Painting Mrs Obama

Amy Sherald is one of the first black artists picked by the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery to do the former presidential couple's portraits

An undated handout image of a 2017 work, A Clear Unspoken Granted Magic (left), by Amy Sherald.
"It's hard for me to find people to paint. There has got to be something about them that only I can see. '' - ARTIST AMY SHERALD (above)PHOTOS: NYTIMES

BALTIMORE • Artist Amy Sherald has landed a portraiture assignment. Even if others think that that is a big deal, she is opting instead to look at the larger picture.

"I paint paintings of people. And I'm painting a painting of another person (in the new assignment)," she noted in her studio in Baltimore.

But the person she happens to be painting is Mrs Michelle Obama.

This month, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery announced that it had commissioned Sherald, 44, for the official portrait of the former American first lady. It also tapped Kehinde Wiley, 40, for the likeness of former president Barack Obama.

They are the first black artists to be commissioned to paint a presidential couple for the gallery.

Wiley already has global renown - a painting of his sold at auction for US$143,000 (S$194,700) and his work is in top institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

After a late start, Sherald is just taking off. The Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture has acquired one of her pieces.

An undated handout image of a 2017 work, A Clear Unspoken Granted Magic (left), by Amy Sherald.
An undated handout image of a 2017 work, A Clear Unspoken Granted Magic (above), by Amy Sherald.

In May, she will open her first major solo show at the Contemporary Art Museum St Louis.

The Obama commission is likely to catapult her into another league.

A tall, athletic woman in white-framed glasses, who lives with her Pekingese-Jack Russell terrier, Sherald said she was not allowed to speak about the commission until the portrait is unveiled next year.

Gallery director Kim Sajet would divulge only that Mrs Obama and Sherald have already met about the portrait, that the paintings typically involve multiple sittings and that this year's subjects chose the artists from about 20 portfolios submitted by the curators.

The Smithsonian plans to pay for both works with US$500,000 in private donations. So far, US$300,000 has been raised. This amount covers everything, including the artist's fee, which Ms Sajet would not specify.

Sherald's paintings typically sell for US$15,000 to US$25,000 each.

While Sherald could not discuss her interactions with Mrs Obama, what is known is that she typically invites her subjects to her studio where she photographs them in an outfit she has selected for them.

Or she may go to their homes to "shop from their closets" and photograph them there.

She always shoots her subjects outdoors with natural light. "I like the way it highlights the textures of the skin," she said.

The commission represents something of a departure for Sherald who usually chooses subjects who catch her eye on the street or in an airport.

She has yet to start the Obama portrait though it is due to be finished by year's end. "I'm not going home for the holidays," she said with a laugh.

Yet sitting among her paint tubes and three canvases-in-progress, she seemed remarkably calm in the face of such a daunting deadline, perhaps because she has confronted far tougher challenges.

She is a survivor of congestive heart failure, diagnosed at 30 just as she was earning her master's degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She received a transplant at 39.

She interrupted her career again, taking a four-year break to care for two ailing relatives.

But she does not think of herself as unlucky. In fact, she said she is keenly aware of those less fortunate around her - such as children in her community who are in foster care.

Sherald, who has taught art at the Baltimore City detention centre, hopes to give back financially as soon as she pays off her school loans and can more easily afford her extensive medication: 13 different pills a day.

Her parents wanted her to go to medical school, but she knew she was an artist. "I don't feel like I chose to do it," she said. "I don't know what else I'm good at."

Sherald paints only African-Americans. Having studied European art history, she is keenly aware of the scarcity of black faces. "There's not enough images of us," she said.

Still, she added that "it's hard for me to find people to paint. There has got to be something about them that only I can see".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'Painting Mrs Obama'. Print Edition | Subscribe