Firsts

Amy Sherald

First black woman to paint an official First Lady portrait

‘People who don’t quit eventually rise to the top.’

As a child I was very quiet. I always drew, or I was painting or looking at paintings in encyclopedias. I kept myself busy with pencil and paper all the time. Art is the thing that I knew I had to do with my life. The first time I went to a museum on a school field trip, I saw a painting of a black person. I remember standing there with my mouth open and just looking at it. I knew in that moment that I could do what I wanted to do.

I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure coming out of graduate school at 30 years old. They really didn’t know where it came from. I was running an eight-minute mile and had no idea that my heart was failing. Ten years later I received my transplant at 39. The decision that I made during those ten years was to focus solely on my art. People who don’t quit eventually rise to the top.

In March 2016, I found out that I won the National Portrait Gallery Competition. I remember giggling to myself because I complained about having to spend $50 on the application fee. I had to borrow money to get a dress from Rent the Runway and to get to D.C. It was one of those moments where you’re at the precipice and you’re about to fall over, and then all of a sudden something happens. It got my work seen.

I paint everyday people and want the images to be recognized as universal. For black viewers, it’s a place of rest and a place to receive love, to walk into a space like a museum and see an image of a person that looks like you looking back at you. People take for granted that not seeing yourself can lead you to not loving yourself.

I found out that Michelle Obama chose me to paint her official portrait in September 2016. I tend to be like really stoic in times where everyone else is like, oh my god. I was like, alright, this is cool. I can do this. And then I had to forget about it, because it’s just a lot to carry around, having to make this painting basically for the world. I had moments when I was driving in my car and I would let myself feel it and cry a little bit. I joke around and I say I didn’t survive a heart transplant not to do this.

Working with Michelle Obama was really fun. There are people who don’t normally go to museums that are interested in art now. They are seeing themselves in different ways. That’s the most important part and focus for myself. Parker Curry, the little girl who went viral looking at the painting, thinks Michelle is a queen and that the National Portrait Gallery is her castle. She has a real, live person to look up to, versus a cartoon character. There’s a difference between fantasy and reality. Michelle Obama is reality. This painting is a first and she is a first. So it makes sense that that image doesn’t look like the other images, that it is as different as she is in the arc of history.

Sherald will show her work in New York City in the fall of 2019.

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