Out artist Mickalene Thomas has often used her mother, Sandra Bush, as her artistic muse. Having achieved success as a runway model, Bush aspired to become the first African-American supermodel. One day, while Bush was sitting in her agent’s office, her agent received a phone call from a photographer. He told the agent that he was bringing a model from Africa back to the States. Her name was Iman. Demand for black models was very limited in the 1970s, so the rise of Iman effectively ended Bush’s road to stardom as a supermodel. But later Mama Bush achieved celebrity status as a model and muse for Thomas’ renowned paintings.
Sandra, as photographed by Mickalene
In her directorial debut, Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, airing tonight on HBO, Thomas paints a raw yet tender portrait of her mother, chronicling her achievements as a model and philanthropist as well as her struggles, which include an abusive marriage, drug addiction and chronic illness.
Her first marriage in Camden, New Jersey to her high school sweetheart was turbulent and physically abusive, and she escaped the marriage, along with Thomas and her brother, to New York City. After embarking on a career as a runway model, she hosted parties, fashion shows and theater productions to raise money and awareness for sickle cell anemia. When Thomas was eight, she entered into another ill-fated relationship with a drug dealer and fell into the spiral of drug addiction. After entering rehab, Bush became a practicing Buddhist, but then health issues began to wear her down towards the end of her life.
While Bush’s goal of becoming a supermodel may have been thwarted by outside circumstances as well as poor decisions, she acquires lasting fame as the muse and model for her talented daughter’s paintings. Thomas’ work has been exhibited all over the world, and can be found in collections in esteemed institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Brooklyn Museum of Modern Art. At the end of the film, Mama Bush tells Thomas the following: “My daughter, you have made me the model of the art world.”
Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman debuts February 24 at 9:00-9:30 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, with other playdates throughout the end of February and March.