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Mickalene Thomas on Her Materials and Artistic Influences

By art21. Artist Mickalene Thomas discusses her use of craft materials, her artistic influences, and the importance of seeing oneself represented in museums. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

Hi, I'm Mickalene Thomas. I'm here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I guess my appeal to craft materials is also another historical reference to women making art. When I was in undergrad, I couldn't always afford oil paint. Because I was in a school and still had to make work, I had to figure out ways in which to still make my art and not limit myself to I can't make my art, because I don't have oil paint or acrylic paint. I gravitated toward non-traditional materials that were considered maybe for some a low art, but also to others a high art, if you look at outsider artists, right? I began going to Michael's craft stores, because I could afford felt, and I could afford yarn, and I could afford these little bags of rhinestones or glitter. I could get an abundance of those versus a tube of paint. I began to acquire these materials and find meaning and ways to use them in my own work as a way of identifying myself, but also making an image. That's something that I also push forward with some of my students is not to limit yourself with what you can't do, but just try to think of what you can do and use those materials that are within your own environment to make something. When I was living in Portland, Oregon I would go to this bookstore called 'Powell's Books.' Within the stacks of their books, I would just go up and down the aisle pulling out books on African-American artists. I remember looking at a William H. Johnson monograph and thinking at that time, "Oh, this is catalogue raisonné" and thinking how his sensibility of his line, representation of his journeys, and the people in his environment, and depicting his world, and depicting African-American lifestyles was a direct representation of who I was. It's really important for me, as an artist, to have a representation of myself so that youth could see themselves in these particular environments like museums. When they see my work, with all the art history, whether it's from William H. Johnson, to someone like David Hockney or Matisse, that when they're standing here that they see themselves.