Mickayel Thurin Fosters Compassion With Emotionally Charged Portraits [Interview]
“When you have a panic attack, you feel like you’re dying,” says portrait artist Mickayel Thurin in a recent short documentary on her life and family.
Posing as her own model for “The Panic Attack,” Mickayel interprets anxiety as a bruise upon the body, rendered in sickly yellow and anemic lavender. “I was having a lot of panic attacks, [during the pandemic], up to five a day,” she says, explaining the concept behind her unsettling work. “I would always end up in a fetal position.”
Vibrant, opulent, and even impish on first impression, Mickayel’s mixed-media paintings reveal their melancholic dread little by little, tears hidden beneath a dizzying pastiche of yarn, sequins, shag carpet, plastic beads, and colorful acrylic paint. “I am a very visual person,” Mickayel tells NOT REAL ART. “I also have ADHD. I need for things to be visible, otherwise my brain tends to forget they exist. I also tend to work on many projects at once. I have lots of inspiration pinned to walls and taped to surfaces [of my studio].” On days when Mickayel needs some “me time,” she indulges the mess, purging her anxiety with hasty squiggles of paint and Harlequin costume colors. “I tend to paint when I am emotionally charged,” she says, adding that she sometimes stops by her studio just to admire the sheer glut of material she’s amassed over the years.
Surrounded by dogeared books and project drafts, Mickayel slowly gained control over her panic attacks as the pandemic progressed. “I made the decision that if I was going to continue on with life, it needed to be different,” Mickayel says. “I also needed to be different. Better and more compassionate. Maybe if I could be better, then the world would be that much better for my change. And maybe my change and my light could inspire others to be better.” This shift in perspective led Mickayel to establish Seen Heard Connected, a nonprofit that aspires to make the world a kinder place through visual storytelling. The organization paints portraits of marginalized people suffering from homelessness, incarceration, and mental health issues, recording the individual’s story in their own words during the process. After painting her sitter, Mickayel layers the audio over time-lapse footage of the portrait session, producing two-minute documentaries on each person the nonprofit works with. “We share the videos on social media,” she says, adding that donations from viewers go toward organizations that support marginalized populations with funds and resources.
Mickayel’s goal is to foster self-acceptance and compassion in her audience, traits she nurtures in herself through therapy, meditation, self-care, and painting. “Painting someone is a pretty intimate activity,” says Mickayel, who likes to have “real talk” with her sitters as she blocks in their features. “You get permission to stare at this individual for hours and capture their energy, appearance, and if you are doing a good job, some of what makes them them.” She adds, “That can be very vulnerable.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Mickayel Thurin discusses her intuitive approach to color, the ups and downs of belonging to a creative family, and her biggest takeaway from founding a nonprofit organization.
How do you start a portrait?
Mickayel Thurin: I usually make a decision of what kind of composition I am going for, where I want the subject to appear in the bounds of the canvas. I then tend to use red to block in where the ears, eye sockets, mouth, and nose go. It's usually done very messily. Then I draw a little with different colors and blobs to decide where everything goes. I add a bit here, destroy something there, letting my intuition guide me. Constantly making hundreds of little decisions as I go.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
MT: My work speaks about self care, trauma, consciousness awakening, and room for improvement within society. Life has been difficult at times. And when I started to question what was the point of the experience, I began to adopt a new mindset about it all. I have been using the last few years to work on myself and live life more authentically with the understanding that I have the ability to influence my reality and manifest my energetic vibrations (thoughts, actions, being) into my reality.
Much of my work is borne of introspection, subject matter from my therapy sessions and thoughts from when I meditate. It all tells a story about the importance of learning to hear and be guided by your intuition, the importance of living in a vibration of love, joy and authenticity. Knowing how to feel your feelings, use them for guidance and allow them to pass on. Trying to be a voice for compassion and understanding and ultimately a space for me to process my experiences and reset my baseline.
Is your approach to color more intuitive or analytical?
MT: My approach to color is intuitive. I spend a lot of time looking and observing life, then I follow my gut and do what feels right. Now, I also went to art school and I’ve been painting for a long time. So I understand color theory. I understand the science behind why certain color combinations work, or can make your eyes dance. But color is primarily something I feel for and react to rather than something I think analytically about.
Do you keep a sketchbook?
MT: I have a meditation/dream journal that I sometimes pull ideas from. I also keep a virtual sketchbook in my phone (Samsung notes). My phone has a stylus and sometimes instead of playing games on my phone, I’ll choose to sketch something. Or sometimes I’ll get an idea for a painting when I am out and about and the virtual sketchbook is nice to use then.
What’s been your biggest takeaway from painting the folks of Seen Heard Connected?
MT: My biggest takeaway since founding SHC is that most people mean well. Many of us project our insecurities onto others. All of us are worth getting to know. I’ve learned that we are all capable of making mistakes and self-improvement. That childhood trauma impacts who we become later in life, and that it's not our fault we have trauma, but it is our fault if we choose to do nothing about it. And that our actions impact other people. We may live our lives siloed in our little bubbles, but our bubbles are always crashing into other people’s, sending ripples across society. We need to realize our thoughts, actions, and ways of being have an impact on the entire world. And I am not saying that we all need to tell each other what to do. Rather, we all need to look inwards, hold ourselves accountable, and be a better version of ourselves. That requires learning who you really are, and learning to show love and acceptance to that truth.
If you could ask one of your painting idols (Soutine, Bonnard, Alice Neel, Willem de Kooning, Mitzi Melnicoff, Lissy Funk, Jean-Michel Basquiat) one question, what would it be?
MT: I’d ask to watch them make a painting/artwork. I would want to observe how they went about it and watch it unfold. Watching someone paint is one of my favorite activities that I do not do enough. You see how their ideas differ from yours or how they are the same. You get a hint of understanding on how they think and how they see the world. It can be quite exhilarating!
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
MT: Philadelphia has provided me with a very strong art community. There are lots of resources and opportunities for artists in this city. It's also close to other art hubs like New York or DC. There is also a variety of cultures and inspiration to observe. It's very diverse. It's given me my husband and family, my home and studio. Not only am I in love with him, but I wouldn’t still make art if I didn’t have my husband. He is also an artist, and takes charge of keeping my studio stocked with supports, medium, paint. He frames my work and reminds me of deadlines for my exhibitions (as I said I have ADHD and the time blindness is real). We are a team and he definitely makes it easier for me to continue making art.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
MT: I have learned in the last three years the importance of showing yourself love. This was not something I used to do. I used to do for others as my top priority, so much so that I was often working from an energetic deficit. Often resentful, empty feeling, and depressed. I never used to put energy back into my own cup. But with the help of therapy, self-reflection, self-improvement books, shadow work, meditation, and contemplation, I am doing better. I love me. I love everyone else too! I set boundaries. I visualize what I want and act accordingly until I reach my goals. If I make a mistake, I acknowledge it and take steps to improve. I don’t wallow in shame or any low vibrational feelings, but I do use them as guidance to whether I am living in alignment with my best authentic life or not. I choose to feel gratitude, love, and joy unconditionally no matter what my environment looks like or what society is getting up to. I’ve leaned into being awake at the helm and since I’ve been on this journey, things have really been on the up and up. I have an excitement for life that I haven’t felt since I was a little kid.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist(s).
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