A conversation with Mickayel Thurin
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
A conversation with Mickayel Thurin
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
ART SYNC: AN EXCUSE TO PAINT
A conversation with Mickayel Thurin
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain, 2022
Elizabeth Johnson: Did you start painting portraits when you came to PAFA? Or did you enter school already drawing and painting people?
Mickayel Thurin: I've always loved portraiture. I used to draw from family photographs when I was six or seven, and I’d also draw people when someone would take the time to sit for me. Some kids like drawing animals or sunsets, for me it's people and their faces that sparks my interest, closely followed by color and pattern and texture. It has to do with the personality within a face. There’s so much going on with a person, and I understand them better through portraits than through conversation.
EJ: Did Jan Baltzell, Bill Scott, and Michael Gallagher stress the importance of figure drawing? What are the most important things that you took away from your art education?
MT: I selected PAFA-UPENN's dual Certificate/BFA program because student work was obsessed with the figure. My work was more representative then, but as I studied art history, visited studios, took monthly trips to Baltimore, D.C., and New York to go gallery hopping, I became more experimental and abstract. I grew to love Expressionism. Self-taught or folk artists were my favorites. I felt limited at PAFA. I was often chastised for the whimsical nature of my paintings. I was told that I was doing it wrong, and I shouldn’t expect to win any prizes because, although my paintings were interesting, they were too weird, too colorful for the classically accepted "PAFA" figure painting. People thought I was crazy when I switched from painting with oil to acrylics, because they incorporated mixed media more easily. Sometimes teachers ignored me in class, and my self-confidence was affected, triggering unease about being The Other, being black and female. (I was one of maybe four black students.) Thankfully, I connected with some teachers––Jan, Bill, and Michael, among others that tended to be non-representative, non-figurative teachers. They talked to me about the feeling of a painting, balancing the elements of art, about technical options and why a proposed course of action might make a work succeed or fail. They shared their artistic struggles with me. I learned that it was OK to make paintings that were authentic to me. I didn't have to emulate a successful artist and be a subpar carbon copy. They helped me to bond with other artists. That's how I met my husband and fellow painter, Ben Passione.
EJ: In your last Gross McCleaf statement, you describe the social aspect of portraiture as less important than pursuing a great painting. You mention that you are less interested in the sitter’s “perception of your painting,” and that “familiarity and closeness” rather than “an effort at flattery” might capture their “essence or personality.” Did it take long to master how much you need to ignore the sitter and how much you engage them? Is it a matter of balancing your needs and motives with the sitters? Does the charge from the emotional push and pull of working with a sitter inspire you?
MT: Painting works best when it's unconscious. I go into a meditative state and the painting lets me know what it wants to become. I'm there but I’m just the translator, the tool making it happen. I record the inspiration that’s being sent my way. Therefore, any expectations––especially my need to make people happy––create fear and constrict me. When I fear that a painting may not be good or accepted, I hold myself back from taking risks. I end up second-guessing the painting to mediocrity. Life is too short for that. I prefer a sitter with whom I have a secure relationship so that I don't need to worry if their likeness isn't flattering. Often that is my biggest distraction. I’ve gotten more accustomed to painting strangers when I need to, for commissions or for my nonprofit, Seen Heard Connected (SHC). It helps, while painting, to have an authentic conversation so that the ego part of my mind is busy with that while the rest of me is just allowing the painting to happen.
EJ: Do your shapes, volumes, and colors shift because your relationship with the person shifts? Does the fact that Maurice is growing up quickly or that your sitters change their appearances attract you to paint them? What inspires you to ask a person to model?
MT: Yes! I think this is why I prefer to paint from life rather than photographs. I often tell my sitters, “Don't bother to be still.” Life is not still. Life is fleeting and continuously changing. We’re all being born and growing and learning, we’re all forgetting and shifting and dying. When I paint someone's portrait, I get to describe that. I do it with shapes, volume, color, texture, and rhythm: I use whatever medium I feel called to utilize. I like to respond to their presence, energy, their clothes, their face––to how this all feels. It's the best. A friend comes over for a glass of wine, and we end up in the studio because they wore a polka dot shirt and striped socks and it made me feel a certain way.
EJ: Do you approach portraits and self-portraits differently? Do you prefer one or the other? Do you work on paintings after the modeling session ends?
MT: Self-portraits (and I would include those of Ben) are so much easier to paint. Because there’s zero expectation for what the picture “should” look like, it’s a journey of meditation and becoming one with the medium. With the self-portraits, I’m immersed in my own thoughts about the day or in music that I am listening to, which sometimes shows up in the work. The work reflects fabrics or media or the art technique. I think most people think I’m vain because I do so many self-portraits. But it's the opposite of vanity. I’m always around to be painted, and I don't care if the painting comes out unattractive. I don't mind making my face lopsided if the painting calls for it. My feelings won't be hurt. My face is just an object, that’s freedom. And yes, working on paintings after the sitter leaves allows me to resolve them as stand-alone images.
EJ: I notice in all your pieces that the eyes are different. For instance, No Pepperoni, which is a portrait of Maurice, is vivid to me. Do different eyes express our inherent division as personalities?
MT: I paint the eyes as they were in the moment. I don't worry about depicting them as a pair, and my subjects are generally always in motion. Also, most people aren’t symmetrical. One eye is usually higher or lazy or drooping. I tend to exaggerate when I paint, too, which perhaps makes it more obvious. Each eye has its own characteristic that’s wanting to be captured. I’m not one to say "no" to how someone's features want to show up in my paintings.
EJ: I love how Popcorn Man exudes summer air, and how L.R. With Stickers joins many tiny details to feel grounded and solid. In contrast, Tameeka, PEC Shelter Resident, is a more traditionally rendered portrait. Do you remember why her portrait required more realism?
MT: They were different types of paintings. Popcorn Man was of Maurice, and LR With Stickers is a portrait of a friend I’ve painted dozens of times. Tameeka's portrait was the first in a series I did for the nonprofit I started in 2021, Seen Heard Connected, where I do portraits of marginalized members of the Philadelphia community. I interview them at the same time I paint them, and I record everything. I then make time-lapse videos overlaid with the soundbites of them talking about their life and share them on social media. We also give sitter honorariums and donate funds to local organizations such as homeless shelters, organizations against abuse, and mental health agencies. For Tameeka, who was the first SHC sitter, I was anxious about getting the painting and the interview right. Later paintings for SHC have been looser and more experimental. You can see an example of one of the postings here.
EJ: You list Chaïm Soutine, Pierre Bonnard, Alice Neel, Willem de Kooning, Mitzi Melnicoff, Lissy Funk, and Jean-Michel Basquiat as artists you like. The strongest links to me are with Alice Neel’s ability to capture mood, and Lissy Funk’s wild, textile-based shape-making. Do you feel a strong bond to the Fauves? Do you think that contemporary portraiture circumvents, exceeds, or builds on selfies and diaristic posting on social media?
MT: Social media is media: it's a form of expression just like a painting, photography, poetry, or filmmaking. You can do it well, or you can do it poorly. Good contemporary portraiture fills a different space than social media posts. I often use social media for SHC, and I use it to promote my art and to show video clips of my art-making process, which seems to fascinate people more than the paintings themselves. Social media is free, consumable, and touches a much wider audience than a typical month-long gallery exhibit. Soutine, Bonnard, Alice Neel, de Kooning, Melnicoff, Funk, and Basquiat are all artists that I enjoy looking at. They stimulate my brain: they all painted like themselves. I look at a Basquiat and I know it's a Basquiat. Same with Alice Neel, Matisse, and Maurice de Vlaminck. I enjoy Fauvist paintings, Expressionists, Munch, Klimt, and Picasso. I feel a kinship with their boldness and their aesthetic, and gain permission to continue pushing myself. I’ve been purposely studying contemporary black artists because internalized racism is a thing, and I need to balance myself out. I really love Bisa Butler, Amoako Boafo, and Evita Tezeno. My father is Haitian, and I grew up surrounded by a bunch of Haitian art. I feel like I've inherited a love of color, pattern, and rhythm in art.
EJ: Your work is very different from your last show. What changed?
MT: 2020 hit me hard. A lot of anxiety, numbness, lethargy, and too many panic attacks per day. I’d stopped making art, was on and off antidepressants, and was regrouping and figuring out how to be a human being instead of a shadow of whatever persona I had built for myself, which wasn't real. After much therapy, meditation, the learning and application of coping skills, boundaries, and self-care practice, the need to create thankfully returned. And I didn't want to filter myself or my art anymore. I didn’t want to worry what my audience thought of me. I’d spent most of my life prioritizing external measures of my self-worth, and I decided enough was enough. I can define my own value and I can live my life the way I want. These newer works are an homage to 2020-2022, my mental health journey, and exploring where my consciousness fits into the universe. The work plays within trauma, social injustice, spirituality, mindfulness, and self-love. I'm proud of this work because it depicts me at my most vulnerable and that's terrifying but also freeing.
EJ: What do you think of Joan Semmel’s self-portraits that are up now at PAFA? Do you relate to her take on feminism and objectification? Do you and your peers explore her concerns while painting figures? Or do you have altogether different reasons for painting people?
MT: I haven't seen Semmel's show in person and I don't think it's fair to judge paintings from photos. My relationship with PAFA is complicated. I’m grateful for what it gave me––most of all the pleasure of knowing some amazing artists. My life would be different if I hadn’t attended. For one, my son would not exist. However, when I visit, and perhaps this is related to the Covid quarantine, I get anxiety attacks and feel overwhelmed, so I haven't visited recently. PAFA is making a big deal about hosting a feminist artist now that it’s trendy. But I guess better late than never? Also, I know art museums aren’t above societal issues and I probably shouldn't be so hard on my alma mater. Then again, maybe society should listen to the opinions of Black women more often, and I shouldn’t filter myself. I hope PAFA continues to show more non-cis-white-male artists. I would love to see the wonderful diversity of Philadelphia truly represented!
MT: Regarding objectification, our bodies are amazing machines, and we should appreciate what they do with no instruction from us. For each of us to have unique personalities shaped by our individual experiences is icing on the cake. Unfortunately, we are taught to objectify one another sexually, based on our looks, which is completely irrelevant, but I imagine it is because of the need to procreate, to ensure a next generation. I wish that urge also applied to improving education or fighting global warming: imagine if we were as inspired to be environmentally conscious as we are to be sexy. As for objectifying people by distilling them as subject matter for paintings in a non-sexual way . . . well, I think I do that. At the end of the day, portraits are for me just an excuse to paint.
edited by Matthew Crain