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In honour of the influential artist Mickalene Thomas, the collectors Bernard Lumpkin and Carmine D. Boccuzzi, Jr, have just endowed a scholarship at the Yale School of Art to provide tuition assistance for an exceptional incoming MFA student each year. As part of the Mickalene Thomas Scholarship, the artist has committed to personally mentoring the recipients throughout their time in the two-year programme.

“As long as I am healthy and able to, I will be an ongoing support for that student, whether they need advice, they need a sounding board, they need critical feedback, they have questions about navigating the market, they need a recommendation, whatever it may be,” says Thomas, who described being moved by this opportunity to build on her legacy at Yale.

The first selected student will begin at Yale this September. “My hope is that it’s the same type of student that I was—someone in financial need who will fully benefit from being supported so that they can focus on being creative, freely and openly,” says Thomas, who in her time at Yale as an MFA student from 2000 to 2002 received some financial aid but also had a variety of jobs from teacher’s assistant to restaurant worker. “For me, it carried a huge burden having to worry about how my tuition was going to be paid.”

Lumpkin and Boccuzzi, who met as undergraduates as Yale, are longtime supporters of the school and of Thomas. One of her distinctive mixed-media rhinestone paintings celebrating Black women, first shown in her MFA thesis show, now holds pride of place in their collection, which focuses on artists of African descent. A selection of their works, touring college and university museums since 2019 in the exhibition Young, Gifted and Black: The Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art, goes on view this autumn at the Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College in Memphis.

“Mickalene’s distinguished herself not only through her work, which is groundbreaking in different media, but also through her advocacy and activism,” says Lumpkin, who felt that Thomas’s track record of mentorship and providing opportunities for other artists was a good fit for the mission of his and Boccuzzi’s philanthropy. “I talk a lot to younger artists and so many of them cite Mickalene as an influence and a role model.”

Mickalene Thomas with her mural depicting Pauli Murray, a champion of civil and women’s rights, in the dining hall of the resident college at Yale named for Murray

Since graduating from Yale, Thomas has served on the faculty there as a visiting artist, an independent study coordinator, leading a seminar class about professional development and most recently as a presidential fellow in 2020 and 2021. In March, a mural she designed of Pauli Murray, a champion of civil and women’s rights, was unveiled in the dining hall of the resident college at Yale named for Murray. And Thomas is co-curating the exhibition Mickalene Thomas / Portrait of an Unlikely Space, opening 8 September at the Yale University Art Gallery, placing early American portraits of Black people in domestic tableaux reminiscent of pre-Emancipation-era rooms, intermingled with works by herself and a group of emerging artists.

Thomas describes Yale as foundational to her development in terms of the network of peers and faculty she met early on. But she says she didn’t always know how to approach artists she looked up to. With her own success, she has made mentorship a large part of her practice. “All the students that I’ve worked with know that I’m accessible to them,” she says. “I make that very clear in my messaging that once our paths cross, I’m an ally and extension for them if they choose to want that.”

Having this scholarship in her name “is really the highest compliment that I’ve received from supporters”. she adds. “It gives me a little more fuel in my fire to continue doing what I’m doing.”

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