“Amy, you’ve had quite a year,” said Dorothy Kosinski, eliciting a wave of laughter from the audience.
For Amy Sherald, who recently unveiled her portrait of Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery, it has been quite a year indeed.
On March 29, Sherald visited the University of Maryland campus as part of The Phillips Collection’s “Conversations with Artists” series. Seated in the David C. Driskell Center Gallery, Sherald spoke with Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection, about her artistic style and the years-long journey she took to find it.
Donning framed glasses and a fuzzy black vest, Sherald immediately captured the audience with her wit and humor. Though situated near the heart of student life, the Driskell Gallery was packed with an older crowd, a shame considering so many of Sherald’s stories were about her struggle to find herself in her younger years.
“I got a corporate job, got fired … got a waitressing job, got fired,” she said. “I kind of knew what I wanted to do, which was paint.”
Sherald, a Baltimore-based artist and a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate, has developed a countrywide reputation for her breathtaking paintings of black subjects, recently with gray skin tones contrasted mostly against bright backgrounds and often whimsical props. By painting exclusively brown subjects with gray skin, Sherald challenges preconceived notions about race and color. For Sherald, finding these subjects can be hard.
“I’ve been driving down the street in my car and see somebody walking … and then have to stop, pull over, and chase them,” she said.
When asked what draws her to these subjects, Sherald’s answer was poetic.
“It may be something that only I see,” she said. “But they have something in their face, maybe in their characteristics, that’s representative of the past, present and the future.”
After hand selecting each model, Sherald paints them into a scenario plucked from her imagination. These works, with their beautiful coloring and subjects staring right at you, are stunningly powerful.
“I hang the paintings lower than they should be hung because when the viewer walks up I want it to really be an intimate experience,” Sherald said.
For Sherald, who hasn’t reached mainstream success until now, at age 44, being granted the opportunity to paint one of the most well known and beloved figures of the past decade was a huge moment.
“It was life affirming,” she said. “After I found out I was chosen to do this portrait … everything changed.”
The portrait, which features a seated Michelle Obama wearing flowing, patterned dress, staring at the viewer with her head in her hand, is captivating. But what is almost more captivating than the figure is the pale blue surrounding her.
“That blue creates this kind of infinite space,” Sherald said. “You might feel like you can stand in front of the painting and feel a breeze.”