‘I just understand that life is short and that waking up is the best thing that could ever happen’ Amy Sherald. Photograph: Harry McNally
She painted Michelle Obama, and her portrait of Breonna Taylor was hailed as the most significant work of art produced in the twenty-first century. Sherald now emphasizes Black figures who take the role in significant historical times in America.
Amy Sherald just needs ten of them. The aim for the artist is to spend a little amount of time alone each morning, but this is much easier said than done. Sherald, who lives with her mother and boyfriend Kevin Pemberton, says she tries to get up earlier than everyone and enjoy 10 minutes of alone. “When [my mom] wakes up and hears me, she says, “Hello! It’s time for Amy and mom,'” Sherald jokes.
Quiet time will arrive eventually. The World We Make, her first solo show in Europe, is set to open in a month, but the 49-year-old artist is already busy preparing for a month-long vacation. With her trademark use of grisaille—”[I just say] I paint in black and white,” she chuckles when I ask her how to pronounce the French term—she claims the exhibition is “a natural next step”. In order to combat the marginalization of her art and to construct a vocabulary around her identity, she substitutes a greyish tone for Black skin tones, “bringing a kind of poetry to Black figuration.”
In Sherald’s latest show, the painted figures’ vibrant, carefully chosen clothes and their unbroken eye contact with the audience have been preserved. The World We Make also references to historical pictures, reinserting Black people into important periods in the western canon when our effect is downplayed, in addition to the common people shown in her art. One example of the artist’s reconstruction is her rendition of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s V-J Day in Times Square photograph, which includes a Black gay couple.
Amy Sherald’s For Love, And for Country, 2022. Photograph: Joseph Hyde/Amy Sherald/Hauser & Wirth
A “fried” Sherald admits that even if the paintings are finished, the show’s preparations and last-minute travel plans still need to be completed. We meet in Sherald’s stylish New Jersey house where we sit on white, fluffy stools around her dining room table. Sherald is wearing jeans and a grey crew neck, and she claims that this is her default attitude.
She claims, “I’m pretty much always making the best of everything.” “Because the alternative is ineffective,” the author explains. The four years since the artist, who was born in Columbus, Georgia, won global acclaim for her 2018 image of Michelle Obama, have been explosive for her. Sherald describes her as a legend. She exemplifies modern femininity for me and many other women, in our opinion.
Sherald’s reputation has grown significantly after he painted Obama and won the 2016 Outwin Boochever portrait competition held by the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Sherald had a cameo in the television adaptation of Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and was dressed by Thom Browne, the “coolest clique in fashion,” along with eight other culture-makers.
Amy Sherald’s Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama, 2018. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Sherald has built her achievements on a strong foundation: a decades-long art career with numerous exhibitions, apprenticeships, and a master of fine arts in painting. While some have mistakenly characterized her numerous accolades as shotgun successes, a mild frustration Sherald experienced after the Obama portrait’s unveiling, she has built her successes on a solid foundation. It’s crucial, in Sherald’s opinion, that people comprehend that such things do not occur suddenly.
Her toughest adjustment has been dealing with her rising stardom. Sherald adds, “I’ve learnt to establish a public presence. It’s not that it’s fake, however. However, I had to develop my public persona. She values access and generosity, and she weaves these values across all facets of her life and work. So, if an autograph needed to be signed, she signed it. Did an admirer want a hug? He gave her a hug. But it had an impact, particularly since she “isn’t really an outgoing person, per se.” Social obligations in abundance and an abundance of public activities became draining. According to Sherald, “I would get a migraine for two days because that kind of extroversion is like physical exhaustion to an introvert.”
Sherald now understands the importance of boundaries and recharging over three years after the aforementioned unveiling: “You have to learn what your limits are and then learn how to say no.” The artist does find that certain people in her life help her refuel. Sherald’s dogs George, Weezie, and August Wilson welcomed me when I first entered the room. They are three members of Sherald’s support group. As the three play-fights close to Sherald’s feet, she says, “They should get paid as therapists.”
Amy Sherald’s Breonna Taylor, 2020. Photograph: Joseph Hyde/Amy Sherald/Hauser & Wirth
Sherald continues to be accessible to new artists who want a mentor who can explain the inner workings of the art industry and market despite all the changes to her life. She may have an easygoing demeanor in part because of her southern upbringing in the US. Or maybe it’s her fervent embracing of non-New York City existence, which pierces the superficial standards for being a “real” artist. Or maybe Sherald is just a “giver,” a position she claims to feel comfortable in and one that has been forced upon her amid many personal and familial crises.
At age 28, Sherald’s father passed away from Parkinson’s illness. Lung cancer claimed her brother’s life at age 36. She had a heart transplant at the age of 39 after overcoming major health issues of her own. As she puts it, “I just really understand that life is short and that waking up today [is] the best thing that could ever happen.”
Sherald is not concerned with embellishment or superficiality in any way, either in her persona or her artistic work. She is honest and forthright, setting limits on what she would publicly reveal but never going into hiding. She embraces Black inner life and an honesty that goes beyond simple observations, much like her paintings. It involves a discussion of what belongs in our public versus private narratives and what doesn’t.
Black individuals are often exposed for white learning, curiosities, and improvement. With racial justice demonstrations spreading throughout America, the summer of 2020 turned out to be no different. White people were made aware of their own potential for violence by the widespread sharing of the suffering and trauma of Black people. Sherald’s celebrated postmortem image of Breonna Taylor, who was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair in September 2020, is just one example of how her art continues to be an invitation to go beyond the mere observation of Blackness as associated with a heritage of violence and oppression. Sherald adds about Taylor, “[I] kind of feel like she’s with me every day.”
Amy Sherald’s To Tell Her Story You Must Walk in Her Shoes, 2022. Photograph: Joseph Hyde/Amy Sherald/Hauser & Wirth
Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency room technician, was shot and murdered on March 13, 2020, by Louisville police officers who broke into her apartment while she was sleeping. It was challenging to create a portrayal of Taylor that goes beyond the gruesome manner in which her life ended. Sherald says of Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer, “I wish that this momma could have her daughter back because it didn’t have to happen.”
However, Sherald produced something awe-inspiring, dressing Taylor in a turquoise outfit in lieu of her EMT uniform, resting her left hand delicately on her hip, and placing the engagement ring her fiance never gave her on her right hand. Like all of Sherald’s work, Taylor’s portrait received high praise from critics; Forbes dubbed it the “most important painting of the 21st century.”
The image of Taylor was Sherald’s “opportunity to really have a personal reaction and connection to that moment, offering something that could codify that moment, historically and in context” since she was ill and unable to take part in the 2020 racial justice marches. (Sherald also contributed $1 million to start two grant programs in Taylor’s honor.)
Sherald continues to face criticism for her choice of grey to represent Black skin, especially in the wake of the Obama image. She poses the questions as a natural byproduct of the discussion and inquiry that good work should inspire. Sherald, however, draws a sharp line when it comes to issues about whether or not she will depict white people in her work. Even to look at my work and then consider yourself, she claims, shows a lack of understanding. “It’s the most honorable thing you could do. Every action I take is a statement that Black lives count. Black lives matter historically in the canon of American art, and they matter historically, in my opinion.
Sherald acknowledges that she dislikes the word “revolutionary,” but she refrains from calling her work that way (“That’s just me and my own self-conscious weirdness”). Instead of a lack of confidence, she argues that the phrase should be associated with politicians and activists like Stacey Abrams and Angela Davis. She finds it strange when people make broad claims about the influence of her work or her status as one of the most important contemporary artists. “If it’s written after I’m gone, but that’s how my life unfolds, then that’s good. However, I believe that I have always only ever regarded myself and my contribution as the work. It does its job while sitting in the world.
For the time being, legacy and remembering issues are significant, but the job itself continues to come first. She has been kept primed and prepared for the plenty that has come her way because of it. “I remained committed to producing the piece. And I was given the chance.
From October 12 to December 23, Hauser & Wirth in London will host Amy Sherald: The World We Make.
Thanks to Gloria Oladipo at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.