THERE IS AN ELEMENT OF FANTASY in Amy Sherald’s portraits. The Baltimore-based artist usually paints people she spots around the city—men, women, and youth who have a certain something that captures her attention and piques her curiosity. She’s depicted a woman with a baby on her hip, a young man who’s just gone fishing, and a girl with long braids shielding her eyes from the sun.
All of her subjects are African American. Their features and hair make this distinction clear, but she paints them with gray skin tones giving them a sort of other-worldly existence. The choice shifts the focus away from their race toward their humanity and individuality, which she further defines through their clothing and accessories. Her imaginative paintings are infused with intense color and often punctuated with quirky objects, a balloon bouquet, an oversized teacup, or a rabbit in a hat, for example. She blends the familiar with the fantastical.
Sherald’s portrait of a teenage boy named Randall was featured on the cover of the September 2016 edition of Smithsonian magazine. He is holding a cone topped with two scoops of strawberry ice cream. In real life, he was wearing a red, navy blue, and gray hoodie. For the painting, she modified it, brightening it up with wide yellow and white stripes and she changed the background on his t-shirt from solid to camouflage.
On Oct. 29, Sherald spoke at the National Gallery of Art. She was in conversation with Erin Christovale, who was recently appointed assisstant curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. At the end of the program, the artist took questions from the audience. An older white man raised his hand and described Sherald’s portraits as “idealized” versions of black people. He doubted whether her subjects were authentic, real people one might see in Baltimore.
Leaning forward, he said “I see all your images, all of your paintings are somewhat idealized. I work in Baltimore on the East Campus of Johns Hopkins University and I see a lot of these wonderful characters. It doesn’t matter to me what they do. They are very unusual. Are you thinking of using them as subjects for your paintings?”
Sherald was confused about what he was asking. Who are you talking about? she said, adding that her subjects live in the city, that they are Baltimore residents.
“But I don’t see them in the street,” he said.
“You do see them in the street,” Sherald retorted.
She continued: “You may not recognize them in the clothes I have them in, but these are Baltimore City people. These are some of the kids I work with at Youth Works. These are kids that paint murals in the 21217 Zip code after Freddie Gray died. They are all there. Randall was one of them. But what I am presenting to you is a softer image and what I am presenting for them is a mirror to see themselves in. …These are those kids. You just don’t recognize them.”
“You may not recognize them in the clothes I have them in, but these are Baltimore City people. These are some of the kids I work with at Youth Works. What I am presenting to you is a softer image and what I am presenting for them is a mirror to see themselves in. …These are those kids. You just don’t recognize them.” — Amy Sherald
Applause ensued. The man sat back in his chair.
The exchange was refreshing, not unlike the previous 45 minutes. Sherald was candid and insightful throughout the program. She spoke at length about some of her personal experiences, the foundation of her practice, and her trepidation early on about taking on the black figure because of the kinds of pre-conceptions and ingrained stereotypes evident in the question posed about her choice of subjects.
“My work in grad school was so ambiguous. I had never painted a figure that somebody instantly recognized as black,” she said early in the discussion. “I think I had a fear of being marginalized and I think I was subconsciously trying to find a way around that because I knew that the black body on the canvas is instantly politicized, immediately, and that wasn’t the way I wanted the images or the people to live in the world. They were supposed to be almost the antithesis of that.”
BORN IN COLUMBUS, GA., Sherald, 44, earned a BFA from Clark Atlanta University and completed her MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004.
“We were learning about contemporary artists, but we were learning about artists they wanted us to know about. “They are a lot better about that now. …They are trying to bring in women of color so that there’s different perspectives,” said Sherald, who recently joined MICA’s undergraduate painting faculty as the McMillan/Stewart Endowed Chair.
“…All of my colleagues that are painters, all of my colleagues that are just artists in general who come through a graduate program, we all speak to the same experience of getting crits and people not knowing how to engage us in the work that we are doing and the things we are trying to say. …I graduated from Hoffberger one of the top five painting schools in the country and I did not know who Barkley Hendricks was and I did not know who Kerry James Marshall was.”
Sherald lives and works in Baltimore. Her first solo museum exhibition was in the city, too, at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum in 2013.
“Moving to New York didn’t seem like a logical decision, because I felt like I would have to hustle too hard. Baltimore is still a really easy city to live in because it’s developed with the intention of having artists in the city. I have a 900-square-foot studio space now that’s only $900. I supported myself by waiting tables. I was a waitress until I was 38,” she said.
At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., artist Amy Sherald was in conversation with Hammer Museum Curator Erin Christovale (left) on Oct. 29, 2017. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
NOT TOO LONG AGO, Sherald was a largely unknown painter. That’s not the case anymore. Two weeks ago, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery announced former First Lady Michelle Obama had selected Sherald to paint her official portrait for the museum.
“I don’t mean this with any hubris, at all, but I feel like it makes sense,” Sherald said. “The first New York Times article that came out with the professor from Mount Holyoke, when he said he felt like I was diverging from what I normally do, I didn’t really see it that way. I feel like she really represents what I paint, which are American people. They are black people doing stuff. You know what I mean? And black people become first ladies. For me it feels natural to have her as a subject.”
“I feel like [Michelle Obama] really represents what I paint, which are American people. They are black people doing stuff. You know what I mean? And black people become first ladies. For me it feels natural to have her as a subject.” — Amy Sherald
The commission would be significant coup for any artist, for Sherald its latest recognition in a series of events that have brought increasing visibility to her work and the attention of major institutions and collectors across the country.
The game changer was last year. Sherald won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, besting more than 2,500 other artists vying for the 2016 prize. Sherald is the first woman and first African American artist to place first in the competition. Her winning portrait, “Miss Everything (Unsupressed Deliverance),” was featured in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition “The Outwin: American Portraiture Today.” The show traveled to the Tacoma Art Museum and the Art Museum of South Texas. Currently it is being presented at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Mo.
The Outwin Prize opened up a world of opportunity. Earlier this year, Sherald’s portraits were included in group shows at the Spelman Museum of Art, David Driskell Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Two paintings by Sherald, acquired by the National Museum of Women in the Arts through a gift, are currently on view in museum’s collection galleries. Another portrait by Sherald is in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and is on display in the museum’s inaugural visual arts exhibition.
Visitors to the Studio Museum in Harlem’s newly redesigned website will see Sherald’s work on the homepage as the featured banner image. Her portrait, “The Make Believer (Monet’s Garden),” is included in “Fictions,” the museum’s emerging artists group show on view through Jan. 7, 2018. A solo exhibition of Sherald’s work opens at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in May 2018.
AMY SHERALD, “What’s precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (All American),” 2017 (oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches). | Private collection, Chicago. Image courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
THIS SPATE OF RECOGNITION landed her at the National Gallery of Art to discuss her practice. Early in the program, Christovale asked Sherald about using gray paint for her figures and how she developed the stylistic realism that defines her portraits.
She said it was about starting from scratch. “We all realize that race and blackness was a construct and so to imagine ourselves without that kind of external directive that influences how we think about ourselves, who would we be?” Sherald said.
She photographs her subjects and paints from the images. She said exploring the medium, historic photographs in particular, has also had a bearing on her work.
“I came across the old daguerreotypes and old black and white images and that really changed my perspective on portraiture. …They were after the invention of the camera, when we were able to become the authors of our own narrative and show our connection to a history that was connected to love and not just oppression and struggle. That was a huge affirmation for me,” Sherald said.
“I came across the old daguerreotypes and old black and white images and that really changed my perspective on portraiture. …They were after the invention of the camera, when we were able to become the authors of our own narrative and show our connection to a history that was connected to love and not just oppression and struggle. That was a huge affirmation for me.” — Amy Sherald
“My work has really become a meditation on photography. I find great inspiration in that and cinematography. Wes Anderson in my hero.”
Christovale asked Sherald how she experiences Baltimore and how it shows up in her work, considering the rest of the world largely sees the city through the lens of John Waters, “The Wire,” and Freddie Gray,
More than 15 years ago, when Sherald moved from Atlanta to Baltimore for graduate school, she said she was struck by the contrast in the cities. The artist called Atlanta “Chocolate City” and said it seems like every other person there has a Range Rover. “So, you can kind of live in a bubble.” she said. By comparison, she said Atlanta’s projects resembled student housing at Morgan State University. Then she talked further about her initial impression of Baltimore.
“I had never seen poverty at such a level in the United States. …The boarded-up homes, the food deserts and all of that. To me, it was like a Third World country. That’s what I looked at it as. I feel like you can judge a city by how it’s poor are living, so I really started to pay attention to that, in a different way, and it really depressed me. I was like really depressed for a year,” Sherald said.
“I was on the bus, too. When you are on public transportation you in a way get to be a voyeur because I knew that wasn’t my life, but I am riding the 13 with everybody else.”
Characterizing neighborhood around her studio, which is anchored by the Lexington Market food emporium, she expressed a real affection and respect for the people and the place. The area is gentrifying and she said it is “a little bit chaotic” during the day. The Hippodrome Theatre and Everyman Theatre are in close proximity to a methadone clinic. A man on the corner sells the “Final Call” newspaper. Another who sells water, has standard uniform of starched jean shorts, “a wife beater,” and white tennis shoes. Then there is a woman who wears white makeup like a mime and dances to church music all day.
“As I would walk from my house to my studio, and at that time my favorite sound track—I’m dorky—was “Winged Migration,” the documentary [that captures the migration patterns of a wide variety of birds]. For some reason, I really like that. To hear that in my ear, that music, and to see what was happening, that really resonated with me,” Sherald said.
“I really wanted, naively, and in the most privileged way, to drop something in that space. Like if I could drop glitter in that space, or anything just to break it up. Because I realize, me going into my studio, using my imagination to come up with these figures, is a privilege in itself. These people don’t have time to think about the work that I am making, the work that I think I am making for them.”
“I realize, me going into my studio, using my imagination to come up with these figures is a privilege in itself. These people don’t have time to think about the work that I am making, the work that I think I am making for them.” — Amy Sherald
AMY SHERALD, “Mother and Child,” 2016, Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches. Private Collection, Chicago. Courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
THEN CAME THE QUESTIONS. There was the man asking about her “idealized” images. Someone else was curious about whether she stayed in touch with her subjects after she paints them. (She often does. The circumstances with each one varies.) One of the last questions referenced an earlier comment she made about riding the city bus.
A middle-aged white man asked: “If you were on the No. 13 and John Waters got on and sat next to you, would you be interested in painting him?” Sherald said, “Not really.”
Earlier, the artist shared with the audience that, when she was in graduate school, she had never heard of artists Barkley Hendricks (1945-2017) or Kerry James Marshall. Which is ironic, because her response to the question indicated that in the dozen years since she’s nearly closed the gap between herself and the celebrated artists.
Increasingly, she is mentioned in the same sentence with Hendricks when the topic is African American artists recognized for their stylized approach to portraiture. And because Sherald depicts her subjects with gray skin tones, the technique is often considered in context with the work of Marshall, who paints black figures using black paint. Marshall states that the goal of his practice is to integrate the art historical canon and make it more representative. He is nearly a generation older than Sherald, but the two have adopted similar philosophies and missions.
In reaction to the question about potentially painting Waters, the filmmaker, Sherald made her mission clear.
After she said, “Not really,” she added, “What I do is a manifesto. Right? It’s a critique on art history. As much as I love white people, I don’t feel the need to paint them, because, I mean look at art history. I feel like, you know, ya’ll need to be paintin’ us.” (The audience clapped.)
“What I do is a manifesto. Right? It’s a critique on art history. As much as I love white people, I don’t feel the need to paint them.” — Amy Sherald
After she answered to the last question, the packed audience gave her a standing ovation. I have been to many lecture programs and conversations with artists at the National Gallery of Art and, in my experience, that has never happened. People clapped politely, but no one ever rose up out of their seat with enthusiastic applause at the end. For Sherald, they did.
While everyone was still standing, Sherald said, “Wait.” She grabbed her phone and asked if she could capture the moment before everyone dispersed.
She stood with the audience and took a group selfie and explained, “I want to show my mom how many people showed up.” CT
Excerpts from Amy Sherald’s conversation are below:
Identifying Her Subjects
It’s the same feeling that you get when you first saw your husband or wife. I look at them and I am like ‘ta da.’ I just know it’s them and then I have to work up the courage to talk to them because it’s usually kind of awkward when it comes to that. And everyone thinks I want to paint them naked all of a sudden, too. I usually walk up to them and I say, “I am an artist,” and I say, “But like a real artist. I am in museums and stuff.” I text them my website and I get their email address to make sure I don’t lose them and that I can stalk them until they say yes. Sometimes I’ll call them right back, two weeks later. Sometimes it could be a year.
Working with Color and Pattern
It’s all intuitive. …A lot of times it comes down to aesthetically what needs to happen. I usually go to the Internet. Every day, I am on the internet and I might see something. I might see a pattern. I might see something that I like and I have a folder in my Instagram account and I have a folder on my laptop and I just pull different images of clothes into. And when I need a resource I go back to that and figure out what’s going to work. That’s generally how it works. It’s intuitive. What needs to go here. What needs to happen.
Camping While Black
(Sherald said some of her accessory choices are a little bit autobiographical, in the painting “It Made Sense…Mostly In Her Mind,” for example.) I took equestrian jump and hunt. I rode horses, I think, for three years. I went to horseback riding camp with my best friend Courtney Jensen. Courtney was white and we were set up three girls to a room in this kind of treehouse. This one little girl, the girl who was our roommate, when she walked in, she looked at us, and she was like, “I am so relieved I didn’t have to room with a nigger. My parents were afraid that I would have to stay here the whole summer with a nigger.” I looked at Courtney, and I am just like, she has never seen a black person that looks like me. She had no idea I was black the whole two months we were there. I did not have a perm, so when I went swimming my hair like you know (indicates with her hands that it turned into a bush). I made sure I gave her a hug in front of her parents [at the end] and I saw their faces and I was like, “Yeah.”
Getting the Obama Call
It was exciting. I was in my studio and, honestly, I felt like I didn’t almost die, get a heart transplant, to get to the White House to meet them, for them not to pick me. (Sherald was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at age 30 and had a heart transplant when she was 39.) That’s what I was thinking the whole time. But you know, I am pretty low key, so I was like (she closes her eyes, pumps her fist, and whispers a long drawn out “yeesss!”). I have to pretend like it’s not a big deal because I need to be able to make the painting. After it’s done, you will see me running through the streets naked. I want to get a boomerang with her, too. That is a dream of mine, to have a boomerang with Michelle Obama on my Instagram.
TOP IMAGE: Amy Sherald. | Paul Morigi, 2016/AP Images for National Portrait Gallery
AMY SHERALD, “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance),” 2013 (oil on canvas). | Frances and Burton Reifler © Amy Sherald, Courtesy Smithsonian
AMY SHERALD, “Innocent You, Innocent Me,” 2016 (oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches). | Private collection, Stockholm. Image courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago
AMY SHERALD, “The Make Believer (Monet’s Garden),” 2016 (oil on canvas, 54 x 43 inches). | Private collection, Chicago. Image courtesy the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago