TOMORROW ON HBO, Mickalene Thomas‘s short documentary about her late mother Sandra Bush makes its television debut. “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman” is a candid portrayal. While Thomas was growing up, their relationship was rife with challenges. Bush, a former runway model, struggled with spousal abuse, drug addiction and eventually health problems. Both evolved, and the artist eventually fulfilled her mother’s dream to be in the limelight. Bush is Thomas’s muse, the inspiration behind much of her work—the photographs, the images of decorative interiors, and the powerful, feminine, embellished works that define her practice. In the film, Bush states, “Working along with you makes me feel like I have accomplished something. My daughter, you have made me the model of the art world.”

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The 24-minute film first appeared as a part of “Mickalene Thomas: Origin of the Universe,” the artist’s 2012-13 solo show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the “Brooklyn Museum. Bush’s presence, both literally and symbolically, is palpable throughout the exhibition catalog.

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Thomas spoke to about the film, her art and her mother. Here is an excerpt of the full interview conducted by Thessaly La Force:

VOGUE: This film premiered at your solo show at the Brooklyn Museum in September 2012. Your mother, who was still alive then, had a chance to watch it, didn’t she?
THOMAS: She was there and died two months later, just shortly after Hurricane Sandy—she died November 7, 2012. But she was able to see the film, which was great. She loved it. She sat at the opening, in the room I built for the exhibition, and her only disappointment was that I didn’t airbrush out her wrinkles. She said she looked old. I was like, “Mom, I’m not going to do that!” Everything else she gave the thumbs up.

VOGUE: What was it like filming your mother?
THOMAS: It was cathartic. It allowed me to resolve issues as a human being, as a daughter. And it’s important for me as an artist because I use my mother in my work—I have since 2000—so it seemed like the next step when I learned she was dying. It made sense to me. When I photographed her in my studio, we always talked, we had conversations, but they were never recorded, they were just for us. This was different. I wanted people to really know her. How did she get to this point? What was her story? I’m interested in beyond hello. And I wanted to learn about my mother as a person—to separate from my relationship to her as her daughter—and look at her as the human being she was. CT


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