In Conversation with Amy Sherald: An Observer and a Maker
Amy Sherald is a contemporary American portrait painter, who lives and works in Baltimore, MD. Her striking portraits of African-Americans, painted with a signature grayscale skin tones against vibrant backgrounds, highlight the beauty and diversity of black people. Amy’s portraits call into question the way in which identities such as race, class, and gender have been ignored, undervalued, and often lumped together in the history of Western art. In 2016, Amy won the renowned Outwin Boochever Prize from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. We were thrilled to speak with Amy about her latest inspirations in and out of the art world and her exciting upcoming projects.
Imani Higginson: When were you first introduced to art and when did you first label yourself an artist?
Amy Sherald: I knew I wanted to be an artist from a very young age, maybe at 6 years old. I think I finally started to call myself an artist in high school. My first introduction to art was a museum field trip in the 5th or 6th grade.
Can you describe how portraiture became your expertise? For me, your work recalls artists such as the late Barkley L. Hendricks. I know you have said you are inspired by Bo Bartlett. What other artists or people inspire you?
I didn’t grow up looking at a lot of art. Bo Bartlett was the first contemporary figurative painter that I saw as a young child. So for me being an artist at the time was never anything more than learning how to render the figure realistically. Therefore, I made a natural progression towards portraiture. As far as current inspirations I’ve been really artistically inspired by chefs. I’ve been watching Chef’s Table on Netflix and really enjoy seeing their different approaches to the kitchen and their relationship with food.
The way your work is titled is so powerful. I understand your sister names your work? How did that come to be?
My sister is the writer in the family. I’ve never been a woman of many words and a little reserved. I’m an observer. I like to sit, listen and watch, and she naturally thinks in stories. So, when I was struggling to find names, every now and then, she could see the paintings with fresh eyes and give me back what was already in my mind. Sometimes it took two or three titles for her to get it right but we would put our heads together and it became a really cool thing and a way for her to be a part of what I do.
"My sister is the writer in the family. I’ve never been a woman of many words and a little reserved. I’m an observer. I like to sit, listen and watch, and she naturally thinks in stories."
Your work is in two of Washington, D.C.'s most important museums, the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In addition, you won the prestigious Outwin Boochever Prize from the National Portrait Gallery in 2016. What do D.C. and Baltimore mean to you?
Baltimore means a lot to me. It’s a city that I moved to not knowing that I would find my greatness there and that I would still be living there 15 years later. It has ushered in all the things and people I needed to get me where I am today. It’s a special place full of possibilities with a rich historical memory and despite its struggles, it’s a wonderful place to live. It needs a lot of love and I plan on giving back to my community there. It’s a livable city for artists and a wonderful place to call home.
Washington D.C. is also loaded with historical memories as well, and having the White House up the street during the Obama administration was a constant reminder that this country we live in would not be as great as it is without people that look like me. So I’m so proud to be a part of the Smithsonian’s mission of preserving our heritage, discovering knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world. The sole purpose of my work was to become part of art history and to be within these institutions that conserve, and collect the artifacts of our artistic cultural history.
"Baltimore means a lot to me. It’s a city that I moved to not knowing that I would find my greatness there and that I would still be living there 15 years later. It has ushered in all the things and people I needed to get me where I am today."
How do you think the art world is changing in our current political climate? What do you make of the number of shows on view this summer about black women artists [i.e. We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985 at the Brooklyn Museum and Power: Work by African American Women from the Nineteenth Century to Now at Sprüth Magers LA]?
As artists we have been able to use our art forms in ways that are more impactful than anything else at times. I’ve seen push back and resistance from museum institutions hanging work by Latinx, women, women of color, and Muslim artists. Curating is definitely a way to subvert power structures at play and question the status quo. Museum institutions have the power to influence people’s ideas because they qualify what matters in the eyes of the world. So seeing artists in these places is important and always has been, long before the current political climate making it necessary.