Artist Amy Sherald talks about painting the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama
Not too long ago, Amy Sherald was an acclaimed but largely unknown painter.
That changed Feb. 12, when the official portrait for former first lady Michelle Obama was unveiled to the world along with the Baltimore-based artist who painted it.
Sherald's elegant portrait of Obama and Kehinde Wiley's painting of former President Barack Obama both hang in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Sherald immediately was catapulted into the national spotlight and suddenly has become something of a celebrity.
She already was the centerpiece of "The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today" — the prestigious National Portrait Gallery competition — having painted the winning entry. But now there's some mainstream buzz on the show, which just opened at UNC-Chapel Hill's Ackland Art Museum and will be on display through Aug. 26. Friday's opening-night talk with Sherald sold out well in advance.
"I'm the same person I was before, but people look at me different," Sherald said in an interview at Thursday's media preview. "People act nervous, and I'm like, 'Dude, I took a (expletive) this morning just like you did."
She paused to laugh.
"People ask for autographs and selfies now, which I'm happy to oblige," Sherald continued. "They're coming from a place of genuine warm that people feel for Michelle. Because I painted her, I feel like an ambassador for her in a lot of ways.
"I probably shouldn't curse as much as I do," she concluded with another laugh.
Portraits on the road
"The Outwin 2016" presents the 43 finalists from that year's Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which the National Portrait Gallery sponsors every three years. In this first-ever tour of finalist entries, the Ackland is the fourth and final museum to show the collection.
National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet came up with the idea around the time she started there in 2013 and told her colleagues, "We need to take this on tour."
"That year we had a self-portrait that an artist made out of 100 pounds of rice," Sajet said. "And everybody asked me, 'Are you out of your mind? What if we get another 100-pound rice lady?' I said I was sure we would, but we should do it anyway."
There were around 2,500 entries for the 2016 competition in a variety of media, photographs and sculptures as well as paintings. All three are on display in the show at Ackland.
Sherald's winning entry, titled "Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)," stands out in the show, and it instantly stood out for the judges, too.
"This was a unanimous choice that rose to the top," said Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery. "During the judging, no one could get (the subject's) expression out of their minds."
"Miss Everything" depicts a woman named Krystal Mack, who Sherald said rides a bike around Baltimore selling ice cream. The artist had acquired a polka-dot dress a year earlier and was on the lookout for just the right model to wear it when she met Mack.
"She just struck me from the moment I saw her for that piece," Sherald said. "Just her body type. Models in general, there's something very personal in what I see in them. I explain it as a presence that exists past to present to future, and it draws me to them."
Mack is shown holding an oversize teacup, which Sherald said was a reference to the fantastical landscapes of "Alice in Wonderland" and the 2003 movie "Big Fish." The expression that so struck the judges is a poised, direct gaze that rewards prolonged study.
"I wanted to create an archetype that was very present," Sherald said. "Historically, people of color are often shown looking away. I grew up in Georgia, and my mom would tell me how to perform and act. So I learned to repress a lot of myself so that other people would feel comfortable. But (Mack) has let that go and meets the viewer's gaze. She assesses the viewer rather than being assessed."
'The most chill people ever'
Part of the reward for winning the Outwin prize is a commissioned portrait for the National Portrait Gallery. The subject must be someone who has had a significant impact on American history and culture. Michelle Obama's selection of Sherald fits the bill nicely.
"Amy was the first woman and first African-American to win," said Sajet. "And when Michelle Obama chose her, that became her commissioned portrait prize. We could not have imagined how it would unfold."
Asked what it was like to paint the first lady, Sherald called it "stressful." But artist and subject both came in with the same idea, thinking about how to connect with younger audiences and future museum-goers.
"It was a great experience, but very intense," Sherald said. "Meeting them, doing interviews, hanging out in the White House Oval Office. Understand that they are the most chill people ever, and she is amazing. However amazing you think she is, multiply that by 10."
Sherald's method is to paint from photographs rather than live pose, which turned out to be a necessity for this project. Given the first lady's schedule, getting enough live-pose time to paint her might have taken years.
Sherald had 11 possible dresses picked out, which they narrowed down to four and ultimately two at the point when she started taking pictures. Obama is shown in a patterned dress from designer Michelle Smith, hand underneath her chin with a thoughtful expression on her face.
"We landed on that one because she felt more like herself," said Sherald. "Her spirit had settled in the way that I needed."
Once Sherald has the right photograph, the actual painting goes pretty quickly. This one was no exception.
"When I'm painting and in the zone, it's difficult for me to stop," she said. "It can take me half a day to get into that space and once I do, I only talk to a certain few people who won't disrupt it. Home to sleep and back at it, nothing else outside of getting food. Everything else is an annoyance getting in my way."
The only response Sherald ever received from the Obamas for her portrait was, "Congratulations, you did it."
Life since February has been a non-stop whirlwind, with the downside that Sherald hasn't had as much time to paint as she'd like.
"I've had to say no to a lot of stuff," she said. "I tell people, 'The only reason you want me is I paint, so don't keep me out of what got me here in the first place.'"
What: "The Outwin: American Portraiture Today" from the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery"
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill, 101 S. Columbia St.
Details: 919-966-5736 or ackland.org