Amy Sherald took the world by surprise during the unveiling of her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. An obscure artist with relative success was now at the forefront of discussions on contemporary American Art. Sherald’s work continues to challenge and push boundaries when it comes to race in art.
About Amy Sherald: A Biography
Amy Sherald was born on August 30, 1973, in Columbus, Georgia. Her parents, Amos P. Sherald III and Geraldine W. Sherald encouraged her to pursue medicine as a career rather than art. As a child, she continually drew and painted, using encyclopedias to view art. Her first introduction to art as a career was a result of her first visit to a museum. She discusses this experience, saying, “Art is the thing that I knew I had to do with my life. The first time I went to a museum on a school field trip, I saw a painting of a Black person. I remember standing there with my mouth open and just looking at it. I knew in that moment that I could do what I wanted to do.” She states that her mother’s disapproval of her early pursuits as an artist fueled her motivation of becoming an artist.
At age 30, Sherald was unexpectedly diagnosed with congestive heart failure in the form of cardiomyopathy, a life-threatening illness. This, along with other family matters, directly affected her artistic productivity. Though she continued to create, her focus shifted, and her overall production significantly decreased. In 2012, she received a heart transplant at age 39. Her new lease on life allowed her to re-evaluate her subject matter and return to making art. Since then, she has gone from being an obscure artist known by art world insiders to being an internationally recognized artist. Sherald lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. Her newfound success has affected her artistic process. Before her success, she stated she was able to work on one piece at a time, devoting the entirety of her focus to one piece. Nowadays, she works on multiple paintings at a time, currently painting roughly 15 works per year.
Education, Training, And Early Career
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Amy Sherald holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in painting from Clark Atlanta University, which she obtained in 1997. Before pursuing her MFA, she apprenticed with art historian Arturo Lindsay, a professor at Spelman College. During and in between her pursuits of higher education, Sherald participated in multiple residencies. In 1997, she participated in Spelman College’s International Artist-in-Residence program in Portobelo, Panama. In-between her bachelor’s and graduate education, she waited tables, painting the occasional self-portrait. Eventually, she chose to attend graduate school to master her craft and continue making art. In 2004, she received her Master of Fine Arts in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art. During her time at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she studied with Grace Hartigan, an abstract expressionist painter.
After earning her MFA, she studied with Swedish-Norwegian painter Odd Nerdrum in Larvik, Norway, and later studied in China. In addition to her artistic training, she worked as a museum curator and exhibition organizer in South America. She continued to struggle with her health problems, family matters, and finding the right subject matter within her work. Finally, her subject matter shifted from self-portraiture to portraiture of Black people. This shift brought forth change not only in her body of work but her overall success as a painter.
The Portrait That Changed It All
In 2016, Amy Sherald entered the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition is an exclusive portrait competition hosted by the National Portrait Gallery every three years. The goal of this competition is to “reflect the compelling and diverse approaches contemporary artists are using to tell the American story through portraiture.” Sherald’s painting, Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance), won first place. In addition to the title, she received a spot for her painting in the museum, national attention, and $25,000. Even more significantly: Sherald was the first woman to ever win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Sherald recalls laughing to herself, remembering how she complained about the fifty-dollar application fee, along with the costs to attend the reception for the Outwin. Little did she know, this was just the beginning of a new lifetime of success.
The Michelle Obama Portrait
The newfound recognition of Amy Sherald took an exciting turn in 2017. Amy Sherald was hand-selected by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her official portrait. The portrait is over six feet tall and five feet wide, commanding an impactful presence. However, there was a slew of mixed feelings that revolved around this painting. While many adored the painting, a significant amount of viewers criticized the work for not looking enough like Michelle Obama. Many felt that the portrait lacked her spirit, appearance, and general characteristics. Others argued that it did resemble Mrs. Obama, discussing her poise, dignity, softness, and humanity. These opposing opinions brought forth multiple interesting questions. In the age of photography, how much does a portrait need to truly resemble its sitter? What is the aim of creating a portrait in the twenty-first century? Should portraiture have room to involve artistic liberty?
Portraiture is scrutinized because of all the elements artists must consider. These elements include the likeness of the sitter, the personality of the sitter, the underlying meaning behind the portrait, and the biography of the sitter. When discussing Michelle Obama’s portrait, many additional factors come into play. Portraits in the age of photography have more freedom in depicting the sitter, but less forgiveness in the execution. Sherald’s portrait depicts a different Mrs. Obama than most tend to see through the social media lens, which addresses her multifaceted identity. Sherald’s work confronts the history of depicting race in art, as well as highlighting the struggles of being Black in America. In her painting of Michelle Obama, she subtly includes these topics. This, along with Sherald’s employment of her techniques, created a portrait that caused varied reactions. Discussing race is uncomfortable; to have a painting of a significant American figure forces the discussion.
Artistic Influences And Inspiration
Before depicting Black bodies, Sherald focused on self-portraiture. Her inspiration primarily came from viewing the work of Kara Walker at her retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 2008. Walker is a Black artist whose work revolves around racism, the antebellum south, slavery, and more. Walker’s work utilizes the silhouette to tell a story, which Sherald’s work reflects. Sherald, who uses grisaille to depict darker skin tones, mimics shadows rather than natural skin tones. Her work has also been likened to that of Kerry James Marshall, another Black painter who exaggerates the color of his subjects, making them as Black as possible. While Marshall and Walker both utilize Black to emphasize race, Amy Sherald’s goal is to do the opposite. By employing grisaille, she seeks to de-emphasize race, making the main focus the personhood of the sitter, and the archetypes of Black personhood.
Photography significantly influenced Amy Sherald’s work. As a child, she recalls looking through old family photos, seeing a realm beyond the traditional art canon of white sitters. In her current practice, she takes photos of the sitters she has personally selected. Sherald claims her greatest source of inspiration because of the narratives it facilitates. She states, “I [am] captivated by its capacity to narrate a truer history that counters a salient dominant historical narrative. It was the first medium I saw that made what was absent, visible. It gave people who once had no control over the proliferation of their own image the ability to become authors of their narratives.” Photography allows her to have a certain amount of control when creating her compositions. She is able to manipulate the space of her sitters, but she is also provided with an unchanging reference.
On Race: The History Of The Black Body In Paintings
The contemporary art world has been buzzing with discussions involving race in art. These discussions include representations of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in artworks and the racial diversity (or lack thereof) in museums (both in artworks and in museum professions). Like many of her fellow African American contemporaries, Sherald’s goal is to include the stories of those who were often ignored when writing history. Through her subjects, she “apostrophize[s] America’s original sin and permanent crisis: the otherizing of the not white, regardless of gradations. The standardized hues put race both to the fore and to the side of what’s going on—an address to Western pictorial precedence, freezing a debate in the present to thaw a conversation with the past and future,” as said by Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker. Her work challenges the traditional view of American Realism by depicting those who art history forgot.
Amy Sherald’s work carves a new path for American Realism as an artistic movement. The insertion of African American and Black subjects, as well as women, creates a new narrative within the realm of American Realism. The long-accepted, primarily white male portrayal as it relates to American art directly confronts viewers. Strangely enough, the de-emphasis of race in her art highlights the problematic parts of the art world as a whole. Sherald’s art demands the inclusion that was so often overlooked.
The Success And Legacy of Amy Sherald
Amy Sherald’s name and work are now easily recognizable, both to members of the art world and the general public. When visiting schools and teaching art to children, she is treated like a celebrity. She stated, ‘“When I visit schools, I’m not Michael Jordan but little girls and little boys are really excited to see me because they like to draw or paint,” she says. “This idea of being a role model comes into play. Like me at their age, they had never considered it something that they could do or seen a Black artist that did it.”’ Her work is held in public and private collections across the United States, including the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Nasher Museum, and more. Each of her paintings sells for approximately $50,000. She continues to be an inspiration for children across the United States.