Amy Sherald: Michelle Obama's portrait painter
We take a look at the artistic discourse of one of the most relevant portraitists of the moment
BY ANA ROBLEDANO
Born in Columbus, GA, she was clearly inclined towards the arts, but her father wanted her to become a dentist like he was—or any other kind of medical professional. In her spare time, she used to go to history libraries to study artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci, whom she loved. However, art was not her only interest, and she used to read a lot about the history of the black race and its corresponding ideology over the years—together, both interests would become the fundamental ingredients to her creativity.
Finally, a 30-year-old Amy decided to start painting, and more specifically, to start painting portraits, which is her greatest talent.
In 2004, she majored in Fine Arts in the Maryland Institute College of Art. It only took her 14 years to become one of the most famous portrait painters of the 21th century. Since the moment she graduated, exhibitions in art centers, museums, galleries and well-known American universities started happening. This is not to say that she has been unceasingly successful ever since—she also had to overcome obstacles such as the heart transplant surgery that she underwent at 39, which forced her to stop painting for a year. Nevertheless, she quickly got back to it and, in 2016, she became the first woman to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition by the National Portrait Gallery with her work Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance). Nonetheless, her most recognized success until now took place last year, at 44, when the Obama family chose her to be Michelle's portrait painter from a selection of 24 other painters.
Michelle Obama's portrait was presented back on February 13 in the National Portrait Gallery. It is a whole-body shot, in which the former first lady poses while sitting, placing her left hand on her knee, and her chin on the back of her right one. She looks straight ahead with an expression that critic Philip Kennicott described as "a curious mixture of safety and vulnerability." However, her dress is what is most eye-catching about the portrait. Amy worked with Meredith Koop, Michelle's image and fashion advisor, to design the dress and paint it on the canvas.
Amy's work can be summarized as the representation of people of color. She hangs onto it to help fight the stereotypes associated with skin color. In her own words, she wants to "challenge the idea of color as a race."
Plain or abstract backgrounds are another very distinctive aspect of her compositions. Figures are inserted in a space that, according to the Catalog of American Portraits, is defined by the artist as "the amorphous personal space of my own existence within the context of black identity and my search for ways to clarify and ground it." Thus, she uses gray for the skin of the African-American models—a neutral color scheme that "omits" the true color.
She is now based in Baltimore and, through her Instagram account, she documents her personal life and her work. Many of her more than 117,000 followers on the social network write Direct Messages (DM) to her admitting that they feel identified with her works. According to the Artsy platform, one of them confessed that they cried before her paintings. The American creator does not only capture this social feeling with her portraits, but also provides them with intricate titles as a kind of reflection such as: She was learning to love moments, to love moments for themselves; What's precious inside of him does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence (all american); Try on dreams until i find the one that fits me. They all fit me; Listen, you a wonder. You a city of a woman. You got a geography of your own; Fact was she knew more about them than she knew about herself, having never had the map to discover what she was like. Long, open phrases without context... as if they were quotes by the depicted person—always bearing a sensible invitation to reflect.
Little by little, artistic works by authors of color are gaining value. In the last 8 years, the Museum of Modern Art has acquired 430 works that belong in this special category. The painting and sculpture team observes that it is a field of the arts that has not received much attention, and that deserves to be explored. Last week, this New York museum acquired three works by black artists—one of them a work by Chris Ofili's that was auctioned for 4.5 million dollars three years ago. Will Amy be one of her generation's most valued emerging artists in a few years?