When Mickalene Thomas, 42, describes her short film, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, as a "moving portrait of my mother," it's meant both literally and figuratively. The 30-minute feature on Thomas' mother, Sandra Bush, a beautiful statuesque preacher's daughter from Camden, New Jersey, who has appeared in many of Thomas' paintings, is rich in detail, provocative and endearing. It chronicles Bush's life in her own words as she becomes a young mother and wife, a survivor of abuse and addiction, the reigning "mother of the art-world" and ultimately a warrior for her waning health.
"What I love about my mother is that she had a never give up spirit. Even when she was really sick and dying, you can see in the film that she didn't want to die. She had hope and faith that she was going to survive," says Thomas. Sandra Bush passed on November 7, 2012, shortly after Thomas' first solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, where the Happy Birthday film debuted.
"The reason why I say this is a portrait of my mother is because for me it's like looking at a painting — you don't always have all of the answers, instead there's lots of questions. It's very open ended and that's what makes life beautiful and mysterious and exhilarating and exciting and adventurous because it's so tangible and intangible at the same time."
Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman airs on HBO. To learn more about Mickalene Thomas, check out our exclusive interview with her as part of our original series, "The Artist's Way."
(Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO)