Mother as Inspiration, Mother as Collaborator

Highlighting Hank Willis Thomas, Mickalene Thomas, and Jacolby Satterwhite, curator Ian Cofre explores the complexity of portraying mothers in art through collaboration and inspiration.
Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas, "Sometimes I See Myself in You", 2008, Digital C-Print
Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shaman Gallery, New York

DEBORAH WILLIS and HANK WILLIS THOMAS, “Sometimes I See Myself in You”, 2008, Digital C-Print
Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shaman Gallery, New York

In art, classical depictions of mother and child almost exclusively belong to the specific religious history of the Madonna, or Virgin and Child. Historical examples, which include a multitude of masterpieces, represent idealized maternal love and protection, and approach the status of a near-universal symbol. To celebrate Mother’s Day, though, is not an exercise in abstract concepts and generalities, but a call to honor the individual. The three artists presented here—Jacolby Satterwhite, Mickalene Thomas, and Hank Willis Thomas (no relation)—have done just that, capturing portraits that reveal the complexities of the women that raised them. The selected works go beyond mere representations of mother as inspiration and speak to a different level of engagement. In fact, they are collaborations between the artists and their mothers, helping to edify their influence through a shared practice.


Asked about the visual history of Hank Willis Thomas’s collaborative portrait, Sometimes I See Myself in You (2008), he said, “It consciously comes from following in her footsteps and being told almost daily that I look like her.” Those footsteps belong to his mother, the towering figure of Deborah Willis, artist, historian, curator, and author. He continued, “[I’m] not sure I’m ready to compare myself to Jesus, yet,” but that for him “it’s an amalgam of the residue of popular culture imagery manifesting in my subconscious.” The photographic transition in the image makes for an honest and powerful selves-portrait, where the physical transformation implies a psychological space divided and doubled, the work shared and compounded through mutual borrowing. Willis Thomas added, “I’ve assisted her on several projects throughout the years [and] I think this would be the first time we were somewhat on equal footing.”

JACOLBY SATTERWHITE, “The Matriarch’s Rhapsody,” 2012, Digital Video, 43:46 minutes,
Courtesy of Jacolby Satterwhite

Equal exchange is also important for Jacolby Satterwhite, whose mother Patricia draws prolifically as one way of coping with her diagnosed schizophrenia. Those sketches become inputs for objects that take on a new life in the animated worlds that he has become known for, but Satterwhite went further, highlighting them in his 2012 New York debut exhibition, The Matriarch’s Rhapsody. In the titular video, Satterwhite juxtaposes and contextualizes his mother’s drawings alongside his digital recreations and family photographs. The meditative video is both an index and display of the commercial products, viable or no, that Patricia Satterwhite invents and designs for TV shopping channels, woven together with memories and moments of personal history that expand through the younger Satterwhite’s visual associations. Because of Jacolby’s collaborative practice and continued support, the Studio Museum in Harlem’s then-Assistant Curator Thomas J. Lax subsequently included both artists’ work alongside each other in the 2014 exhibition, When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South.

Mickalene Thomas, "Still from Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman," 2012, Digital Video, 23 minutes
Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas and Lehmann Maupin Gallery New York & Hong Kong

MICKALENE THOMAS, Still from “Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman,” 2012, Digital Video, 23 minutes,
Courtesy of Mickalene Thomas and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York & Hong Kong

Finally, what can be considered one the most emotionally forceful works of recent times is Mickalene Thomas’s heartbreaking documentary, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman (2012), a portrait of her mother made prior to her passing that same year, and which represents a final collaboration with her first and most important muse. Mickalene’s mother, Sandra Bush, was an early subject of her work, as she recounts, “I started working with my mother for a photography class at Yale. She’d been a professional model when I was young (in the late 70s and early 80s)—she was absolutely gorgeous, 6” 1’, full of energy, and the only person I could convince to pose completely nude for me.” The longstanding influence and working together “served as a way for me to understand how they relate to me and my own femininity.”


Earlier works such as Lounging, Standing, Looking (2003) and Madame Mama Bush in Black and White (2007) attest to some of the qualities in Sandra that Thomas “always admired and wanted to emulate,” like “her glamour.” In the film, though, as we become aware of the subject’s frailty, her body continuing to shut down in front of the audience, there emerges a clear portrait of “her strength and tenacity, and her sustained elegance and charisma in the face of obstacles.” On one side of the camera, Thomas “thought of the film as a painting,” explaining that she “was thinking about the lens moving like a brushstroke, painting a portrait through a character’s voice and story,” and “[….] about the complexities, composition, formal aspects of color, shape, space, depth of field, rhythm, texture, and all the things you consider when you’re making a painting.” On the other side, Sandra speaks to the camera and directly to Mickalene in her own voice about her feelings of accomplishment and fears, rounding out a persona from the represented muse. Thomas frames the distinction of this work by explaining, “Art from the late 19th and early 20th century is of particular interest […] because it marks the time when female models started to assert their own identities and presence through the gaze. Around this time, at least in the contemporary discourse, the sitters for the classic genre nude ceased to be anonymous props and began to insist on their individuality with their gaze.”


These three artists successfully use new mediums and in-depth collaboration with their mothers to highlight a fresh perspective on this personal relationship, the results of which are some of the most interesting interpretations of mother and child in contemporary art. They are compelling works not only because of the complicated and loved figures that have had outsized influences on the artists’ lives, but also because as an audience, we have been allowed to enter three unique, longstanding dialogs of mutual respect and growth together.

Ian Cofre

Author: Ian Cofre

Ian Cofre is an independent curator and writer based in New York City, working with emerging and established artists, locally-based and from Latin America. He has previously worked as Director for a Lower East Side gallery, Studio Manager for Mickalene Thomas (2011-12), and most recently as US Director for the 2013 PINTA NY art fair. Recent projects include barriococo at The Royal Society of American Art (Brooklyn, 2014); TEN at Cindy Rucker Gallery (New York, 2014) as one of ten curators; and Bigger Than Shadows, DODGEgallery (New York, 2012) with Rich Blint.

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