SchoolArts Room

Artist Amy Sherald: Blending Portraiture and Politics

By Nancy Walkup, posted on Mar 19, 2019

Artist Amy Sherald was a keynote speaker at the NAEA Boston conference this past week. SchoolArts Magazine was fortunate to feature her on the cover and through an interview. We are sharing it here, as well.

Light is Easy to Love by Amy Sherald

Light is Easy to Love

Amy Sherald is a Baltimore-based artist acclaimed for her striking portraits of contemporary African-Americans. She is known for painting skin tones in gray scale as a way of countering the association of color with race. Writing in the New York Times, Holland Carter explained that Sherald “gives all her figures gray-toned skin — a color with ambiguous racial associations — and reduces bodies to geometric forms silhouetted against single-color fields.”

SchoolArts magazine featuring the paintings of Amy Sherald

The national spotlight turned to Sherald when Michelle Obama selected her to paint her official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The painting was unveiled in February 2018, along with Barack Obama’s portrait painted by Kehinde Wiley, also an African-American artist. Sherald is the first African-American artist to paint an official First Lady portrait.

Of the Michelle Obama portrait, art critic Jerry Saltz wrote in Vulture that the portrait depicted her as an “everyday queen of heaven: “She is grand, elegant, gorgeous, but her jackrabbit-quick wit is right there. Set against a monochrome flat powder blue, the First Lady is a guide star to another kind of glamour, a serious spirit whose sorrows were released, who spread warmth, respect, a sly sense of humor, and protectiveness. And a different idea of female power and beauty.”

Portrait painter Amy Sherald

Photo by Justin T. Gellerson

Writing on Hyperallergic, Chiquita Paschal stated, “The portrait feels emotionally honest, and it speaks of Michelle Obama’s character through the language of symbolism, from the mountain-like composition of her pose to the abstractions on her Milly dress.”

What's Different about Alice by Amy Sherald

What’s Different about Alice

Teacher Resources
CBS Sunday Morning featured Amy Sherald in a video you can share with your students, available here.

The National Portrait Gallery earlier announced a give away of free teaching posters of both the Michelle and Barack Obama portraits to teachers. Because of the over 30,000 requests that have been received, submissions were suspended as of this writing. Check here in the Spring of 2019 about renewed availability.

The NAEA National Convention in Boston this March is honored to have hosted Sherald as a keynote speaker. To learn more about Sherald, go to her website.

Try on Dreams by Amy Sherald

Try on Dreams

Amy Sherald graciously shared her thoughts with SchoolArts in an interview:

SA: When did you first realize that art was what you were born to do?

AS: Probably high school, but I knew I wanted to be an artist from a very young age. I don't think you can really realize you were born to do something until you can look back and see how life has fallen into place. How you met all the right people and you were at all the right places at the right time.

SA: What are some of the biggest influences on your work, including other artists, events, or things outside of the arts?

AS: My upbringing and my environment had a great influence on my work;
Movies like Big Fish, and pretty much every Wes Anderson movie made.
The life and musical journey of John Coltrane. Photographers like Gordon Parks, Vivían Maier, and Wayne Lawrence. Painters like Rembrandt, Velazquez, and American painters like Bo Bartlett.

All American by Amy Sherald

All American

SA: How do your portraits express what you perceive in your subjects?

AS: They express through their pose but also by what they are wearing. I think the greatest way is through their eyes. It’s them but essentially it’s the presence I see beyond their outward appearance. What qualifies them and is the impetus for me to approach them, no one else may see. It’s like spotting someone you do not know in a crowd but for some reason you catch each other’s eye.

SA: You are known for using a grayscale to paint skin tones and only portraits of African Americans. Can you share your reasons for those choices?

AS: The gray scale was an aesthetic choice. Of course art provokes dialogue; transitioning brown skin to gray can hold many different meanings. I only paint African Americans because images of whiteness have been projected into in perpetuity through painting and other mediums including media. My work stands in history as a correction to a dominant historical art narrative.

SA: What advice do you have for emerging artists?

AS: Don’t compare yourself to anyone else and know that your journey is your journey and things will happen when they are supposed to.

SA: What are you currently working on in your studio?

AS: Working towards my solo show in NYC with Hauser and Wirth in September 2019.

SA: You are one of the keynote speakers at the 2019 NAEA National Convention in Boston. What message would you like to leave with art teachers to share with their students?

AS: Focus on the realities of their experience in the lesson so that they don’t just feel like passive learners. I went through most of my educational career feeling like my teachers didn’t get me. Engage them in a way that they can become citizens of the classroom and be empowered to speak up.