Artist Mickalene Thomas’ Mother is her Muse

By Kelly Harris, Editor


Every time we say goodbye, I die a little.
Every time we say goodbye, I wonder why a little.
Why the gods above me, who must be in the know,
think so little of me they allow you to go.


These were the lyrics sung over the opening images of an ailing Sandra Bush, mother of New York artist, Mickalene Thomas. Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman: A Portrait of My Mother was screened May 22 at the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans in partnership with the New Orleans Film Society.

Photo Courtesy of Courtney Asztalos

As I watched the images of a black woman with fragile hands and yellowish eyes, it triggered sadness. I recalled my mother-in-law who passed away from breast cancer in 2010. I don’t know much about how she felt about her diagnosis. She was pleasantly sick—having normal conversations until the end. More recently, I spent the entire month of March at my own mother’s bedside as she recovered from a brain aneurysm. Luckily, my mother is still with me, but seeing my mother near death has increased my fear of losing her. I find myself constantly worrying that I am wasting time and fearful I am not on my life’s course.

I began thinking of the untold stories of black mothers both near and unknown to me. How many mothers’ dreams have been deferred? What shame and guilt do mothers carry?

“I was fast, but innocent” Mama Bush recalls in the film as she talks of her youth.

Mickalene Thomas gives her mother the gift of speaking her truth on camera. Thomas is known for elaborate paintings that confront notions of beauty and femininity. Mama Bush modeled for many of Mickalene’s portraits.

“One of the reasons I used my mother is because of her charisma, her beauty…and I thought about how I wasn’t [using her] because she was sick, and how a different type of beauty, a different type of aging, a different type of portraiture could come across on the film.”

I like that in the short film Thomas gets out of her mother’s way. She resists making this a daughter’s story about her mother. Her mom is in complete command of her narrative. Mama Bush doesn’t try to tie up her life with a pretty bow. The film captures Sandra Bush’s feisty, bold spirit while capturing her vulnerability.

Mickalene and Me. Photo by Courtney Asztalos

It’s worth seeing. You’ll find yourself pondering the journey of death, while realizing how important living in the moment can be.

Mickalene Thomas is featured in the 30 Americans exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center. The exhibition closes June 15th.