“I’m just going to pretend it’s not a big deal,” said Amy Sherald ’04 (LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting M.F.A.) in a recent New York Times profile following the announcement that she was commissioned to paint the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. “I paint paintings of people. And I’m painting a painting of another person.”
Sherald, whose painting Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) was the first-prize winner of the Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, along with artist Kehinde Wiley, who was selected to paint the portrait of former President Barack Obama, are the first African-American artists commissioned by the Smithsonian for presidential portraits. Their portraits are scheduled to go on display at the National Portrait Gallery in early 2018, and will be added to the Gallery’s permanent collection of over 1,600 presidential portraits.
Sherald joined MICA’s painting faculty as the McMillan/Stewart Endowed Chair at the beginning of the fall 2017 semester, and the Smithsonian commission follows a string of recent successes, including acquisitions by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. Her work was also included in the Studio Museum in Harlem’s “Fictions” exhibition, and her first solo museum show will open in May 2018 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Humility aside, Sherald was handpicked by Michelle Obama from a group of approximately 20 artist portfolios that museum curators organized and shared with the former First Lady.
Describing her process, Sherald often plans her portraits without a specific subject in mind, relying more on intuition and feeling.
“Sometimes I find the costume first and then have to find the person to model, as I did with Miss Everything. I will wait as long as a year to find the right person for each piece,” Sherald explained in a profile published in the spring 2017 issue of Velocity.
“I can be in the grocery store — anywhere — but when I see the person I want, I know it immediately. The person embodies the depth and weight of black history, along with an aesthetic self-fashioning of that history.”
Sherald’s waiting certainly paid off, as she would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable subject than Michelle Obama.