"Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs:" When process becomes product

GREAT BARRINGTON — What happens when artistic process becomes product? In Mickalene Thomas' case, it means receiving validation in a new medium to explore powerful themes of race, womanhood and beauty.

On Monday, July 3, Thomas discussed how photographs originally taken to inspire her acclaimed large-scale paintings turned into a book of photography — "Muse: Mickalene Thomas Photographs"— at Griffin in Great Barrington. Published in 2015 by Aperture, the not-for-profit, photography-focused foundation, Thomas' work includes portraits of herself, her mother, past lovers and, ultimately, her partner, Racquel Chevremont. While Thomas has been photographing subjects for her paintings since her time as a graduate student at Yale University's School of Art, she was apprehensive about presenting these images as polished pieces.

"What didn't come naturally was pushing them forward, out in the world, as their own bodies of work because I always thought of them as resources for my paintings. But now they're standing on their own," Thomas said during a break in a subsequent book-signing session.

Other worries included publishing a book of photography before doing so for her paintings (one will be published in 2018, she says) and respecting the work of esteemed photographers. To address the latter concern, Thomas added a "t te- -t te" section, curating images from various photographers as an homage to those who inspired her choices.

Still, the bulk of the book belongs to Thomas' muses, who are all black women. It begins with self-portraits, many of which she took for projects during graduate school. It then moves into pictures of her late mother, Sandra Bush, a model who was also the subject of an HBO documentary that Thomas directed, titled, "Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman." Bush was happy to help with her daughter's projects, which often involved nudity.

"I was tired of using myself, so I began using my mother," Thomas said.

The 46-year-old artist said she has doubts about using people in her life as muses, but it's a futile battle against her artistic impulses. "I don't think I can help myself," she said.

The book ends with an image of Chevremont, who also attended Monday's event. A longtime model, Chevremont had no reservations about having her partner photograph her about five years ago, but Thomas was hesitant. "She was a bit nervous to photograph me, but we eventually got around to it," Chevremont said.

The couple lives in New York City, but owns a country home in Salisbury, Conn. They often find themselves in Great Barrington, eating at Prairie Whale and visiting Connie Griffin's vintage clothing and design store on Main Street. The idea for a book signing came during a visit to the store's prior location — a smaller shop up the street. Thomas was flipping through a different book that contained some of her work and pointed it out to Griffin, who then indicated that she would love to have Thomas come speak in the future once her new work was finished.

"I was really struck by Mickalene's reimagining or redefining the role of black women, I think, in this time and space, but also that any woman or man could look at these photographs and see the strength in their glamor and their grace," Griffin told the crowd at Monday night's event.

While Thomas acknowledged that the mostly white crowd was typical of the area, she stressed that Berkshire County, particularly Great Barrington, has a long history of influential African-American families and figures, including civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois. She said that more events like this one would lead to more diverse audiences.

"The fact that Connie as a retailer, as a white woman, as a local, has embraced me — an African-American woman, an artist that's doing a book about black women — I think is testimonial to what this area is really about," Thomas said.


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