Amy Sherald poses with New Art in the Neighborhood students. Photo: Jon Gitchoff.
Amy Sherald poses with New Art in the Neighborhood students. Photo: Jon Gitchoff.

Specific about People

“You know who I am,” she smiles. “I’m Amy Sherald.”

The students from CAM’s New Art in the Neighborhood program are shy and nervous at first, but warm to her in a very short while. She’s totally open, engaging, funny. She’s tall and stands tall. She’s intimate and animated. She grew up in Columbus, Georgia, where she knew no other artists. She knows what interactions like this can mean to a teenager who barely knows what to dream.

“I find my models out of my life,” she explains. Part of her portraiture is “waiting for the right person. I’m really specific about people.”

The students stand close to her, intent on her words, her gestures, her expressions. One young woman glows with wide eyes fixed on the artist the whole time.

“I never felt unmotivated,” Sherald says, “but you will go through times when you’re not inspired. But other things inspire me.” She goes to movies, reads. She advises the students, “Go to schools with classes that have a lot of things besides art. Read. Travel.”

One student is going to the Maryland Institute, College of Art, in Baltimore, where Sherald received her MFA, has taught, and still lives. “Baltimore’s just like St. Louis,” Sherald assures her. She’s remained there, in part, because “studio space is cheap. People in New York have to think about rent all the time.”

In this gallery of Amy Sherald figures, it’s remarkable to see how people stand like Amy Sherald figures, how accurately she depicts the posture and carriage of 21st century Americans.

“How do you handle people who don’t get your art?”

“I don’t pay attention to it. A lot of these people have nothing else to do. You look at their Instagram and they have ten friends.”

She’s asked about her background colors—the rich color-field backdrops that serve to contain or anchor her subjects in space or project them into the world. She says much of the time they are based on the outfits she chooses for her sitters, or she finds colors on the computer. She gestures toward a new painting, a squarely built woman in a lemon-print dress. “I didn’t paint the background until her hair was done.”

Sherald has passed through a whirlwind of fame since her commission to paint Michelle Obama was announced. It’s not surprising she talks about the need to “make time for oneself,” to allow for ideas to surface during “every other time of the day when you’re not too busy.” She says she wants her paintings to provide “a resting place.”

As the group moves from the enclosed gallery, one student tells Sherald her name and then shyly asks for a photograph with her. Before long, everybody’s posing for their selfies with Amy Sherald. She laughs and smiles and holds each one close.