Art Talk with Painter Amy Sherald

By Samra Khawaja
Artist Amy Sherald standing in front of her painting.
Photo by: Paul Morigi/AP Images for National Portrait Gallery

“I don't think my successes would've come to me as easily, had I not committed to making the work in such a way that made me uncomfortable.” -- Amy Sherald

For Amy Sherald, it was never a question that art was her destiny. To say that the Baltimore-based painter has had her share of challenges would be an understatement. She’s had to create an identity as an artist in a household where art had no home (except for a painting from Ethan Allan in the family room). She also had to wait tables until she was 38 to support her art career. Together these experiences drive her to create art work that explores the idea of identity in the cultural sphere. 

Sherald is the winner of National Portrait Gallery’s 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Her winning portrait, Miss Everything, is on display at the museum through January 2017. To learn more about Sherald, we hopped on the phone with her to find out what drives her to create a particular piece, how she sees art as a tool to talk about social justice, and what she wants people to take away from her art.  NEA: What was your journey to becoming an artist? When/how did you decide you’d pursue the arts as a career? SHERALD: I always say I feel like it was something I was born to do because it's just what I do well. It just came naturally. I still had to work really hard, but it's something that I was drawn to since I was in the second grade. I remember in English class…  I would draw a little picture at the end of all of my sentences. I would take art in school and then I would take these private classroom lessons after school.  Art was not a thing for my family and is still not a thing for my family. My family will not go to a museum unless I say we have to go there. That's why I really feel like it was something I was supposed to do because there was no directive that pushed me in that direction. My house was bible study on Friday was very strict and there were not a lot of art museum adventures. I didn't go to New York until I was 28 for the first time. I maybe went to a museum when I was in the sixth grade. I did not go again until college and I only went because it was an assignment. That second time was like, "Wow this is really amazing!" I feel like I've been oblivious my whole life up until graduate school. My mother was willing to support art as a summer program for me. She never supported it as a career decision until I won the National Gallery Portrait Competition. After that she was finally like, "Oh my goodness, this is what you've been doing all these years! You're kind of a big deal!"  NEA: Can you talk about the inspiration behind Miss Everything? SHERALD: I found a dress at a vintage store here in Baltimore City in a neighborhood called Hampden. I often walk up and down that street looking to see if I can find something. The dress was on the rack. It was orange with crème polka dots and I'm like, "This is perfect, but this is the tiniest dress I've ever seen in my life." I had it for about six months before I ran into Crystal, who I know. When I looked at her, and I've looked at her a million times before, but when I looked at her in that moment, I'm like, "I think she's the one that's for this dress." So, I finally was able to pull it off the shelves and she came over and it fit perfectly. It was even a little bit too big because she's so slender.  My friend Jeffery, he had given me a collection of his aunt Harriet's hats. I had just been holding on to those for years, so I put the hat on her. Everything just kind of came together [for making the portrait]. I had been thinking about Alice in Wonderland and thinking about these alternative narratives. That's where the teacup is coming from—bending temporal space and thinking of yourself outside of how the world sees you. 
Painting of a young African American girl in a blue polka dot dress, wearing a red hat, and holding a white large teacup.
Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance) by Amy Sherald, oil on canvas, 2013. Frances and Burton Reifler © Amy Sherald
NEA: How do you think about inspiration in terms of your work?  SHERALD: I was inspired to paint things that I didn't see within the art historical narrative. I'm not sure what came first, exactly. I was always drawn to the figure. It came naturally to paint people that looked like me, but then I also recognized that the art history books that I looked up weren’t culturally relevant. The images [of people who looked like me] weren't there. I understand the importance of being represented at a cultural level and being able to see reflections of yourself, and society, and in culture. I basically paint people who I want to see exist in the world, but then I also want to creative a narrative that's extricated from a dominant historical narrative.  Self-narration is something that we didn't, as black people, have the opportunity for. Filling up that cultural space for me has become really important. I can't say it was the impetus for my work because you go to graduate school, you gain a vocabulary, and the world becomes a different place. You can see all the structures and understand it. Then, you can understand what the art is doing. In a way, it's become a form of social justice for me because I'm doing a job now. It's a job that I love to do. I get to use my imagination, which is a privilege in itself and I think about how when people look back at this work, what is it going to represent? How is it going to be seen? I want it to be seen as portraits of Americans doing everyday American things.  It's also about relinquishing all of what I consider to be part of my experience as a black woman growing up in America. Because of how I grew up, feeling always watched because I was the only person in class of color, I remember feeling self-conscious about it. Whether or not people recognize you're different, some people make you feel different. You recognize who you are inside of this space.  NEA: What do you want people to take away from your art? SHERALD: I want people to be able to imagine life outside of the circumscribed stereotype, or identity that can be controlled by many circumstances such as your environment, your parents, your friends, your skin color, your class, etc. Imagination allows you to bend the rules of the temporal world. I just want them to see that a more beautiful world exists beyond the confines of your environment.  NEA: You’ve mentioned how usually in your creative process, the image comes first and the meaning and words come second. Can you talk about this?  SHERALD: A lot of people say, "I see in Miss. Everything, you use red, white, and blue." And I go, "Well, actually, I wasn't thinking about the American flag or America at the moment." The way the world interprets it is fine—that’s the way it lives in the world. But for me, I'm a painter and I enjoy painting. I enjoy mixing colors. It's really about the frivolity of the act of painting and then you end up with this really serious product that starts to create its own narrative. Then, people begin to have the discourse around it and the meaning of the work. It's magical and fun. If it was that serious all the time, it wouldn’t be interesting because it would feel like homework. NEA: You grew up in Georgia, but have lived in Baltimore, Maryland for many years. You note how in years past, your art work has been autobiographical, but that changed after living in Baltimore.  SHERALD: I moved [to Baltimore] from Atlanta, Georgia, and I was shocked at the level of poverty that I saw and how people were living in this city. I started to show up at town hall meetings and I've been here for 12 years and nothing has changed except for maybe it's gotten worse. I was depressed the first year I moved here because I was giving away all my money to all these strangers who start crying and say, "Thank you so much, I needed this." That really moved me. I realized inside of that space I had this desire to want to help people see themselves outside of that environment.  NEA: Given recent news, issues such as race and equality are really on people’s minds. How does art open the door for some of these conversations to take place? SHERALD: [Art] provides possible metaphors for things. It helps [for people] to have an object in front of them to talk about so they're not talking at each other, they're looking at it. They're talking indirectly about race because for some reason, some people are always uncomfortable talking about it. It also presents a corrective narrative. You can look at a lot of works done by black artists and see that we are trying to reimagine ourselves and identity. In some instances, [art is] the only interaction that some people may have with people of color because when we look at our circle of friends, we don't always have a life that fully represents what our country represents. We don't all have Muslim friends; we don't all have black friends. What has really brought me closer into a greater sense of empathy was being able to share my inner narrative and the nuances of what it means to be me because when you use the term black, it's like an identity. We use the term white as a blanket identity. We live in between the lines; in between the cracks of the black and the white. That's where the bonds are formed.  NEA: What has been the biggest challenge for you as an artist? SHERALD: It's always that you have time, but you don't have money; or you have money, and you don't have time. The time is needed to figure out a way to make a living when you're trying to find your way into the realm of recognition. For me, it meant working smart and not hard. I waited tables until I was 38 years old because it offered me the schedule I needed to really focus. Being self-sustainable, thinking about the future, making your money long and your career long, healthcare…that's the reality of your practice. It’s whether you're comfortable taking risks and whether you're comfortable not knowing what's going to happen the next day.  NEA: Every artist has to deal with the idea of failure and success. How do you think about those terms? SHERALD: Success for me is staying true to who you are and not deviating off a path. I don't think my successes would've come to me as easily had I not committed to making the work in such a way that made me uncomfortable. I could've gotten the job teaching or could've made myself comfortable, but I didn't. I did a job that I didn't want to do, so I could do a job that I wanted to do.  NEA: Complete this thought for us. The arts matter because… SHERALD: They help us see who we really are. To see more of Amy Sherald’s work, you can visit her website See Amy’s work on view in her solo exhibition ‘A Wonderful Dream’, on view at Monique Meloche Gallery, Chicago thru August 27, 2016.