Like Mother, Like Son

Deborah Willis and son Hank Willis Thomas joined forces on "Progeny," on display at the GMU Fairfax Campus Until Feb. 29

By: Sophie Gilbert

Photograph of “Sometimes I See Myself in You” by Deborah Willis courtesy of the Philips Collection.

When Deborah Willis was asked to consider working on an exhibit with her son, photographer Hank Willis Thomas, the theme of parenthood seemed like a natural fit. Willis—chair of the Photography and Imaging department at NYU and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant—knew early on that her son had an affinity for photography. “Whenever we would visit my mother, he’d rearrange all the pictures in the family album,” she says. “He had this gift in terms of images and storytelling.”

“Progeny,” at the Fine Art Gallery in the Art & Design Building on George Mason University's Fairfax Campus—the pair’s first show together—explores motherhood, memory, and family traits through photographs of the artists as well as their portraits of others. Without planning it, many of Willis’s and Thomas’s ideas corresponded. “I was interviewing pregnant women and asking them words they lived by, and he was asking people in a video installation about their birth,” Willis says. “I was looking at female bodybuilders, and he was looking at sportsmen, thinking about iconic images of male bodies.”

Willis lived in Washington for ten years while working at the Smithsonian and pursuing her doctorate in cultural studies at George Mason. During that time, her son—whose show “Strange Fruit” was at the Corcoran until earlier this year—attended DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, where he focused on photography and museum studies. “He was living my dream—there weren’t the same opportunities in the ’60s,” Willis says. “What I learned at George Mason was how to have a different conversation about art.”

“Progeny” runs February 1 through 29. Learn more at GMU's website.

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.