Amy Sherald was born in 1973 in Columbus, Georgia, and lives and works in New Jersey. Receiving her BA in painting from Clark Atlanta University in 1997, Sherald went on to receive her MFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004. Reflecting the complexities of representation and identity, Sherald’s paintings challenge viewers to engage with her subjects in new and profound ways, calling attention to the universal stories told through her portraits.
A notable feature of Sherald’s work is her use of gray skin tones, slowing a viewer’s recognition of race. Rather than deny race as a social reality and the impact of her depicting Black subjects, the artist seeks to deprioritize race in the viewer’s understanding of the portrait sitter’s individuality. In doing so, Sherald draws attention to other evocative details of the subject’s appearance and personality — their clothing, expression, and body language, all of which she has carefully arranged to construct a narrative that reflects their personhood. Each painting begins with a photograph that the artist directs from start to finish, capturing everyday people Sherald sees in her daily life. Depicting surfers from New York City’s Rockaway Beach in An Ocean Away (2020) or dirt bike riders from Baltimore, Maryland, in Deliverance (2022), Sherald refers to the long history of painting while weaving through it a nuanced depiction of contemporary life.
In 2018, Sherald became the first Black woman to have been selected for a presidential portrait commission, painting the presidential portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Since this commission, the artist has painted other significant figures, such as Breonna Taylor, and famous photographs, like the V-J-Day Kiss. In these works, Sherald addresses the feelings evoked by these images and individuals and searches for ways diverse audiences can relate to them. Preparing to paint Breonna Taylor (2020), the artist collected photographs and stories from her family to paint a fuller picture of Breonna’s life and dreams without focusing solely on the unjust circumstances of her death. Appreciating the power that images carry in shaping the world around us, the artist works to tell stories that go beyond our standard narratives and include those who are often marginalized or misrepresented in the story of America. Balancing tradition and innovation, Sherald contributes to the ongoing history of portraiture and painting, highlighting the untold and excluded stories of everyday people.