Mickalene Thomas is best known for her elaborate mixed-media paintings of black women. These portraits — composed with rhinestones, acrylic, and enamel — question our assumptions about femininity, sexuality, and the ways that women are represented in art and pop culture. Her work has been the subject of numerous solo exhibitions, and can be found in the collections of MoMA, the Whitney, and the Guggenheim. In 2008, Thomas made the first individual portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama, which was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery. This month, her installation Better Nights — inspired by parties hosted by Thomas’s mother in the 1970s — opens at the Bass during Art Basel in Miami. Thomas lives in New York, where she divides her time between her home in Fort Greene and staying with her partner, the collector Racquel Chevremont, in Hell’s Kitchen. Here’s how she gets it done.
On a typical morning:
My schedule really depends on the day. I co-parent, so on the days that I have my daughter with me, I wake up around 6:15, get dressed, make breakfast for my daughter, walk the dog, and take my daughter to school around 8:15. Then I meet my partner, Raquel, have a conversation with her, and then go to the studio. Thursday through Friday, it’s a little more sporadic because I don’t have my daughter with me. So on those days I usually try to sleep in if I can — most of the times I can’t. Right now I’m working on several museum projects, so it’s a little hectic. I’m pulled in several directions, moving around like an octopus — on the phone, putting out fires, telling people yes or no.
On working in the studio:
Right now, I’m working on six large-scale collages, so my main focus is spending time with that. I try to carve out time where I’m like, Okay, no interruptions. I need to work and focus on this piece for like at least three to four hours. My assistants know they can’t interrupt me on Tuesdays and Thursdays; those are my painting days. I like to have more concentrated “me” time. My favorite part of making art is just sitting in front of it for a long period of time, staring at it. Looking at the complexities, seeing what layers work, and thinking about the relationship of the materials. You sit in front of the work and you realize what you need to change in it.
On putting her phone away:
I have an office area that’s separate from my painting area, and I usually leave my phone on my office desk. And it’s turned on silent, so when you’re working, you’re working, you know? You shouldn’t always have to be accessible. I think we live in an age where people feel that there’s this high demand of people wanting you to respond to them right away, and I don’t think that’s necessary. I think it’s okay to get a response the next day, or text a little later. I remember a time when there were just telephones and when someone said they were going to be somewhere at a certain time, you just had to trust that they were going to be there.
On managing a studio:
The part of my job that I find most challenging is having to manage staff. A studio is a business, and as the artistic director, you’re the Every-person — you’re the human-resource person, you’re the art director, you’re the artist. As an artist, you want to be creative; you don’t want to always have to put the boss hat on. You don’t want to have to be a dictator. And the business aspect to your studio practice is not something that’s taught in school, so it’s a learning curve. You learn by trial and error. You have to figure things out on your own, and do a lot of research. You have to learn about labor laws and exemptions because you’re operating a business.
On deciding to be an artist:
I feel like art chose me, and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. It’s a political choice, being an artist. To choose to create art is definitely a courageous act. It’s not easy, ever, by any means. It’s a really hard road to travel, but it’s got a lot of joy and fun. I think deciding to become an artist was probably the best decision I ever made in my life. I never thought about “making it.” I just thought about making art. And I think that’s still my journey.
On supporting herself as an artist:
[When I was starting out] I worked many jobs to support myself. I cleaned houses. I worked in retail stores, like G-Star. I did jobs that I could walk away from easily because my main priority was my studio practice. I didn’t want to feel obligated to them should my practice get to a level that was secure enough financially for me to walk away from those other jobs.
It took a long time for me to feel comfortable with that. There were times when I had an intern and studio assistant working for me while I was working at G-Star so I could pay them. Even after I was selling work, I was like, Okay, that’s great, but I didn’t know when the next show was coming. I didn’t feel like, Oh, now I’m this hot artist, I need to quit my job. It wasn’t until 2009, when I started working with Lehmann Maupin [gallery], that I stopped having a full-time job.
I try to stay organized. I think I’m ultimately chaotic sometimes — controlled chaos. But when people come to my studio, one of the first things they say is that my studio is extremely organized. I like to keep things in systems. I like to know where things are. It helps me keep my mind clear and centered. When you come to my studio, there’s a numbering system of my works, and all of my paintings have a book that goes with them, with all of the information about how they were made, so I can conserve my own work if I want. I know exactly what color paint was used, what color rhinestone, what size.
On managing stress:
I like to sleep, I like to meditate, and I think exercise is good when you can. And being around those that you love, good friends … and sex. When I’m not traveling I try to be consistent with my Peloton bike. I usually do it at night, when my daughter is asleep. I like to go on trips with friends, going on hikes and walking trails. And just not do anything, you know, with your eyes closed. It’s just a really beautiful thing.
On how she decompresses after work:
Sometimes I’ll walk home. My studio is about a mile away from my place. I really love jumping on one of those Revels if they’re near my house. Although you’ve got to make sure to wear gloves; I feel like they’re covered in germs. Then I’ll meet up with Racquel, and sometimes we’ll get dinner. I’m a fantastic cook. I cook anything — coq au vin, or any French dish. I’m a big pantry cook. I can go to someone’s house, look in their refrigerator, and I can make something fantastic. I love cooking. I love feeding people, and taking care of people, and breaking bread, and nourishment. Hospitality. I love that. I love entertaining and providing warmth and comfort.