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Amy Sherald in “Everyday Icons”

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In her studio in New Jersey, artist Amy Sherald paints portraits that tell a story about American lives. Her face just inches away from a canvas, the artist carefully applies stroke after stroke, building her narrative through paint. “I really have this belief that images can change the world,” says Sherald, a belief she acts upon in her compelling paintings, which depict everyday people with dignity and humanity. Following the tradition of American realists like Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, the artist uses her paintings to tell stories about America. Searching for models, settings, and scenarios that would convey the kinds of stories she wanted to tell, Sherald began to populate the world of her paintings with everyday people in everyday situations.

There is a political dimension to much of Sherald’s work. While she acknowledges the importance of her choice to paint Black subjects, thus amending an underrepresentation of Black people in American art, the artist does not want the impact of her work to end there. This led her to paint the skin of her subjects in tones of gray, deemphasizing race in a viewer’s reading of the image. “It’s gotta be about humanity first,” says Sherald, “and then everything else has to follow.” In 2018, Sherald was selected by Barack and Michelle Obama to paint the former First Lady’s Presidential Portrait, becoming the first Black woman to do so. Depicting Obama in a moment of quiet contemplation, Sherald shows her sitting with the weight of her civic role and encompassing the fullness of her character and life outside of that role — modeling for viewers a way to do the same.

Raised in a home full of black-and-white pictures of her family, Sherald uses portraiture photography as an inspiration and a starting point, beginning each of her paintings with a photo shoot to create her reference image. In a new body of work, the artist reimagines famous American photographs. In her recreation of the V-J-Day photograph, the artist casts two Black men as the kissing pair, reflecting her desire to populate the world of art with new images that describe marginalized experiences. In 2020 Sherald was commissioned to paint a portrait of Breonna Taylor, a woman who police officers unjustly murdered in her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Speaking with Taylor’s family and collecting photographs, the artist painted a portrait of Taylor that sought to tell her life story holistically, representing her character and her dreams according to the people who knew her best. Acquired by both the Speed Museum of Art in Louisville and the National History Museum of African American History and Culture, Breonna Taylor (2020) occupies a powerful place in both Taylor’s hometown and the seat of government in the United States. At once casually unassuming and politically potent, Sherald’s portraits contribute new narratives to a shared experience as Americans. 

More information and credits


Executive Producer: Tina Kukielski. Series Producer: Nick Ravich. Director & Producer: Ian Forster. Editor: Bryan Chang. Director of Photography: Jia Li.

Assistant Curator: Jurrell Lewis. Associate Producer: Andrea Chung. Design & Animation: Ryan Carl, Nikita Iziev. Composer: Andrew Orkin. Additional Vidoe Editor: Addison Post. Additional Photography: Gabriela Díaz Arp, Bria Granville, Andrew Kemp, Jane Macedo Yang. Assistant Camera: Jason Drakeford, Trevor Edwards, Oscar Harrison. Location Sound: Carver Audain, Ana Fernández, Sade Norton.

Video Post-Production Services: Cut + Measure. Video Post-Production Producer: Alex Laviola. Colorist: Chris Ramey. Video Post-Production Coordinator: Catherine DiRosa. Online & Conform: David Gauff. Additional Animation: Andy Cahill. Audio Post-Production Services: Konsonant Post. Re-Recording Mixer & Sound Editor: Gisela Fullà-Silvestre. Assistant Editors: Ellen Askey, Michelle Hanks. Audio Description: 3Play Media. Station Relations De Shields Associates. Legal Counsel: Withersworldwide. Additional Curatorial Research: Susan Thompson. 

Additional Art21 Staff: Lauren Barnett, Hannah DeGarmo, Lolita Fierro, Joe Fusaro, Molaundo Jones, Emma Nordin, Anna Pruett, Jessica Svenson, Noor Tamari, Nora Wimmer. Interns: Stephanie Ades, Sekou Cherif, Yeon Cho, Michaela Esteban, Emma Flood, Renee Rienecker, James Santiago, Adam Varca, Dani Wieder.  

Artwork Courtesy: Amy Sherald; Hauser & Wirth; Hopper, © 2023 Heirs of Jesphine N. Hopper / Licensed byy Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY; Wyeth, © 2023 Andrew Wyeth / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Archival Materials: ABC News, Drury Bynum, CBS Sunday Morning, Columbus State University’s Bo Barlett Center, Family of Breonna Taylor, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Shine Creative, Shuttershock, Speed Art Museum, Pete Souza, WNCN.

Special Thanks: The Art21 Board of Trustees, Danielle Brock, The Columbus Museum, Sasha Hecht, High Museum of Art, Moselle Kleiner, Tamika Palmer, Devin L. Roberts, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Geraldine Sherald.

Major underwriting for Season 11 of Art in the Twenty-First Century is provided by PBS, National Endowment for the Arts, Lambent Foundation, The Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, Toby Devan Lewis, Robert Lehman Foundation, and Nion McEvoy & Leslie Berriman.

Series Creators: Susan Dowling and Susan Sollins.

©2023 Art21, Inc.

Closed captionsAvailable in English, German, Romanian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Italian

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Amy Sherald

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.

I consider myself an American Realist. For me, it means just recognizing my Americanness first, and just wanting the work to join a greater ongoing conversation.”

Amy Sherald

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