By Sydney Melson
The Birmingham Times
Amy Sherald, award-winning artist who painted Breonna Taylor and First Lady Michelle Obama, hosted the Chenoweth Lecture at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA) on Thursday and shared her journey in the art world including the anxiety of keeping her secret that she was Obama’s painter.
“The pressure after painting [Obama], I got sick. I got pneumonia and was in the hospital for four days. When it was all over, I was relieved. I had to keep that secret [of being Obama’s painter] for almost two years,” Sherald said.
Sherald was commissioned in 2016 and the painting was unveiled in 2018.
The hour-long talk with Sherald attracted more than 300 people listening in on Zoom from all over the country, from Boston, Massachusetts to Denver, Colorado.
While she was happy with the Obama commission, Sherald said that’s not her entire career. “I worked hard to get here, but this [Obama] painting is not gonna carry me for the rest of my life,” she said. “My work is what got me that commission.”
That work has led to some high-profile commissions in addition to Obama. Sherald painted Taylor for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, and said she enjoyed learning about Taylor, an emergency room technician, who was killed in her home in March by police officers.
“The more I learned about [Taylor], the more I loved her. Ta-Nehisi [Coates, the journalist who wrote the Vanity Fair piece on Breonna Taylor] sent me this video of [Breonna] double-dutching with her mom… And then finding out Kenneth [Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend] was going to propose to her two weeks later… They’re an all-American family,” said Sherald, who included Taylor’s wedding band in the painting. “I tried to imagine how she would want herself to be pictured on Vanity Fair, but still speak to the moment through her body language and gaze.”
Sherald’s work can be found in museums around the country, including the BMA as it hosts the “All Things Bright and Beautiful” gallery in honor of one of Sherald’s paintings with the same name.
“That [All Things Bright and Beautiful] painting is actually really special to me,” said Sherald, 47, during the Zoom call. “Her name is Morgan and I met her while I was walking my dog, August Wilson. She wanted to know where that name came from, and then she started talking to me,” Sherald said. The artist asked Morgan her favorite subject in school and “[Morgan] said: ‘I’m not sure what else they can teach me, I read at a college level,’” Sherald recalled.
“I was impressed and went to her mom and said I wanted to paint her…” Morgan’s mom said the girl was in the 3rd grade and read at a 6th grade level, but Sherald was still impressed with her confidence. “She had on that dress that I painted her in. Upon completing the painting, I sent her a picture of the painting and she was like, ‘I think you did a pretty good job getting me.’. . . She was really amazing.”
Sherald said she finds models by going out and living her life. “I tried a model call, but it just didn’t feel right,” she said. “There’s something magical about running into the right person. I don’t produce a lot of paintings and that’s part of the reason why, because it takes time to find people to paint.” In New York where Sherald currently lives, she said it is easy to find the right subject. “I might be out getting groceries and spot someone who I think would be perfect.”
She spoke about growing up in Columbus, Georgia. “I don’t get warm and fuzzy feelings when I think about it. I was the daughter of one of the first Black dentists in the city, I was the only Black kid in elementary school and that presents its own set of problems,” she said. “I carried that weight with me, and the freedom I felt living in another city or traveling outside of the United States… Those experiences found their way into my work, to help me open up and process it.”
Sherald attended Clark Atlanta University for her bachelor’s in painting. “I needed a world where I could be Amy instead of Black Amy,” she said in reference to attending all-white schools as a child. “I got to be around my own people, being around [Black] girls who had that funky art style… In Columbus, everybody dressed a certain way, nobody was gay, nobody was Jewish and if you were, you didn’t say it,” she said. “My world just opened up when I went [to Clark Atlanta University] and I got to meet all kinds of different people.”
Sherald later graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. “When I got out of graduate school, I wasn’t painting because my dad and uncle were sick… I wasn’t working. I realized the work that I made in grad school wasn’t the work that I knew would be sophisticated enough to get where I wanted to be.” She described her art during that time as more abstract, unlike the realism she does today.
“What I recognized is I wasn’t seeing work about everyday Black people just being Black. Not doing anything, not teaching anything, not making any references about the past but just in leisure,” she said. “I wanted to embrace the idea of painting everyday people. As a woman, as a Black woman and as an oil painter I thought about what kind of power I had. These kinds of images have never been written into history in the first place.”
In 2016, the Smithsonian commissioned Sherald to paint Michelle Obama. “She’s just as amazing as everyone thinks she is… She’s even more nice,” Sherald said. “After I found out I received the commission, I went online and looked at all the images that are on the Internet of her and how her public self is presented, and I knew I wanted to capture something that was more personal,” Sherald said.
Sherald said her life isn’t all about her work, either. “When I get downtime, I’m taking it. I don’t want to talk about art all the time. There are so many other things in the world to explore… You can’t make work if you’re only making work, you have to stop,” Sherald said. During her downtime, she enjoys tap dancing, caring for her three dogs and cooking.