The national portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama painted by a Columbus native was unveiled Monday at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
Amy Sherald, a Columbus native and nationally acclaimed artist who has a painting now hanging at the Columbus Museum, was selected by Obama in October for the project.
The portrait was unveiled along with one of former President Barack Obama painted by Artist Kehinde Wiley—best known for his vibrant, large-scale paintings of African Americans.
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Both painters were commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Referring to Sherald’s work, specifically, a news release from the Smithsonian reads: “Sherald challenges stereotypes and probes notions of identity through her life-size paintings of African Americans.”
Over the years, she developed a unique style, using gray colors for skin tones, challenging perceptions of color representing race.
Sherald, a graduate of St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School, grew up in a prominent black Columbus family. Her father, the late Dr. Amos P. Sherald III., was a local dentist. His uncle, Edward “Big” Sherald, operated Sherald’s Mortuary and a barbershop for many years.
In 2016, Sherald won the prestigious National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, rising from among 2,500 entries in the national competition. Her winning painting, “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance),” hung at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery until January 2017.
In September, Sherald returned to Columbus as guest lecturer for an inaugural event organized by the Alma Thomas Society at The Columbus Museum. One of her paintings, “What’s different about Alice is that she has the most incisive way of telling the truth,” was one of three pieces purchased by the society with a donation made by Aflac CEO Dan Amos and his wife, Kathelen.
In an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Sherald said she discovered her love for art while dabbling in watercolors at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School.
Her art teacher, Geri Davis, recognized her potential in kindergarten and then nurtured her talent for the next 12 years.
But after leaving Pacelli, Sherald took a few detours - majoring in pre-med to please her parents until she came to her senses, waiting tables to make ends meet and returning home to care for ailing relatives. Yet, she always knew deep down inside where she was headed.
“I always say, ‘I didn’t get into this not to be in a museum,’” she told the Ledger-Enquirer. “The only reason that I wanted to do this is because I want to change people’s expectations as to what they may see when they walk into an institution that tells them what is valuable and to validate peoples’ existence in so many ways.”
Sherald, a heart transplant survivor, said her success didn’t come easily, and she waited on tables until her late 30s. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor, not an artist. So she developed her skills while flipping through encyclopedias that the family had at home, paying close attention to paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and other famous artists. Her knack for portraits was a natural progression.
“I started going to the library to look for different narratives that were extracted from the dominant historical narrative, like ideas about blackness that exist but aren’t normally seen or spoken about,” she explained. She didn’t find what she was looking for, so she started painting her own images.
“It’s the re-imagining of one’s identity without you internalizing who you are based off of stereotypes,” she said.
Sherald has a bachelor’s degree from Clark-Atlanta University and a master’s in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She was a Spelman College International Artist-in-Residence in Portobelo, Panama in 1997.
Her Outwin painting, has been on tour since 2016 and will open at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City in October. She also has had solo shows at the Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago; Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore; and University of North Carolina, Sonja Haynes Stone Center at Chapel Hill. In May 2018, she will present a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis.
Sherald said her paintings are of every day people, but from a different perspective.
“I’m painting the paintings that I want to see in museums,” she said. “And I’m hopefully presenting them in a way that’s universal enough that they become representative of something different than just a black body on a canvas.”