Amy Sherald—whose portrait of Michelle Obama recently took the world by storm—persevered through an incredible set of obstacles to become the brilliant artist that she is today.
When writing about artist Amy Sherald, it’s tempting to start with a story—the story. The one that, narratively, is an ideal way to launch into an article or essay. It provides a hook, a dramatic doorway into a discussion of her life—
But the story, while an incredible one, does not fully define her. And the notion of identity has been at the fore of Sherald’s life and work since the beginning.
Growing up the daughter of a dentist in a middle-class family in Columbus, GA, Sherald has said that she was always expected to behave in a certain manner, dress a certain way—especially when she was in white company. And she was in white company often: Sherald attended a private school with only a few black classmates, and she has said that she didn’t have black friends until high school. As Dr. Arturo Lindsay wonders in the 2011 catalogue to the show The Magical Real-ism of Amy Sherald, “If she had to ‘act’ appropriately among blacks and ‘perform’ at an even higher level for whites, then who was Amy Sherald—really?”
It’s a question Sherald would go on to explore in her early work. But first she had to discover her talent in an absence of art. As a kid, landscapes from furniture stores hung above her family’s fireplace. Her father told her that the “Civil Rights Movement was not about you being an artist”—no doubt jarring words for the young girl with a predilection for drawing people who caught her eye in magazines, a seedling of her future process as a portrait artist.
Still, her parents paid for art classes. And on a sixth grade field trip, she had a bit of a catharsis when viewing the large-scale contemporary piece “Object Permanence” by Bo Bartlett—and not just because it was the first painting she had ever seen in real life. It depicted a black man standing in front of a house.
“Seeing that painting of a man that looked like he could be my father stopped me dead in my tracks,” she has written. “This was my first time seeing real paintings that weren’t in a book and also weren’t painted in another century. I didn’t realize that none of them had me in them until I saw that painting of Bo’s. I knew I wanted to be an artist already, but seeing that painting made me realize that I could.”
First there was a minor detour: At Clark-Atlanta University, she pursued a pre-med degree, likely to the approving nods of her family. But after an artist reminded her in her junior year that not using her talent would likely result in her losing it, she switched majors to her passion.
A deep dive into her craft followed. She traveled twice to Portobelo, Panama, on an international art program. She moved to Baltimore and pursued her MFA at MICA, where she decided to focus exclusively on people of color. She painted. And her signature style began to take root: She depicts her subjects’ skin in a grey that results from the marriage of black and Naples yellow, which she first tried after a friend suggested it as a step in an easier way to paint flesh. But Sherald liked the way it came out, so she stopped at that stage of the skin tone development and framed her subject against vibrant hues. As gallerist Hauser & Wirth writes, “The skin is rendered in grayscale, which refers to not only black-and-white photography—Sherald paints from photographs—but also the artist’s intention to ‘remove color from race,’ shifting the conversation toward the humanity and individuality of each figure.”
But then her career momentum ground to a halt. And the reason is the hook of many pieces about Sherald, which begin by documenting her health, and that of her family members. Throughout her life, Sherald had always maintained a recurring dream about running a race, and then collapsing at the end. As she was graduating from MICA, she was training for a triathlon. Before the race, she happened to go to a doctor—and discovered that despite not showing any symptoms, her heart was operating at a mere 18 percent, and her dream was likely to come true should she participate in the race. Not long after, she had to go home to Georgia to take care of sick family members—and she didn’t paint for a handful of years, which she describes in this episode of Design Matters. She eventually found her way back to her craft, completing studio and teaching residencies in Beijing and Aruba—but life intervened again in 2012. This time, she was in a drug store, and felt a flurry in her chest. She collapsed and woke in a pool of blood, and was taken to the hospital where, two months later, she received a complete heart transplant. Another year would pass before she could return to the canvas—but she returned. When someone is born to do something, they do it.
She won grants. She was a semifinalist for the Sondheim Artscape Prize. And then a rather amazing thing happened: In 2016, she won the National Portrait Gallery Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for her work Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)—becoming the first woman to do so, and finally winning her mother’s endorsement of her career in the process. At the time, the Smithsonian noted, “Miss Everything is emblematic of the show as well in its depiction of diversity. Unlike, say, the nearby exhibition of presidential portraits …”
Prescient words. Because the following year, something else happened: The Smithsonian announced that Michelle Obama had selected Sherald to paint her official portrait, alongside Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Obama commission—making them the first black artists to create a set of official presidential portraits. The paintings were released in early 2018, with Sherald capturing Michelle using her signature gray skin tones, and an all-encompassing geometric Milly dress.
Together, the paintings represent brilliant departures from first family portraits of past—and rightfully so. As Sherald has said, nothing about the Obamas was ordinary. Everything was historic, everything was extraordinary: The first black president and first lady. Their presence exuded optimism. Possibility. A new future. Sherald and Wiley’s portraits were the only way the Obamas could have been rendered in an honest way that reflects their electric moment in time for posterity.
Not long after the unveiling of the portraits, Sherald received the High Museum of Art’s prestigious David C. Driskell Prize. And while some articles lead with the illness hook, others go for the narrative of Sherald as overnight sensation, breakout hit—which again, is to overlook the point (not to mention her decades spent waiting tables, only to be free to paint).
These days she generates around 10 to 12 portraits a year, and currently has a deep waitlist for her work. After years of an identity explored, it seems she has found herself. One wonders if with every fresh painting, every subject she so completely and captivatingly documents—if she discovers herself anew, again and again and again.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief