Baltimore artist Amy Sherald, who painted Michelle Obama's portrait, wins $40,000

The Baltimore artist Amy Sherald knew for more than a year that she had been selected to paint the portrait that would make her career. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore artist Amy Sherald can add one more triumph to a year full of accolades — the 2018 Mary Sawyers Imboden Prize, which is accompanied by a $40,000 award.

Sherald captured the largest of six Baker Artist Awards that were announced Friday night on a broadcast of Maryland Public Televison’s “Artworks” program. The $40,000 award is the largest art prize in the region, according to a Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance news release.


Sherald could not be reached for comment. But Connie Imboden, president of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, praised Sherald’s “remarkable artistry” in the release.

“Amy’s work has struck a profound chord with the American public this year,” Imboden said in the release. “I am overjoyed that The Baker Artist Portfolios gets to play a role in her meteoric rise.”

It’s only been in the past two years that the 44-year-old Sherald has received the career recognition of which most artists dream. In May 2016, she bested 2,500 other entries nationwide to win first place in the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which carries a $25,000 prize. In October the National Portrait Gallery announced that Sherald had been selected to paint the official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama, which was unveiled in February. (The New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley painted Barack Obama’s portrait.)

Sherald paints three-quarter-length portraits of ordinary African-Americans against a monochromatic background. She is best known for painting the skin of her subjects gray, which poses questions about racial identity and against which the pops of color the artist inserts — a bright yellow jacket or pink ice-cream cone — are the visual equivalent of explosions.

Five other local artists received $10,000 Mary Sawyers Baker Awards: the performance artist Lisi Stoessel, musician Lafayette Gilchrist filmmaker Margaret Rorison, poet Dora Malech and interdisciplinary artist Abraham Burickson, whose work combines writing, architecture, design and performance.

The six winners were selected by an anonymous jury from more than 900 portfolios submitted by Baltimore-area artists. The award money comes from the Baker Fund, while the program is administered by the Greater Balimore Cultural Alliance. The purpose of the no-strings-attached awards is to help the artists develop their vision and skills.

Stoessel, for instance, stages immersive experiences that draw on everything from set design to puppetry to mime. For “H.T. Darling’s Incredible Museum,” which ran for 52 performances at the Peale Center for Baltimore History and Architecture in 2017, audience members entered a Belle Epoch cabinet of wonders that gradually came “alive” around them. Stroessel created the concept, designed the set, fabricated wooden marionettes with haunting faces, co-directed the show, wrote her own dialogue and performed.

She plans to use her award money to attend performances and intensive workshops for such specialized art forms as butoh, a form of Japanese dance theater that Stoessell hopes to incorporate into her next project.

“I get to develop different skills for each project, and that’s exciting for me,” Stoessel said. “Winning this award, for me, was really validating. I feel like people appreciate what I’m doing and that I have a place now in Baltimore’s artistic community.”

Sherald and Burickson will have their works on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art from Sept. 12 to Oct. 14, the release said. The four performers (Stoessel, Gilchrist, Rorison and Malech) will present a short showcase of their work at an opening reception at the BMA on Sept. 12.

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