August 30, 1973 –
Amy Sherald was born in Columbus, Georgia to Geraldine and Amos Sherald. During her childhood, Sherald attended a private school where she was one of a few Black students. Those early experiences with race as a Black child in predominantly White environments would have a tremendous impact on her.
Sherald’s father was a dentist and her parents dreamed of her working in healthcare. Instead, she found her way to art, specifically painting. For undergrad, Sherald enrolled at Clark-Atlanta University. While there she worked as an apprentice to Spelman College’s Dr. Arturo Lindsay, an artist, and historian. In 1997, Sherald completed her bachelor’s degree and took part in Spelman’s Artist-in-Residence program.
Combining her childhood experiences with her talent and skills, Sherald’s work was largely autobiographical. After returning to America, Sherald moved to Baltimore to pursue an MFA in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art. While in grad school, the themes and style of her work began to change. The focus shifted from her personal experiences to a broader commentary on the Black experience in America.
2004 would be a memorable year for Sherald for both positive and negative reasons. That year marked the successful completion of her graduate degree. But unfortunately, it was also the year when Sherald was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. The condition is a serious disease of the heart muscle that can cause heart failure and lead to death.
In addition to concerns about her health, this period was also spent worrying about the health of other family members. At times Sherald was able to continue her habit of traveling abroad to expand her skills. In this case, spending time in Norway, China, Aruba, and South America. Yet, she only intermittently spent time on her work. Instead, a great deal of her physical and emotional energy was devoted to caring for her brother who was dying from cancer as well as her mother and aunts.
Sherald entered a new phase of life after receiving a heart transplant in 2012. W.E.B. Du Bois had put together a collection of portraits for the 1900 Paris Exposition that depicted Black people as affluent rather than the stereotypical images that were the norm. Inspired by the series, Sherald began to create paintings where the subjects had grayscale skin tones with vividly colored clothing set against plain and often empty backgrounds of a single color. While the people in Sherald’s paintings are typically Black, their skin is gray to visibly disconnect race from color.
By this point, Sherald had spent years studying and honing her skills. Her work was being exhibited around the country. Yet, despite her activity, Sherald remained relatively unknown.
That would change in 2016 when she became the first woman and first Black person to be awarded the grand prize in the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Sherald’s award-winning piece Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) drew inspiration from Alice in Wonderland and depicts a young Black girl with grayscale skin wearing a blue dress and red hat while daintily holding an oversized white tea cup. Sherald received a $25,000 cash prize and the painting was hung in the museum.
The win brought Sherald national attention and played a role in her being commissioned to paint First Lady Michelle Obama’s official portrait. Along with Kehinde Wiley who completed President Obama’s portrait, Sherald became one of only two Black artists to complete portraits for the National Portrait Gallery’s collection of presidential portraits. The painting depicts First Lady Obama with her skin in Sherald’s trademark grayscale set against a light blue background wearing a predominantly black and white dress with splashes of color reminiscent of patchwork quilts.
Sherald has received the Anonymous Was A Woman Award (2017), David C. Driskell Prize (2018), and Smithsonian Ingenuity Award (2019) among others. Several of Sherald’s works are now on display in collections and museums around the world. Sherald is still based in Baltimore where she completes about 15 portraits each year. Her portraits typically sell for around $50,000 each but her portrait The Bathers which was completed in 2015 sold for $4.2 million in 2020.
- “Amy Sherald.” 2020. NMWA. National Museum of Women in the Arts. September 11, 2020. https://nmwa.org/art/artists/amy-sherald/.
- “Amy Sherald.” n.d. Hauser & Wirth. Accessed September 15, 2022. https://www.hauserwirth.com/artists/11577-amy-sherald/.
- Fikes, Robert. 2019. “Amy Sherald (1973- ).” BlackPast.org. August 8, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/sherald-amy-1973/.
- Paik, Sherry. 2021. “Amy Sherald Biography, Artworks & Exhibitions.” Ocula. Ocula Limited. 2021. https://ocula.com/artists/amy-sherald/.
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