Mickalene Thomas reflects on her rhinestones and rumored VP portrait

Mickalene Thomas reflects on her rhinestones and rumored VP portrait

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Things might have been different for Mickalene Thomas if oil paint wasn’t so expensive.

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At the third Style Session event hosted by The Washington Post at the Rubell Museum D.C. on Thursday night, Thomas told The Post’s senior critic-at-large Robin Givhan that she was inspired by pointillists like Georges Seurat and the Aboriginal artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye but needed to adjust her practice to accommodate her budget.

She had an aha moment at a Michael’s craft store when she saw a bag of rhinestones and connected it to the work of Kngwarreye.

“That’s really how it started,” Thomas said. “I couldn’t afford materials, and craft materials are affordable.”

Today, Thomas’s use of rhinestones, sequins and beads in her large-scale portraits of Black American women and Black American life have made her one of the most influential and sought-after artists in the world.

But when she was studying at Yale, her decision to use unconventional materials in her paintings was met with a great deal of criticism.

“Mostly from men,” Givhan suggested.

Thomas agreed. “But then they steal from us,” she added.

Givhan also asked Thomas about a rumored commission to paint a portrait of Vice President Harris. Thomas said that she was excited to complete the portrait, but the project had been scrapped. “They couldn’t raise the funds for it, and so it never came to fruition,” Thomas said.

Several of Thomas’s early works are on display at the Rubell Museum. “I was thrilled,” Thomas said of seeing them for the first time in more than a decade.

Thomas’s present-day work has some distance from its more glittery predecessors. In part, she said it’s because she’s interested in using less-toxic materials. She’s also interested in new avenues, such as the intersection of AI and art practice.

But being confronted with some of her archive at the Rubell made her rethink her current practice. “It reminded me that, ‘Oh, I need to get back to some things.’ Maybe I got too far away from it,” she said.

“I feel like my work is better and more mature, but sometimes you can know too much.”

Listen to the full event here.

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