Amy Sherald is well known today as the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait in 2018 for the National Portrait Gallery. Her oil portraits of Black Americans, observed on the streets of Baltimore from 2001 to 2018, can now be found in museums, galleries, and private collections internationally. Her stated purpose for her work is “to create playful yet sober portraits of Black Americans within an imaginative history where I do black my way, in the European tradition of painted portraiture.” Her paintings have a similar format that includes a single female or male figure in three-quarter view. Figures generally stand calmly facing the viewer, their eyes making contact. Each figure is painted wearing brightly colored clothing and placed in front of an empty background painted a mottled solid color. There is a touch of humor and fantasy, as Sherald presents the figures “to create work that would encourage people to see themselves outside of their everyday environment and life style.” Visually her work sends a message, but her titles, which are narratives, add a significant message that sets up a dialogue between the figure and the viewer.
Sherald was born and grew up in Columbus, Georgia. Her father was a dentist, which placed her family in the middle class. She attended a private school where she was one of 20 African Americans in a class of 400. She first visited an art museum in the sixth grade, but she already liked her art class and stated, “Art class was my safe haven.” She was an introvert, and she liked making art because she could do it alone. ”Because of how I grew up, feeling always watched because I was the only person in class of color, I remember feeling self-conscious about it. Whether or not people recognize you’re different, some people make you feel different.”
She attended Clark Atlanta University with major in pre-med, but in her junior year changed her major to art and received a BA in 1997. After graduation she was in an International Artist in Residence program at Spellman College that took her to Panama, and Lima, Peru. To complete her art education she came to Baltimore, Maryland, and received her MFA in 2004 from Maryland Institute College of Art. She taught for a time at the Baltimore City Detention Center, and she worked in museums in Panama, Norway, Beijing, and Central and South America. To support her career she worked as a waitress: “I did a job that I didn’t want to do, so I could do a job that I wanted to do.”
Sherald’s work often reflects images from her early life. “They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake” (2009) (54’’ x 43’’) (NMWA), is an example. The term Redbone refers to light skinned blacks, a name she was called by her high school basketball coach. “He was the only black teacher in the school, and I was one of 20 or so black students out of 400…so it was a term of endearment but also a secret way to recognize an unspoken cultural and racial camaraderie. Conversely, I could be called “Red” by someone of my own ethnic group who was trying to marginalize me based on my fair complexion within the plantation mentality, which still exists. So basically, this painting is an image of a girl who wants to escape being “othered” by two sides, black and white.”
In a bright yellow pinafore with strawberries on the top, the female figure stands out against a simple red background. The figure is a teenager, not a child, and is wearing lipstick. However, Strawberry Shortcake is a child’s toy and the pinafore looks like a child’s dress. The subject looks directly at the viewer, a gently questioning expression on her face. She is neither happy nor sad, neither positive nor negative. Sherald’s painting presents several human issues about growing up, about what is appropriate for what age, and about what race owns what values.
When Sherald first came from Georgia to Baltimore in 2001, she was shocked by the amount of poverty she witnessed. She began to attend town hall meetings and became an activist for social causes. She talks of creating work to encourage people to see themselves outside their expected everyday environment. The titles of her work, even without seeing the paintings speak for themselves. Some examples: “The Fairest of the Not so Fair” (2008), “Well Prepared and Maladjusted” (2009), “It Made Sense, Mostly in Her Mind” (2011), “Freeing Herself Was One Things, Taking Ownership of that Freed Self Was Another,” (2015), and “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be” (2018).
Looking at W.E.B. Du Bois’s black and white photographs of black people taken at the 1900 Paris Exposition, Sherald commented, “…I realized that I was setting these people up and recreating that same kind of quietness and dignity that I saw in these photographs that Black families were having taken of them. I just recognized my work inside of these photographs and started to go further.” “Equilibrium” (2012) (100” x 67”)(oil), was Sherald’s first painting to portray a gray face “to exclude the idea of color as race from my paintings… These paintings originated as a creation of a fairytale, illustrating an alternative existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history.”
Equilibrium is defined as a state of opposing forces or influences in balance, a state of physical balance, or a calm state of mind. “Equilibrium” is a study of opposing forces brought into balance. The choice of a red and orange background is symbolic of blood, heat, fire, or passions ranging from hate to love. Sherald’s strong young woman wears a white tee shirt and long off-white skirt with a patchwork center. Like a gymnast or a tightrope walker, she is standing on a narrow black beam, gripping with her left hand another black beam resting on her shoulders, and with her right hand holding a pink heart shaped watch on a chain while supporting the beam. The precarious position of the figure and the social, racial, personal and human forces with which she has to contend need to be kept in balance, and they are. The figure has triumphed and equilibrium has been achieved. Sherald comments, “Embracing an in-between state is an ideal situation in which we open our hearts and our minds and walk the line in search of equilibrium.”
A large mural of “Equilibrium” was installed on August 21, 2018 on the wall of the Parkway Theater on North Avenue in Baltimore. “I am excited to unveil this mural of “Equilibrium” in Baltimore, in a community so foundational to my portraits of Black Americans. To situate this piece along North Avenue, the electric nerve of our city, blocks away from my studio, is to return my artwork to the central muse of my creative practice for over a decade. My paintings celebrate the stories of light and love contained within the magical presences of the people who walk this stretch each day…I am grateful for the opportunity to bring it back to Baltimore, to the very place where this project began.” Sherald’s original painting is part of the permanent collection of the Embassy of the United States in Dakar, Senegal.
Sherald won the National Portrait Gallery’s 2016, Outwin Boochever prize for her oil painting “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) (2014) (54” x43’’). A product of the South and a child of some privilege, Sherald knew the etiquette expected of Miss Everything. She wears a stylish black and white dress, one side solid black and the other black and white polka dots, and she stands properly poised wearing proper white gloves. In her hands is an exaggerated, but properly held, outsized white tea cup. On her head is a red hat with a very large red flower. Her eyes engage the viewer and she quietly stands awaiting recognition. Helen Moleworth, one of the jurors and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles remarked, “It’s a very realistic painting in one way, yet the details are all quite surreal. And the figure is very self-possessed and confident. A kind of, I will stand here and wait until the world catches up.” This painting was chosen from among 2500 entries, and Sherald was the first African American and first woman to win the prize. This painting brought Sherald the hard won recognition she had been working for. It brought her to the attention of museums, galleries, and prospective clients. It also brought her to the attention of Michelle Obama.
Sherald’s working method is to select people from her everyday life and invite them to her studio. They sit and talk; and as a level of comfort and ease is achieved she begins taking photographs. For the portrait of Michelle Obama there were two sittings: “I’m setting myself up for criticism, right? I feel like I captured her. When I look at it, I see her; I see the Michelle that was present at the sittings, you know, a contemplative, graceful woman who understands her place in history.” At the presentation of the portraits to the National Portrait Gallery, President Obama remarked to Sherald, “I want to thank you for so spectacularly capturing the grace and beauty and intelligence and charm and hotness of the woman that I love.”
Before 2016, Sherald’s life had not been an easy one. In Baltimore, training for a triathlon in 2003 she went to a doctor for a checkup, only to find she had congestive heart failure. She was 30, but her heart was that of an eighty year old woman, and it was working only at 5%. Soon after, Sherald temporarily returned to Georgia to take care of her mother, her two aunts, and her brother. Caregiving prevented her painting but on her return to Baltimore, despite her continuing poor health, she again picked up her paint brushes, and she also returned to her job as a waitress. On October 12, 2012, she passed out in front of a Rite Aid pharmacy and was taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital. Two months later, on December 2012, she received a heart transplant. The heart had come from a victim of an opioid overdose. Sherald was unable to paint for over a year while going through recovery and managing numerous issues. “Equilibrium” (2012) serves as a reminder to us of the number of issues humans balance in a lifetime. The 2016 award and the commission for Michelle Obama’s portrait, allowed her to stop waitressing, to pay off her school loans, and to afford her medication of 13 daily pills.
Sherald had her first solo exhibition in 2018 at the Contemporary Art Museum, St Louis. She has moved recently from Baltimore to Jersey City, New Jersey. She now works from her studio in a former tobacco factory. Her recent project was “Untitled” (Mural Project, on Target at 1108 Sansom St in center city Philadelphia) (2019) (2400 sq ft). In conjunction with Mural Arts Philadelphia, Sherald developed the theme for the mural: “Who is allowed to be comfortable in public spaces? Who is represented in art? How can one woman’s portrait begin to shift that experience for others?” For the subject in the mural, Sherald was drawn to Najee Spencer-Young, a student participating in the Mural Arts education program. She met Spencer-Young who participated in a tour of Sherald’s studio: “She had a special energy. I really liked her face. I met her, and probably within 15 minutes, I knew that I wanted to paint her. I think it’s important that, you know, girls like Najee get to see themselves beautiful and empowered. You know, she’s the reflection of so many girls that look like her in the community.”
Spencer-Young was nineteen, had been bullied, and suffered from low self-esteem. “Untitled” depicts Najee wearing a striking black and white patterned coat with gold buttons, and a gold hat sitting jauntily on her head. With her right hand in her pocket and a light swing to her pose, she appears composed, confident, and at ease. Najee said, “When I first saw this mural, I started crying. I ran to Miss Amy and hugged her. I was like, ‘It’s really me. I know I look beautiful.’” Sherald’s intended result was fulfilled: “My hope is that this mural inspires girls like Najee, and everyone who doesn’t get to see themselves represented in this way: Beautiful, empowered, and to realize that the most powerful thing that she can be is herself.”
Vanity Fair magazine engaged Sherald to paint a portrait of Breonna Taylor for the cover of the September 2020 issue. Unable to meet and photograph her subject, Sherald paid great attention to information about her. She learned from her family and friends about Breonna’s, who was said to be “self-possessed, brave, loving and loved.” The portrait included her favorite hairstyle and a dress made specifically for the portrait by Atlanta designer Jasmine Elder. According to her website was “dedicated to creating garments for the fashion conscious, savey, plus size woman.” The dress is the color of aquamarine, Breonna Taylor’s birthstone. In addition, she is wearing the engagement ring that her boyfriend had planned to give to her. Sherald describes the portrait: “She sees you seeing her. The hand on the hip is not passive, her gaze is not passive. She looks strong! I wanted this image to stand as a piece of inspiration to keep fighting for justice for her. When I look at the dress, it kind of reminds me of Lady Justice. I made this portrait for her family… Producing this image keeps Breonna alive forever.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.