, Oprah, Shonda Rhimes and Iris Apfel. It’s my inspiration/mood board I add to it when something impacts me. Lately, I’ve been obsessively reading all about Tina Turner. I know her story and her narrative has been told in various iterations, but what I’m really moved by is her human revolution that she has created for herself—and where her life is today. Her last book, which she wrote during the pandemic, titled Happiness Becomes You, is a gift to the world about her own transformation. It’s incredible! It makes me think about how I can create such a gift for people and about my own human revolution. My journey is through my art, and it’s through not giving up. Last night, Racquel and I just went to see Tina Turner’s musical. The show starts with her chanting. The opening is so moving and powerful. The cadence, the sound, her presence, chanting penetrates you. That’s a gift I would love to give. So I’m trying to create that impact. These are the types of dynamic situations I want to unpack and create for people. I’ve just been thinking about how I want people to feel. We feel her life. We’ve witnessed her transformation. As an audience who’s celebrating her, we’ve witnessed how one can really persevere and change. And if you can’t use her life as a way of seeing what’s possible, then your eyes are closed. These women are on my wall as a reminder of what’s attainable and why I come to my studio every day.

Mickalene Thomas, “Jet Blue #43” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS
Mickalene Thomas, “Jet Blue #43” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS

XS: Becoming the lotus is a daily process. And it’s like you have to constantly wipe away all of the emotional responses that do not serve you. And then the studio gives you the opportunity to become the lotus because we get to transform through material engagements. Something I wanted to ask you, since we’re on this train, thinking about Tina, thinking about mentorship, parenting: I know you’re a parent. Parenting and art-making are a really wonderful, intense combination. Especially now, what has your daughter or being a parent, in general, taught you about the creative practice or process in general? And how does that feed you, and your daily engagement with the studio?

MT: I think one of the beauties about having kids is that they are a constant reminder of how you should live your life. But what is so incredible about children is that a lot of times, we’re looking at them experiencing things for the first time. We’re looking at their life, and we’re understanding that they’re stepping into and engaging life as a fresh new experience, while we’ve already walked through it. They’re reminding us of the joy of life. They are so resilient and forgiving. Children are constant reminders of how we should live our lives socially and unjaded. A basic example is when a child is beginning to walk, one of the first things they do is bend their knees. It’s innately a part of us similar to smaller animals like puppies. Unfortunately, as we get older our environment and experiences condition us to feel and think otherwise. Most of us stop bending our knees to pick up things; then our back aches, and we don’t know why. So kids are a constant reminder of how to live our life with joy, and they can teach us how to freely make art. They’re not approaching art with theories and notions or concepts of dos and don’ts. They naturally and intuitively work with the materials and make whatever comes to mind. My daughter is a reminder or reflection—for me to let go, surrender, be free. To bend your knees. To be in the moment with life. In the same way, when they’re upset or you’re disappointed, they know how to love you again. They love you unconditionally. They give you a hug unconditionally. They look at you admiringly.

We should all love like children when they are safe and comfortable. If we can do that with people who have different backgrounds, I think we would be living in a different type of world. Because somehow, as adults, we become disappointed, judgmental, fearful, and jaded. So what my daughter and our kids do for us show that we don’t have to think in such limited ways. Kids are the greatest inventors. My daughter created a rocket ship out of recycled material. So it’s the joy that they have in experimentation, ideas, and thought. That’s why kids are important—and that’s why it’s important for me, as an artist, to stay connected to the next generation of artists. That’s why I enjoy teaching. The one aspect of teaching I love the most is that I’m able to share some of my knowledge, but also learn from what younger artists are interested in and creating.

XS: In a conversation with the legendary artist Carrie Mae Weems in 2015, you said, ‘I have a deep desire and sensuality for women that’s inescapable.’ And I was wondering, can you turn that around a little and expand on that? Can you expand on ways to be inescapable in your desires as an artist or toward material—and toward collaboration? And also thinking about being inescapable in terms of teaching and learning new things from students? Also, like, what can you pivot the desires

Mickalene Thomas, “Jet Blue #28” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS
Mickalene Thomas, “Jet Blue #28” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS

MT: I think it’s all connected. My philosophy of life is that it is inescapable for me to realize and understand that what I’m doing is impactful and inspiring to others as I unpack and create narratives for my journey that will change as I transform through the decades of my life. What’s inescapable, for me is to walk through this journey and my own success and be able to collaborate or celebrate others who are walking in their own path—and my desire for including other artists, like my show at The Bass Museum with Better Nights, or Better Days in Switzerland or curatorial shows. It’s inescapable for me, as someone who works in photography, to see other photographers who are creating amazing images about the Black body and their personal perspective, and to be inspired by them. Because of what I see in their work, it is inescapable for me not to acknowledge their talent. For me, whether it’s my inspiration from Haitian Vodou flags and symbolism or Aboriginal dot paintings or Pointillism of [Georges] Seurat—it’s inescapable for me to bring those ideas to my work. I am always suspicious of people who claim that they’ve arrived at their success without others. Yes, it’s our talent but someone opened a door or their success is not through themselves. To me, no one can get from one point or another without someone else opening the door or pulling their hand up, or giving them the opportunity, or just supporting and being their cheerleader. I’m not able to do a global show without my team. It’s an extension of myself and my ideas, but it’s also something that I recognize when I’m deciding to embark on an ambitious project.

Do you remember when we did that panel talk at MoMA? It was me, you, Derrick [Adams], and Clifford Owens. I think it was the first time I was in conversation with all of you. But what you guys had in common that I didn’t have at that time was that all of you were doing collaborations with other artists. And I was primarily working solo in my studio. At that point, I thought, and I remember saying, ‘Is it possible to collaborate with people, by building community in a gallery setting? By creating spaces for other artists that inspire you?’ After that point, I started having exhibitions including other artists in the spaces. Because of that conversation, I recognized the possibility of other ways of collaborating with artists. Sometimes it’s just about providing space and ideas.

XS: It is interesting going back into that, and going forward to your set of exhibitions up right now, where I am still getting off the wonderful high of Brand-New Heavies, the exhibition you co-curated with your partner, Raquel. It is such a generous opportunity to both be in community and collaborate and also to make new forms within my own practice. I wanted to turn that proposition around to you, in terms of your new projects, which are in and of themselves monumental undertakings. You talk a lot about taking up space inside of institutions—so I’m curious to ask you what kind of monumentality mindset did it take for you to take up that much space, as in five gallery spaces? And what does that mean? And how can we encourage others? How can you encourage others to continue to take up more space? I mean, obviously, as women, as Black American women, as sexually engaged women, as lovers, as artists—what’s the recipe? How do you prescribe?

MT: As you were asking me that question my brain was thinking so many different ideas. To answer, the first thing that came to mind was that in order to take up space or to think monumentally, you have to think of what your higher frequency is—where you want to go. And to do that, you have to be willing to take a risk and fail, knowing how to persevere through it. It’s not about success. It’s about taking the risk. That’s a monumental act. When I was thinking of doing this, I wasn’t thinking, ‘this is going to be the shit.’ I was thinking that there are two ways it can go: It can be successful or it can be unsuccessful. The greater challenge was that the risk was higher and that it could fail and collapse. At every moment of this journey with this global show, there have been so many major roadblocks and obstacles—with staff quitting in the most intense moments of the process, and not knowing where some of the finances would come from to complete some of the projects. The fact [was] two years prior left my gallery and I often thought, ‘Who the hell do I think I am?’ But the opportunity of working with a new gallery on a project basis encouraged me that this is possible. And also that I’m going to claim this not as a solo project, but as a collaboration that we’re doing together—because they believe in my work and my vision. We were both taking risks. So, for me, realizing that I’m teaming up with another party, that’s willing to take a risk as well. That was the success—just the mere fact that someone else being willing to take the risk with me made this possible.

Mickalene Thomas, “Mother With Dead Child (Resist #4)” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS
Mickalene Thomas, “Mother With Dead Child (Resist #4)” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS

XS: I feel like you are forging a new model. It’s a metaphor of the lotus. As you’re talking, I keep seeing it because it’s very clear. And that’s a sharpening of Buddhist practice; it’s both a sharpening and a softening of the self in practice. And it almost feels like you’re forging on... and lovingly pushing new forms and new models into existence right now with this kind of global exhibition.

MT: Exactly, there are five. And one of the reasons why this is so important for me is that oftentimes, I don’t have the formula written down to say, ‘OK, this is how you could do it.’ And one of the best ways for me to do it is to just show it with my life. I need to experiment to see if it’s possible because you’re right, I want to be a part of creating a new formula for how artists can be successful while working independently. I often propose to my students why do you think you have to give a gallery 50/50’ and everyone goes, ‘Oh, because we’re supposed to.’ But why? Why aren’t you questioning it? Where did this notion come from? Is there a book? Is it a law? Or is it because it is a system that has been put in place and we’re just following suit? In my case, going back to kids, my daughter had made a collage project that was modeled out of food. She made paper noodles on a plate, but on each noodle, she wrote a different aspiration. And one of them I actually kept and put on my altar. She wrote, ‘no fear,’ and other words too— happiness, love. But the one I took, ‘no fear,’ resonated. At this time, she was 7 or 8. She had no fear. And she told me, ‘Why don’t you keep the noodles for yourself?’ And I said, ‘I can pick whatever one I want?’ And she said, ‘Yeah.’ so I picked ‘no fear.’ And it’s like she gave me that gift—like she said to me ‘no fear.’ It’s either do it or don’t. You’re either going to get it or not. And if I don’t get it, perhaps the universe has other things in store for me at that time.

XS: Exactly.

MT: And you just have to accept life in the moment. ‘I’m going to take more risks in my life.’ And so this global exhibition was really about thinking, ‘Can I do it? Can I really do it? Can you really do this, Mickalene?’ I started listening to If You Can See It, You Can Be It by Jeff Henderson and Jen Sincero.

XS: Yes, yes, yes! Can you read it out loud?

MT: It says, You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life.

XS: Exactly. We all need that medicine on a regular basis.

MT: So once I started listening to that, I was tapping into a higher frequency, recognizing that the only way to get to where I want to be is that I can’t be afraid to fail. But you keep trying. You know that you’re a badass. Just do it. Just take those risks. And so this was really about, ‘Do I have it in me?’ I had the determination to do it, but I still wasn’t sure if I could do it. There were plenty of times where I was just like, I can’t believe I’m doing this. And then they’re putting the stress on my studio because I have a very small team. There are around three core people and we had to hire some contractors. But those are a revolving door of people, and even that was small, and we had six, seven people at most. And three of them, or three to four, were admin people. And then on top of that, we were producing a monograph--that in itself is a printed matter exhibition, so it was more like doing six [shows].

XS: It’s like six shows, plus your studio is another. It’s a whole production. It’s like seven tangibles. Can you talk about the thematic chord? I always think about that. What’s the kind of thematic chord of the shows? Do you feel like there is one?

MT: The way I was thinking of the shows was going through sequential chapters and dealing with various ideations—one desire, another violence, another joy and happiness—and then on the other side, there’s this mirror image of sexuality and beauty. So, it’s beauty, desire, happiness or joy and violence. To me, that’s what I was thinking of—using this title from Janet Jackson... But I was also thinking of libido, desire, and how you sexually identify yourself to the world—what is permissible and respectable among these desires. And going back to some of the first images that formulated my sense of self, my sense of identity, my sense of awareness of Black women being beautiful, through Jet magazines.

XS: When did you realize Black women?

MT: By age 9 or 10, I was looking at these magazines and the ‘Beauties of the Week.’ They all had identities and biographies, like ‘Hi, I’m Gloria and I go to Howard and I do horseback riding,’ or ‘I play tennis.’ It was things like this that made you feel the desire, the aspiration, the possibility. That you weren’t removed from all the good that life has to offer. You, too, can be playing tennis. You, too, could be horseback riding. And why not? They were all different; they had different hairstyles, different colors, different body shapes. And so that really allowed me to see that in print. Jet magazine and Ebony have been a cultural shapeshifter in our demographic because not only did they tell these stories about celebrities, but also about other people with different lifestyles. It was also the first to have these biographies and the back pages where they had stories about daily life and bullshit. But it also dealt with some of the social and political issues at that time. For example, the reason why Emmett Till’s death became so public is because they put the face on the cover with him in the open casket. It was really creating and showing the possibilities of what one could do, and you’re seeing yourself and others reflected in that. That’s why images, printed matter, and the creativity that we put out into the world, are so powerful.

XS: You’re making me think about our role or our job as artists. I think it’s something you’re keying in on at this moment. I’m thinking about the word ‘frequency,’ which is obviously connected always to us through the Studio Museum—but also through thinking of how I grew up in New York and you in New Jersey, and also in Black America specifically, and the free radio frequency, and thinking about the magazines that we all used to collectively read*, Jet* and Ebony; those were in most of our households, or they were in our barbershops, or they were in our salons or they were in our homes. And we used to be on a shared frequency. And I think what you’re killing me into is that artists right now, especially Black artists, I think we’re seeing people make room, reminding people that there is a shared frequency that we have here. Yes, there’s a lot going on in the world. And you can have a lot of things coming in. But because art is such a slow process, both making and doing, you kind of have to tune into the frequency. And we’re all very collectively saying similar things on the wavelength.

Mickalene Thomas, “October 1950” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS
Mickalene Thomas, “October 1950” (2021) PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ARTIST © MICKALENE THOMAS

MT: Exactly. And that was my point when Aperture approached me to do the monograph of my photographs. I knew I couldn’t just do this without including others. There was no way I could put out a photo book without including the voice and images of others that I was looking at and being inspired by them. To me, you’re not asking me to just do a book of my paintings, you’re asking me to do something that is a part of my process and practice, which informs my work. So, therefore, it is my responsibility to include those that I’ve been looking at that helped me make decisions on my photographic images.

XS: Exactly, those are inescapable influences.

Photography by: (Images credited above)