Amy Sherald has been very busy for the past two months.
The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery has enjoyed record attendance in the wake of the unveiling of portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, and people want to know more about Sherald, the Baltimore-based painter who painted the portrait of the former first lady.
During a recent on-campus conversation with Phillips Collection Director Dorothy Kosinski at the University of Maryland’s David C. Driskell Center in College Park, Sherald spoke of her doubts, false starts and health challenges
Sherald said did not see a future in the arts as a child, when she thought she would follow her father into dentistry. But the arts grabbed her while in college.
It took a long time for her mother to understand her career choice, she said.
“She was not having it until about two years ago,” the artist told the audience during the March 29 event. “Then she walked into the National Portrait Gallery and said, ‘Oh, you’re kind of a big deal.’”
The Georgia native started out as a pre-med major at Clark Atlanta University, changing her major in her junior year and earning a bachelor’s degree in painting. She became an apprentice to Arturo Lindsay, professor emeritus and former chairman of the art department at Spelman College, and later earned her master’s degree in painting from the Maryland Institute of Art between residencies in Panama and China.
Sherald began to find her approach to painting about six years after graduate school when she started to paint in grayscale, which has become her signature palette for skin tones.
“I was going through a process of finding myself, what my artistic DNA was going to be,” she said. “I looked at what my contemporaries were making and tried to figure out how I could be an original voice in the conversation.”
Against the gray skin tones, Sherald drapes her subjects in bold colors. Her subjects are African Americans just being who they are, sometimes wearing outlandish clothes or accessories, while doing something unexpected.
The painting “Rabbit in the Hat” is of a man in a yellow stripe suit holding a hat with a rabbit in it. It is one of Sherald’s favorite paintings.
“I’m an artist who paints and the colors are there,” Sherald said.
The “realness” that Sherald shows through her portraits is why she felt Mrs. Obama chose her.
“Amy creates compelling stories with her works, depicting everyday African Americans that are somehow transformed through intriguing props and clothing,” Kosinski said. “The figures are, at once, relatable, people we know, but also iconic, even heroic.”
Her ascent to the top very nearly didn’t happen, however. At 39 years old, Sherald was training for a triathlon when she was diagnosed with a failing heart. As she was asymptomatic, Sherald was surprised to learn that her heart was functioning at only 18 percent. A heart transplant was necessary.
The health issues made her fearless about her painting.
“I was already comfortable with risk, so in my mind, I had nothing to lose,” she said.
She came back from the heart transplant, bigger and badder.
Sherald always saw herself as a late bloomer. At 44, she continues to share a positive view of African Americans through her paintings.
“Her stories are sparking conversations about diversity in arts and culture, conversations that are long overdue,” Kosinski said. “Now is the time that museums and other cultural institutions must be the platforms for these important discussions. Amy’s work is catalyzing that conversation.”