Amy Sherald: A Portrait of One’s Self

This article was written for the Spring 2019 Spelman Messenger.

Long before Amy Sherald became a household name for her official portrait of first lady Michelle Obama, the 1997 Clark Atlanta University graduate spent endless hours in the Spelman College art studio, where she studied under Arturo Lindsay, D.A., professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Spelman College.

“When we first met, Amy was a premed student, the daughter of a dentist
with a soul of an artist that was begging and fighting to be freed,” Lindsay shared as he introduced Sherald at ART PAPERS LIVE. “I encouraged her to paint herself, to paint self-portraits as a way to find herself. And she did. She found her artist’s voice.”

Once she found her artist’s voice, Sherald became laser-focused on her career, coming to class early and leaving late. She painted on weekends, holidays and late nights. Painting late nights meant she and her close friend, author and illustrator Calida Garcia Rawles, C’98, had to find a way to bypass the Spelman art studio’s 9 p.m. closing time. They accomplished this by hiding in the restrooms until security made their rounds.

“They would go to the bathroom closest to the elevator and stand on the toilet bowls in the stalls,” Lindsay laughed as he retold the story he learned after the women graduated. “They stayed there until they could hear the ding of the elevator when the security guard was leaving. They then returned to the painting studio, working until the wee hours of the morning.”

It is this laser focus and perseverance that has resulted in Sherald’s success. She returned to Spelman College in February to discuss her exhibition at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, which is on display until May 18. Museum visitors were enamored with Sherald’s bright, stylized and fantastical portraitures of African-American life.

“They arrest you,” Anne Collins Smith, curator of Collections at the Museum of Fine Art, said of Sherald’s work as visitors snapped digital portraits of themselves with Sherald’s portraitures. “These aren’t necessarily portraits. These are archetypes. They’re a step up.”

Sherald’s signature grayscale portraitures and their whimsical titles serve as commentary on the complexity and performance of race and identity. Her interest in the performance of race and identity began after she returned to Columbus, Georgia, from Baltimore, and began to ponder how she had evolved. “My identity was based on a lot of repression, so I could assimilate into my environment,” she explained. “That’s when I really began thinking about identity as performance.”

Performance is notably absent from Sherald’s portraitures. “They’ve not compromised in any way. They’re not concerned with performing,” Sherald said of the individuals she paints. She began painting individuals she encountered in her daily life after recognizing there was a lack of art in the American art canon of Black people simply being themselves. Her work fills this void.

Smith noted that portraits of Black people are uncommon in art history. “Sometimes we are afterthoughts, or in certain early photography, we’re like an image on the other side,” Smith explained. “But Sherald wants to center Black people.”

Sherald’s work and success is a testament to what art students can accomplish in the Atlanta University Center. “The Atlanta University Center was a great art center before it was mainstream, and here is a woman who came out of that tradition and surpassed mainstream success. That reinforces the necessities that nurtured her,” Collins shared.

Kia is an Atlanta-based writer, communications consultant and cultural critic. When she’s not writing or tweeting, she enjoys live music and beach vacations. You can find her at kiaspeaksalso.com.