Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald built a reputation in the art world for painting highly stylized portraits of what you might call ordinary people. But she became a household name in wider circles this year for her portrait of a rather extraordinary subject: the first African-American First Lady of the United States.
An exhibition of Sherald’s work is at Contemporary Art Museum, where it remains on view through Aug. 19.
When the official portraits of Michelle Obama and former President Barack Obama were unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., in February, contemporary art took a brief but perhaps meaningful turn in the national media spotlight. The portraits, each painted by African-American artists and each bearing an unconventional aesthetic, spurred discussions about contemporary art and the importance of engaging with the work of artists who work outside the Eurocentric tradition of formal portraiture.
The show at Contemporary Art Museum, which was already scheduled when Sherald’s high-profile commission was announced last year, includes seven of her works. (Kehinde Wiley, who painted President Obama’s official portrait, will show series of paintings of St. Louis residents at St. Louis Art Museum starting in October.)
Sherald spoke about her work with St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy Goodwin.
Jeremy Goodwin: How do you find your subjects?
Amy Sherald: Going to the grocery store, going to the gym, or sometimes just driving up the street I might see somebody walking down the street in the opposite direction and I’ll pull over and run after them. So just random circumstance.
Goodwin: So when you’re creating the portrait of the first lady, do you go about the project like you do with a subject that you met on the street and tapped on the shoulder and said I’d like to paint you?
Sherald: I did. Yeah.
Goodwin: Was she a good sitter?
Sherald: Yeah, she was excellent. She’s used to having a camera on her. So it was great, yeah.
Goodwin: One of the things that have happened since folks got a look at that piece is the photograph that went viral of the little girl, who’s in the National Portrait Gallery. She’s 2 years old; she’s gazing up with just a sense of wonderment. And the story is that she told her mother that that lady up there must be a queen, and ‘I want to be a queen, too.’
Sherald: I got to meet her, she’s very cute.
Goodwin: You met her?
Sherald: Yeah. So after they moved the painting, I met her there. And since they moved it upstairs, it’s in one the cavernous pavilions that they have, and she ran up to me and she’s like: ‘You painted ‘Chelle Obama!’ And I said, ‘Yes I did paint Michelle Obama.’ And she said: ‘Yes, you did.’ And then she’s like: ‘This ‘Chelle Obama’s castle.’ So she thinks the National Portrait Gallery is her castle.
Goodwin: Do you remember seeing that photo when it popped up online?
Sherald: Yeah, I did. I shared it on my Instagram.
Goodwin: How did you feel?
Sherald: I thought about the moment that I had when I went on my first museum field trip, and I saw a portrait of Bill Bartlett. And he had done a self-portrait of himself with a black man. And just how stunned I was to see that image. I didn’t think I realized until that moment that I had never seen myself in a painting before.
Goodwin: Right, because traditionally, portraiture has a strong association with the patronage system and essentially white, European aristocrats. Is part of your artistic project to reclaim some of that space?
Sherald: It is about reclaiming time, yes, reclaiming space and time. And just putting as many images out there that I possibly can, in the course of my lifetime.
Goodwin: To the broader point, you’ve described your work as a whole as reflecting blackness in America. Would you unpack that a bit?
Sherald: I consider myself an American realist in one sense or the other. And for me, when I looked around at art that was being made by, say, my contemporaries, and I looked at the American art canon, I realized that there was an absence of images of just black people just being black. Just an image of them being themselves. And I think that’s really important. Because of the absence of people of color in the art narrative though, it makes a different kind of statement. So it’s not the same, but it can be read in many different ways. Our presence still changes the way that people see themselves and the way that people see places.
Goodwin: Walking through the gallery looking at your work, it’s very striking that almost without exception the subjects are looking right at the viewer, inviting or maybe even challenging the viewer to engage with that. Is that a big part of what you’re going for here?
Sherald: It is. The gaze is really important. My subjects are no longer under the gaze of other people, they’re there to meet your gaze. So if you look at a lot of European paintings, if there is a black figure in it they’re usually adoring the white woman in the painting or they’re there as a prop. And so the people I paint are there for a specific reason, and that’s to meet your gaze. And to interact with you.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin