When Amy Sherald was growing up in Columbus, Georgia in the 1970s, her dentist father encouraged her to go into medicine. “There was this attitude of, ‘The civil rights movement was not about you being an artist,’ ” she remembered. But as an introvert, Amy enjoyed painting and running and, unsure of what else she was good at, she felt drawn to a life in art. “I don’t feel like I chose to do it,” she said. Near the end of her MFA, during a medical check-up, Amy’s doctors told her that she had a barely-functioning heart and that she would eventually need a transplant. She was 30 years old.
Exhausted and broke, Amy continued to paint, waiting tables and teaching art at the Baltimore City Detention Center, working to pay off student loans and pay for her heart medication. She explored self-portraiture, the circus and fantasy, inspired by the science fiction writings of Octavia Butler and the poems of David Whyte and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She had a recurring dream that she was running a race and collapsed at the end of it. When her mother needed care, she moved home to Georgia to take care of her and her ailing aunts. Her brother Michael was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and she lost her Dad to Parkinson’s. Amy didn’t paint for the next three years.
Back in Baltimore in 2012, working alone in her Station North studio, Amy was at the drug store picking up some studio supplies when she collapsed and was rushed to hospital. At 39, her cardiomyopathy had progressed to where her heart’s ejection fraction — the percentage of blood that leaves the heart with each beat — was now hovering at 5 percent. While waiting in hospital for a new heart, her brother Michael passed away. Eleven days later, the victim of an opioid overdose became Amy’s heart donor. After a year of recuperation, Amy returned to painting everyday people doing everyday things — often approaching strangers in her neighbourhood or in the airport — seeking to capture an intimacy that she felt perhaps only she could see. Graphically positioning her subjects in brightly-coloured clothing within a flat, colour-blocked plane, she polished a style. As part of her colour stories, Amy also began to paint, at times, her subject’s black skin en grisaille, as a way of challenging colour’s multi-layered vocabulary — including how it described race.
PS: “There’s not enough images of us.” (Amy Sherald)
“I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.” (Octavia Butler)
Esoterica: In October 2017, at age 43, Amy was chosen from among about 20 portfolios submitted by curators at The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. to paint the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. She was the first African American woman artist in history to be chosen. Of her selection, she at first tried to normalize the responsibility, saying, “I paint paintings of people. And I’m painting a painting of another person.” But when pressed about the meaning of it, Amy described her personal feelings for her subject: “She gave this country so much with her presence, just in being who she was. She gave a lot of us permission to be better and to want to do better.” Last Monday, after unveiling her portrait to a crowd in Washington, Amy was asked to reflect on the weight of the assignment: “I knew it was going be what I wanted it to be,” she said. Of Michelle, she said, “I told her that I wanted to paint her in my greyscale because I thought it would be a powerful representation, especially within the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery — because something big happened. We have our first black President and our first black First Lady and I feel like their choices [of the artists to paint them]represent that — so that when people walk into this space of things that look continuously the same… all of a sudden there’s a break in that. And there was a break in history, as well — when they were in the White House.” (Amy Sherald)
The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.
“Good poetry begins with the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests the whole body,
steeling you for revelation.
In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.”
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Candace studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Angers, France but it is her travels in the deserts of Africa and Oman, Antarctica and the Arctic, and sacred sights of Machu Picchu and Petra that serve as her true place of learning. A desire to combine these experiences with a deeper understanding of her own spirituality has provided the underlying focus and inspiration for her paintings.
Sorry, but that paintng of Michele Obama is not good. Does not even look like her.
Is your one criterion that it must ‘look like her’ in order to be valid? If ‘accuracy’ is so important to you, why in your comment did you manage spell ‘painting’ incorrectly and didn’t even notice?
I did notice, but had already sent it. Lighten up!
If it’s a portrait then, yes, it should look like her. It’s not just “a painting” it’s a portrait.
Exactly, Msernie, Thank you
Quite striking at first – then, with a good look, plain beautiful.
Good for you Amy, go get ‘ em.
Thanks for this Sara, I was dismayed watching the news cast of the unveiling that the news announcers did not play the comments of the artists, like they were trivial to the creations. It really annoyed me not to hear what the artists had to say about their work! The news announcers felt what they, themselves had to say was more important.
I totally agree with that Michele. I appreciate Sara’s post telling us about Amy Sherald. I know all about Kehinde Wiley and have seen some of his original work but had never heard of Amy
Thanks for the info. Sara!
I have to agree with Doreen. I like Amy’s concept of painting in a different style to break up the sameness of the other paintings. The painting is not bad but it does not look like Michele. I am troubled by the background color. It does not contrast well with Michele’s skin tone, therefore there isn’t any vibrancy and this goes in counter to the vibrancy of Michele’s personality.
What an insight this letter is! I though of my own health challenges as I read this and felt grateful for their smallness in comparison. She has captured the look of Michelle. I love her portrait of herself on a tightrope holding a heart.
A letter that will stay with me for ages.
No, the facial features do not look like Michele Obama’s, but the gracefulness of the seated figure are Mrs. Obama’s without looking at the face. I knew in an instant who it was . The artist captured the poise and beauty perfectly.
I pulled up images of Michelle, and we’re used to seeing her huge smile. There are a few of her more contemplative side, and this image is a perfect likeness. I think it is wonderful, and very complex. A little different, and so like with all wonderful art, controversy.
This portrait falls flat for me. The background is a zero, the likeness is weak, and the dress holds prominence over the character of the sitter. In 50 years, a visitor will ask “Was she sick? Why is she gray? Why is she so down?”
Michelle Obama is Colorfully Beautiful!, yet here she is the color of death. Where is her sparkle, her humor, her distinctively sharp gaze with those expressive eyebrows?
Sadly, this portrait says a great deal more about the artist than it does about a very unique First Lady, and by coincidence, the same can be said of Wiley’s portrait of the President. Both portraits are by artists shouting “Look at my style!” They could have done so much more to honor these very special people.
Could not agree more with you!
I couldn’t agree more! Both of these paintings fall short of historical keepsakes anyone other than their families would want to look at tme and again!
David Gellatly’s comment, to me, has hit the nail on the head. I agree with his insight pretty much word for word. And, could not have said it better.
Respect. We must continue to walk with our head held high as shadows of those who have ‘passed’ disappear from our view. I wonder if they are whispering to us, encouraging us, to keep sharing what we do. I think we are being guided somehow if we listen carefully to the nudges, and not let our emotions rule us. As this current page in our book of life turns, and as eternity is spread before us, I think we will have no need for glory. Respect for ourselves and others lifts us all a little higher, and that is what I think we need more of.
I will wrapping up reservations for my next workshop to the Sacred Valley of Peru this week, if you are interested in joining me to this most amazing destination to create, let me know and I will sign you up to join us.
How is your post relevant Sharon? More like a self serving promotion than a constructive comment.
As to the portraits:
1. I have obviously been laboring under an illusion that a portrait has a good likeness of the subject. The one of Michelle does not. Creative license does not prevail here.
2. Yes I am empathetic to the artists plight, personal accomplishments and struggles but it gives me no reason to overlook a bad likeness.
3. The portrait of Barrack is typical of the artist but has a background that competes for your attention. This is typical of the artist’s work, busy, large in scale and yes beautifully executed.Yes it is acceptable but I feel it, and Michelle’s portrait, will only add to the controversy surrounding these people.
Sorry folks but you can “spin” it any way you like but it is what it is.
After reading this article, this portrait just became that much stronger.
Michelle Obama has chosen an artist that represents who she is as a person and who she wants all women to be, STRONG. If you want an exact likeness, hire a photographer. By reading Amy’s story I can see exactly why she was chosen, she is a strong woman who has fought hard to do what she loves and demonstrates resilience in the face of adversity.
Nothing but respect to Amy for taking on this amazing opportunity and challenge. There are only two opinions that really matter on this piece, Amy’s and Michelle’s, the rest of us can just talk amongst ourselves.
I am also glad that two different artists were hired, these are two totally different unique people, they should not have to look like bookends on the wall.
I loved this painting. The painting was clean and contemporary. For me, the artist captured enough of Michelle around the eyes and mouth for her to be recognizable. She also showed Michelle as being regal, elegant, graceful, strong and aware. This was the better portrayal. Congratulations, Amy. Joan Chivot
I agree with you, Kathy.
And with you, Joan.
And it certainly “looks like” Michelle to me.
Kathy, I’m with you: art is not a photograph. The Obamas are for me bellwethers of significant and overdue change. They are grounded in individuation and pride. As a born New Englander, steeped in centuries of tradition, I nonetheless recognize how authenticity must be allowed to shape tradition. Yes, I drew sharp breath at the portrait of Michelle Obama, compared it to the one of Barack, heard tapes in my head of others’ reactions (some are reflected here). What came through, though, even before reading the artist’s backstory, is this: the moral certainty of what to do and why, which attended the Obamas’ tenure in the White House, comes through in Amy’s portrait.
Sadly, the dress is the most prominent aspect of the portrait. The portrait doesn’t breathe. It is lifeless. Michele has so much personality and coursing lifeblood. The portrait does not do her justice at all, nor does it look like her. Additionally, as to Wiley, he did not paint the portrait. His Chinese assistants- in China- painted the portrait.
Thanks for this interesting story, Sara. For me, the bloodlessness of the grisaille relates to the artist’s health struggle. Isn’t there a saying that artists always paint themselves?
Not much of a likeness, but there are plenty of photos around, and the background color kills the flesh tone; but I love the dress choice.
I feel sorry for Amy’s tough life and medical difficulties, she has not had it easy.
Her poster-like style may be a refreshing change compared to other presidential portraits, but painting a president or his wife is a great responsibility. The work should be more than novel. It should be professional and good in every respect, including likeness. Amy’s portrait of Michelle lacks in so many ways, not only because Michelle does not look at all like Michelle. Where is the exuberant, warm character? The choice of grey scale is most likely due to a lack of knowledge about skin tones. Dark skin tones are very hard to paint, which is why, by the way, I don’t like Barack’s portrait either. You need knowledge about skin color in light, reflected light, shade and shadow and experience with mixing the right tones. Skin color is not a variety of browns and reds!
But, back to Michelle’s portrait. Apart from the before mentioned, the personality of the sitter is the most important, not the dress. Such an approach would be ok for an illustration in Vogue, but not for a presidential portrait. Pose, choice of clothes, background, color in general, facial expression, all of these aspects should be contributing to underline the essence of the sitter. Not here. The dress overwhelmes the person, the background color does not go with the grey skin, which in turn kills the character.
ILSE, YOUR COMMENTS ARE THE MOST VALID, OF ALL…..THEY ARE “RIGHT ON”…………………..
There should be a difference between a request for a “portrait’ and a “portrait concept” of the subject. Both Barack and Michelle Obama have been wonderful for their country as well as the world, but all that they represent should be focused on their likeness, their body positions something we all have come to recognize. Backgrounds, dresses, that do not support the subject should be silently suggestive or very subtle at best. The focal point is the subject, their recognizable smile or gaze … a pose that we would all recognize as them.
Artists concepts of what they feel is legitimate (grey skin tone) is simply their “creative idea” and may not be accepted, recognized or appreciated by the viewer. As well, “concepts” sometimes are created to cover up inabilities or incapabilities.
As a painter, I have to say that if these new paintings of Michelle and Barack were created in order to recognize the appreciation, generosity and stature of these two wonderful Americans, someone really missed the boat !
They did not Ask me to paint them . Or you . Or you . They asked two Well Known Black Artists to paint the portraits , in their very well known style . Had Picasso been commissioned then we would have had something . . Strange and Wonderful . If we had needed photographs , then . . But apparantly the Obamas were asked Their Own opinions about who , and What the Portraits would be . And so , they have very Strong paintings that have something to say about History !
I recently spent quite a bit of time doing a jigsaw puzzle of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (“Woman in Gold”) which I’d been given as a Christmas present. After doing the puzzle I read about the painting and discovered a lot of recent reviews because it is one of the paintings looted by the Nazis and returned from Austria to the U.S. in 2006. Many of these newer reviews are more positive than the mostly negative initial ones. One early review of the first showing in 1907 described the portrait as “mehr blech als Bloch.”
Doing a puzzle is of course an unusual way of becoming interested in a painting but as a result I couldn’t help noticing similarities with both Sherrald’s portrait and ts reviews.
I, too, am reminded of Klimt’s “Woman in Gold.”
Everyone is a Critic!
Thank you very much, Sara, for telling this story.
As for all the opinions and critiques expressed here, my viewpoint is that the Obamas chose which artists (and consequently, which styles) they wanted for their portraits. And given the historical and social contexts, I believe this is an occasion for us to appreciate, rather than to criticize.
I personally like and appreciate both portraits. And as to likeness, in my view of course it looks like Michelle!
Thank you, Mary Ann, for your comments which I agree with wholeheartedly. Amy Sherald has painted the INNER Michelle who is amazingly beautiful, graceful, intelligent and welcoming to all who gaze upon this fabulous, unique, creative portrait. Whether you like it or not it causes you to stop, look and think about Michelle. WOW !!! What an incredible FIRST LADY !!!
I think the painting is lovely and classy…just like Michelle Obama.
Michelle Obama has a powerful beauty.
She has fierce eyebrows, a determined mouth,’
a toned body, and radiant skin .
None of the above are in this painting.
It stars the dress.
The hands are well drawn.
“…there was a break in history…” Yes. Mission accomplished.
I must say when I first saw the portrait on the news…..I was struck with the thought that Michelle Obama had not been photographically portrayed…which was a good thing for me…It signified this was not your expected portrait, but quite unique and engaging. It stands apart, as does Michelle.
We were fortunate to have her spirit captured- even without her radiant smile that we all know. It speaks to her complexity, grace, and warmth,…. as well as her inward radiance and beauty as well. I like the skin color and do not think of death at all….So, I am sorry it is not appealing to all. She is pictured here as elegant, thoughtful, and aware. I do believe it will come to be more appreciated as time goes by. It is strong, and dramatic. I love it!
Thank you for for sharing Amy’s story. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing one of her portraits at the Kemper in Kansas City a few months ago. Her work is mesmerizing and can only really be appreciated through seeing it in person. Technically Amy’s work is flawless and conceptually it’s on target. I trust that Michelle Obama selected this painting because she loves it. I can’t wait to see it in person and I trust that those who have been critical of it and who view it in person, will change their minds and appreciate the purity, complexity, beauty, and power of Amy’s concept and execution. They grey scale skin tones are perfect. Michelle was unique in our history and this representation honors that through its own unique quality.
I really enjoyed reading about Amy. Since Michelle Obama chose her and obviously approved the painting, I don’t understand why people are making all those negative comments. I wonder if any of those people have seen Michelle in person. I enlarged the copy of it twice to see it better. I am very impressed with the painting. And yes: that one person said nothing about the painting or Amy – she was obviously just advertising for herself which is not right.
I really enjoyed the positive comments but not the negative ones.
The portrait is brilliant and I enjoyed Amy’s story.
I have to admit that my first reaction upon seeing Michelle Obama’s portrait was, “Yikes! Where is the color and vibrancy of Michele?” The only color I could see besides the background was on Michelle’s dress. It wasn’t until I heard an interview with the artist Amy Sherald on NPR that I understood the significance of Michelle’s dress. The pattern & color Amy had used for Michelle’s dress was based on the patterns found in Gees Bend quilts.
Gees Bend quilts are regarded as a one of the most significant chapters in the history of African American art. The oldest quilts date back three to four generations to the mid 19th century with many created by women of the same family, From scrapes of worn work clothes, flour and feed sacks, generations of women stitched and created works of art that were both practical and beautiful.
Last year I was able to see a collection of Gees Bend quilts at a local museum, and was mesmerized by their stunning use of shapes and colors. They were timeless.
Now as I look at both the portraits I find I am more drawn to Michelle’s; a strong beautiful women embraced and clothed in the strength of the women who came before her.
Thanks so much, Maryanita, for adding that background information about the Gees Bend quilts! It really enriches my experience of the painting.
Thank you MaryAnn!
Wow all of these comments about portraits and so many opinions. This to me shows the POWER OF THE ARTS and the great dialogue of history continues.
I saw ‘Miss Everything’ in the national Portrait Gallery in Washington DC and was greatly moved by it. I didn’t realize she had done the one of Michelle Obama. Her style is unique and moving. It has a crisp modernity that appeals to me even though I paint in a much more realistic style. Cudos!
Well, lots of comment here! I suppose everyone will have their thoughts on it. I saw it first this past week with the small girl standing looking up at it. She seemed to know who it was, or feel who it is. I like to paint in flat color sometimes. I think it is stunning! I felt “Michelle Obama” soon as I saw it. I also thought Who did that? New to me!
Likeness? I am a portrait painter and I think what people are asking for is an ordinary portrait in the usual form. This is a different form… This is not the usual. It is about something else. But I knew who it was even in a small picture on my Tv screen. I wondered right away, Who did that? I knew immediately who she is. I love it! So glad to have this article for my folder of Wild Women.