What’s Behind the Gray Skin Tones and Arresting Eyes in Amy Sherald’s Portraits?
We visited Sherald, Michelle Obama’s official portrait painter, to learn more about her artwork and philosophy.
Amy Sherald is trying to reshape art history. The Baltimore-based artist, whose powerful portraits of African Americans are making waves in the current cultural conversation, is the 2018 winner of the High Museum’s Driskell Prize.
Each year, the Driskell Prize honors an artist or art historian who has made significant contributions to the arts of the African diaspora. Looking through the annals of art history and at the walls of museums around the country, Sherald notices a stark absence of representations of people of color. She recognizes the power she has as a figurative painter to correct this narrative and shift expectations of the kinds of art people might see in a museum.
I recently visited Sherald’s light-filled studio near the campus of the Maryland College Institute of Art (MICA) to have a meandering conversation about her ambitions, her influences, and her recent star turn as the official portraitist of former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Sherald, a Georgia native, grew up in Columbus and completed her undergraduate studies at Clark Atlanta University. Both locales played important roles in shaping her into the artist she is today. As a child in Columbus, she says she was attracted to “people who look different from everybody else” and expressed themselves aesthetically through their exterior appearances. That fascination with exteriors translated into an impulse to create, which her art teacher nurtured. “She was the first woman to encourage me to paint images that looked like me,” Sherald said. Her teacher taught her “that I should be my own ideal.” Sherald continued her studies at Clark Atlanta, where Dr. Arturo Lindsay became her mentor and, she said, “pushed me into becoming the person that I wanted to become.”
While in graduate school at MICA, Sherald purposefully shifted her practice to paint exclusively people of color. She connects her work to American Realism, a genre that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century, wherein artists depicted people engaged in everyday tasks. Sherald wants her subjects, too, to become universal: mirrors of their viewers — notable not for their race but for their familiarity. It was this thinking that led Sherald to her signature style of rendering her subjects’ skin tones in shades of gray. “I didn’t want the work to be marginalized and put in a corner because I didn’t want the discussion around it to solely be about identity,” she said. In effect, she has created — as New York Times culture critic Wesley Morris recently opined — “blackness without the gaze of whiteness.”
Sherald also sees her work as being in conversation with photography. She said, “When I found photography, I found this other kind of portraiture of black families and black people who were photographing themselves or having themselves photographed in ways they wanted to be seen.” Instead of being part of a narrative of oppression, these images were grounded in love. When she chooses her subjects, who are mostly people she encounters in her daily life, Sherald looks for people who evoke her grandmother’s old family photographs: “frozen in time, and black and white, and they’re so still, and their eyes tell you so much.”
In fall 2017, Sherald made national headlines when she was selected to paint the official portrait of Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
In the finished painting, Obama sits at the center of a blue field, her chin resting thoughtfully on the back of her hand. Her body forms a pyramidal shape evocative of Renaissance portraiture, with the flowing skirt of the Milly dress, which Sherald selected with Obama’s stylist, gracefully filling the bottom of the canvas.
While Obama is most often seen smiling in photographs, in Sherald’s rendering she has a serious, contemplative expression that gives her an air of mystery. “There’s so many things that happened, I’m sure, within those eight years that we will never know and never understand,” Sherald said, “Then there’s also the Michelle Obama that is generously present with all of us, that inspires us, that we can see ourselves in, that is just very relatable.”
Whether it’s through a portrait of one of the most famous women in the world or of an anonymous person in the grocery store, Sherald wants to offer museum visitors new ways of seeing themselves. Her work is already having that effect: a few weeks ago, a heartwarming photograph of two-year-old Parker Curry staring in awe at the portrait of Michelle Obama went viral. Because of the work of Sherald and other artists, it’s now possible for Curry to walk into a museum and see someone who looks like her on the wall.