On Wednesday, February 6th, the High Museum of Art hosted a talk with Spelman’s own Andrea Barnwell Brownlee Ph.D. and Amy Sherald, the painter behind Michelle Obama’s iconic portrait that lives in the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington DC.
Sherald, 45, is native of Columbus, Georgia –– a small town she where grew up as one of three siblings. With her father’s background in medicine, serving as one of the first black doctors in the area and her enrollment at a predominantly White Catholic school, both contribute to her early reflections on racism which transitioned into adulthood.
Today, Sherald’s work focuses on the beauty of people of color and the perspective of how outside communities view them through her work. With a no-nonsense mother who kept her children in line and a family that maintained a strict Sabbath tradition on weekends, there was plenty of time for her to delve into her imagination.
The unfiltered artist often recounts the significance of a black and white photo of her grandmother Jewel who she never knew personally as a muse.
“When I see that photo I see a self-satisfied woman, I see myself.” This photo was one of many stored in a cabinet. In 1986, she saw the first painting featuring a Black person, Object Permanence by Bo Bartlett –– a White man who painted himself as a Black man and was forever changed. When she saw it, she was intensely moved and discovered painting was her purpose.
After graduating from Clark Atlanta University and attaining her masters at Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore, she found herself on a quest for her “Art DNA” as Sherald struggled to pay her bills. Upon visiting the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida and viewing the 2003 movie Big Fish, she found herself closer to finding the theme of her art. But it was not until she saw Kara Walker’s exhibit in 2008, that she was struck by the fact that there were limitations to the African American narrative, especially her own.
That moment of clarity led her to the lynching photo book “Without Sanctuary,” whose front cover inspired her painting, dubbed Puppetmaster (2008), –– her first piece after grad school. When one looks closely in the background of the piece you will see muted images of black bald headed women which had been her graduate school trademark, along with hanging men.
Sherald’s work began to delve into identity and self-repression, bringing to life photographs of real people she encountered –– people with a natural awkwardness that make strong statements on her canvas. As we look at their faces as viewers she wants us to ask ourselves about their place in the world. She wants Black people to receive love and allow Whites to internalize this love in a way she has not seen in the mainstream media.
Sherald is best known for painting Black faces using grayscale by default. After studying under renowned artist Odd Nerdrum in Norway she began using the grisaille style.
Her creativity heightened following a heart transplant in 2012. “You learn so much being on the brink of death. You learn to live fearlessly,” she said. Sherald developed a new sense of self but despite her growing confidence, she admitted to being extremely nervous when interviewing with The Obamas, as she was one of five candidates being considered to design the First Lady’s portrait.
When Sherald was chosen, she admitted to struggling to pay for her studio space and once she got the job, stressed about how she was going to “..get the money to buy the paint for the portrait of Michelle!” She also shared that Michelle’s validation pushed her to push herself. “I deserve more! I deserve a good man,” she joked. “I accepted myself the way she saw me.”
Amy is indeed an inspiration having only become famous in the last year. Despite her personal and financial challenges and sacrifices, she is, in fact, a living testimony to the beauty that is birthed out of faith and perseverance.
Sherald is preparing for an upcoming 2019 exhibit Hauser & Wirth Worldwide. Her current exhibit at Spelman College of Art is available for preview until May 18.
For more on Amy Sherald’s work please visit amysherald.com or follow her on social media @asherald
Post office to be named after Jimi Hendrix
Music legend Jimi Hendrix is set to have a post office named after him located near his Washington hometown, The Seattle Times reports.
According to the outlet, a bill was signed into law re-naming the Renton Highlands Post Office the James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix Post Office in honor of the icon.
The bill was backed by Rep. Adam Smith of Bellevue and a number of members of the Washington state delegation in the House as well as both Washington U.S. senators, Patty Murray, and Maria Cantwell.
The Renton post office nearby Jimi Hendrix Memorial in the Greenwood Memorial Park Cemetery, where he is buried on Oct. 1, 1970.
Hendrix passed away on Sept. 18, 1970, in London.
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