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Amy Sherald shares inspiration, artistic process during APSU public lecture

(Posted Sept. 28, 2018)

Amy Sherald, already well known before launching to fame with 2018’s official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama, spoke to a nearly filled Morgan University Center Ballroom on Thursday about her development and rise as a portrait artist.

Her portraits focus on issues of race and identity in the American South, and she shared with the audience, many of them art students, how African-American history and the representation of the black body in historic and modern images influence her work.

Sherald was at Austin Peay State University as part of the Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts Visiting Artist Speaker Series.

  Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

After college “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Sherald told the audience. “I spent a year looking at other artists’ work and tried to figure out if I was in a room with these artists, what kind of work would I make?

“How can I make work that would be historically relevant?” she continued. “Because that’s what I needed in order to be a part of the greater conversation. For me, I got into this to leave behind a legacy.”

Sherald looked to history, both the nation’s and her own, to find that relevancy. 


She was drawn to the childhood photo portraits of her sisters and her. One shows the three posed, as most family portraits of the 1970s do, hands on shoulders with the sisters ordered youngest to oldest. They’re in Sunday-best dresses.

“I’m drawn to this image because it was taken close to the time I was starting to have the impulse to create,” Sherald said. “In a lot of ways, my existence had already been codified through language and imagery.

“I was already covered with words and labels, and an already long list of limitations based on my race and gender.”

She similarly was drawn to a photo of her grandmother, which you can see here with the Obama portrait (http://npg.si.edu/blog/looking-amy-sheralds-portrait-michelle-obama).

Daguerreotypes from the 1800s also captivated her: “I became fascinated with the dignified daguerreotypes and photographs of black families, soldiers, men and women.”

She showed a famous photo of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Douglass was photographed 160 times and considered photography a crucial aid in ending slavery (a good article is here: http://www.wbur.org/artery/2016/07/21/picturing-frederick-douglass).

“Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois took advantage of the camera and employed it specifically to change the way black people are seen,” Sherald said. “He engaged the politics or representation through photographic images. His images were more than just vanity sittings.”


“For me photography became this vernacular language, capturing people in their immediacy,” Sherald said. “So, I began to connect these photographs and daguerreotypes along with snapshots of African-Americans in everyday life with paintings.

“They become symbolic to me of a history of American blacks that were not rendered in paint but in vibrant and intimate photographs,” she added. “Before it became fashionable to tweet, Instagram or snap our own carefully staged reality with selfie sticks and flattering filters, these families empowered themselves with Polaroids to curate their own lives.” 

Sherald paints her stylized portraits from photos she’s taken of people she finds walking the streets, mostly in Baltimore, where she lives.

“When I meet my models, I’m just out doing what I do.”


Displaying her painting “Innocent You, Innocent Me,” she said, “The images are simple. There’s not a lot going on in the images, but they exert a pressure for interpretation, because they’re made in a response to the world I was given.”

Regarding “Innocent You, Innocent Me” (you can look at it here, https://theartstack.com/artist/amy-sherald/innocent-you-innocent-m), “When it comes to black masculinity, it’s impossible to define it without the trappings and the stereotypes that are actuated to portrayals of black men in our society. That perception controls their reality.”


Michelle Obama selected Sherald to portray her for the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian. Sherald helped Obama pick the dress for the portrait and snapped photos, which the artist worked from.

The resulting portrait, as the National Portrait Gallery notes, reveals an archetypal view of the subject, emphasized by the flattened, stylized forms. 

“This portrait holds a different kind of symbolism, and therefore transcends beyond the personality of our former first lady, queen,” Sherald told the audience. “This portrait of the first lady pauses at the sight of contradiction where black creativity complicates and resists what blackness is supposed to be, just as photography has done and continues to do.”