Baltimore artist Amy Sherald has known for more than a year that she had been selected to paint a portrait that could instantly make her career.
But until the Smithsonian Institution announced publicly this month that the 44-year-old had received the commission to paint first lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait, the artist had to keep her big news under wraps and go about her daily business as if her name weren’t about to become known to ordinary Americans coast to coast.
“I was sitting in my studio in September of 2016 when I got the call,” Sherald told an audience of about 160 people who filled a room to overflowing Thursday night at the Johns Hopkins University.
“I couldn’t even paint for the rest of the day. When the news came out earlier this month, I couldn’t focus on my painting, either. It’s been surreal, but I try to treat it like it’s no big deal because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to do any work.”
When the painting of Michelle Obama is unveiled early in 2018, it will hang in the National Portrait Gallery alongside the New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of former President Barack Obama.
The unveiling ceremony will elevate these two artists in their 40s to a pantheon that includes such celebrated names as Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, Norman Rockwell, John Singer Sargent, Elaine de Kooning and Simmie Knox. (The last, who painted Bill and Hillary Clinton, was the first African-American artist to paint an official presidential portrait.) Some of these works hang in the White House; others are on view at the National Portrait Gallery.
In the past month alone, articles about Sherald have run in The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as in the magazine Vanity Fair and in the British newspapers The Independent and The Guardian.
So far, at least, she’s welcoming the sudden onslaught of attention — and the future work that it will likely generate.
“Signing autographs is weird,” the artist acknowledged. “I’m an introvert, so it’s been a strain in that way. But this is everything that I’ve been working for my whole life.”
In some of these recent articles, Sherald has been characterized as “relatively unknown.” But Sherald made a name for herself in the art world before this latest accomplishment. Last year, her portfolio beat 2,500 other entries to win the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. The $25,000 prize, which was accompanied by a commission to paint a living subject for the National Portrait Gallery, brought her widespread recognition in art world circles, if not from the general public. (After the Obamas selected Sherald to paint the former first lady, the artist decided that her Michelle Obama portrait could also serve as the commission that came with the prize.)
Her work is on view in a group show at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and next May, a solo show of her paintings will open at St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Museum. Sherald’s portraits are in the collections of The National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Baltimore Museum of Art is in line to obtain a painting. Sherald said Thursday night that the Baltimore museum’s artwork should be completed in 2018.
Wiley’s and Sherald’s Obama canvases could represent a stylistic departure from the earlier presidential portraits, which have mostly been realistic — if predictably heroic — depictions. Wiley paints his African-American subjects in poses reminiscent of famous Old Master paintings. But, he juxtaposes his people against extravagantly detailed backgrounds that have a mildly hallucinatory feel.
Neither Sherald nor the National Portrait Gallery will discuss plans for painting the Obamas before their portraits are unveiled. It’s certainly possible that either Sherald, Wiley or both could depart from their accustomed styles to depict the Obamas conventionally. But, it seems unlikely. The former president and first lady could easily have chosen traditional portraitists. But, they didn’t. They chose Wiley and Sherald.
In the remarks Sherald made at Hopkins, she discussed her creative process at length. Her remarks were illustrated by slides of perhaps two dozen of her previous portraits, which revealed striking similarities that could give a hint to what her future portrait of Michelle Obama might look like.
Among the commonalities:
Sherald paints exclusively African-American subjects, but she paints them all with gray skin. This is the single most distinctive feature of her paintings.
“First and foremost, it looks cool,” she told her audience. “Gray makes the paintings work. But it’s also a way for me to subversively comment about race without feeling as though I’m excluding the viewer.”
Sherald always selects the subject of her paintings herself — the portrait of Michelle Obama will be the first exception.
“The people I choose as models have a quality that seems to contain the past, the present and the future all at once,” she said. “It’s hard to explain. I can look at 100 people in a room, but only find it in one person.”
Her work is based on and in many respects is a homage to photographs of African-Americans taken in the 19th and early 20th centuries. So Sherald starts by photographing her subjects in natural light. She then uses the photographs to help her figure out how the painting should evolve. Sometimes the final result resembles the photograph. Sometimes, it does not.
Sherald’s portraits are life-sized — her subject’s head in a painting is about the same size it is in reality, as are their shoulders, hands and hips. But most are three-quarter length, with the painting beginning slightly below the person’s knees.
An audience member at Hopkins observed that this creates a feeling of intimacy; a viewer has to be standing quite close to someone else in real life for the other person’s feet not to be visible.
“The face is the most important part of the portrait and the eyes are the most relevant part of the face,” Sherald said. “The souls come through the eyes. I hang my paintings about one foot lower than they are usually hung in galleries. I want you to walk right up to one of my portraits instead of having to look up at it.”
The paintings often contain a hidden, autobiographical element. For instance, a 2011 work called “It Made Sense...Mostly In Her Mind” shows a woman in a navy blue equestrian-style blazer and lilac hard hat. The woman is holding a hobby horse sporting the head of a unicorn.
Sherald said that’s a reference to the summer she spent at camp as a preteen. One of her tent-mates assumed that Sherald, who has golden-brown skin, is white, and told her: “I’m really glad I didn’t have to room with a [racial slur]. My parents were really worried about it.”
Young Amy was so taken aback that she didn’t know how to respond.
“I never told her,” said Sherald, “that I’m black.”
Most of the paintings have long, poetic names that nonetheless seem exactly right. For instance, a painting created earlier this year depicts a young man in a flowered hat who may be gender-fluid. It is titled, “Try on dreams until I find the one that fits me. They all fit me.”
Sherald told the group that it’s her writer sister who comes up with these evocative titles.
“I text her the image, and say, ‘Can you name this?’” Sherald said.
“I’m not a very verbal person. But, I think I get a more authentic response because my sister isn’t connected emotionally to the work.”
Sherald’s portraits nearly always look directly at the viewer — a pose she jokingly refers to as “the missionary position.” The gaze is level, the expression deadpan, the mouth relaxed but unsmiling. Earlier works tended to incorporate fanciful elements, but recently the artist has focused instead on showing her subjects pursuing daily activities: holding a child, going for a swim.
“I just want to make mirrors for people to see themselves in,” she said. “My work is for the masses and not the [upper] classes, even though it’s the classes that pay the rent. There is no value in work that cannot be part of the community.
“To be human,” she said, “is to be visible.”