Artist Amy Sherald on painting what she wants to see in the world
This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes artist Amy Sherald, whose new exhibit “The Great American Fact” is currently on display at the Hauser & Wirth gallery in downtown Los Angeles. Sherald painted the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama and her portrait of Breonna Taylor was the cover of the September 2020 issue of Vanity Fair. Sherald tells The Treatment that her signature blue-green color was in part inspired by the colors she saw in the hospital awaiting a heart transplant. She says she paints what she wants to see in the world and wants her paintings to take up a lot of space. And, Sherald tells The Treatment why she and director Wes Anderson are kindred spirits.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I’m Elvis Mitchell. My guest is the painter Amy Sherald, who has a show at Hauser and Wirth gallery in downtown LA, “The Great American Fact.” One of the things I love, especially after seeing your work, is reading what people say about it. The reaction between the skin tone and the vibrancy of the colors you use for what people are wearing really seems to catch folks off guard. I wonder why you think that is?
Amy Sherald: I think it’s because most people associate a color, probably with their own humanity, I guess. I never really thought about it, to be honest, until the unveiling of Michelle Obama’s portrait. I know that I got a few emails because people were upset because she wasn’t brown, and they felt like it wasn’t representing a real Black person, which I can understand but just don’t agree with.
KCRW: It just strikes me as being this intersection between the real and the surreal. It’s like watching if James Vanderzee had been sort of dropped into Romare Bearden and what those worlds represent to me. I think partially it’s that black and white to people suggest reality and the primary colors, there’s something playful. So the combination of playful and drama, I think, hits people in an interesting way, too.
Sherald: Yeah. I mean, that’s what really drew me to it. When people ask me why I started to do it, it was all of those aesthetic reasons in the beginning. And then the more I thought about it, as time passed, I realized that subconsciously, I was trying to figure out a way for the work not to be marginalized, just put in a corner because I wanted it to exist in the world in a more universal way. I felt like the Black body on canvas is already in a way a political statement, because of the lack of representation that the Black figure has, within the historical art narrative. And I knew that as an American Black painter, if I was going to make it work and be the voice that I want it to be, that the conversation had to be as kaleidoscopic as we really are, and not just about this public identity that we hold in the public imagination.
KCRW: Growing up reading comics in the 70s, they would make Black people look grey, because the colorist didn’t even know how to mix the colors together.
Sherald: Yeah, that’s funny. I’m glad I didn’t see that growing up because I probably would have felt very self conscious about the decision to make them grey. But my work is a meditation on photography. That’s what I’ve grown to see it become. And although I didn’t come across a lot of these older images and daguerreotypes until I was further into this journey with these figures, It was a real affirmation for what I was doing when I was doing visual research and coming across these images because I wanted the paintings to have that same gravity that those photographs have.
I often talk about this photograph that I have of my grandmother, and it’s the only picture I have of her. But it was an opportunity that she took to create her own narrative and represent herself to the world the way she wanted to be seen. And it was very much about self satisfaction and dignity. I carry that image with me, and it’s a huge inspiration for what I do, because there’s a special quality that I think comes from this grey scale. I don’t use black and white, I use black and yellow, because I feel like it really warms the skin tone up, and I think it makes it less icy and ashy, which might be what you were thinking about when you were looking at those comic books early on in your life.
KCRW: So often there’s a kind of weight, because there was a presentational aspect to so many of those pictures. Your pieces are really focused on the camera, and the body language is a little less formal, so there’s so much they’re playing with.
Sherald: They know what they’re doing. I guess that’s why I don’t consider them portraits per se, because I feel like portraits are very passive. And these paintings are paintings of people, but the figures in the painting no longer exist as the person does. That was the model.
There’s a breakaway that happens for me once I start the work. Sometimes I even rename the figure in the painting while I’m painting it because they just remind me of someone else. So there’s a guy in the show that has on a lobster shirt and sunshine and an afro, and his name is David, but I started calling him Donnie. Donnie represents something bigger than just himself, within my body of work. I think for me it’s really important to delineate that, and I’ll slip into the vocabulary of portraiture, because I think it’s just easier to codify it that way. But I think that the word can be employed in so many different ways that it definitely, I think, leaves that genre as soon as it’s out in the world.
KCRW: It’s interesting, because it sounds that what you’re saying is that the paintings are taking on a life of their own as you’re working on them.
Sherald: Yeah, they do because they sit in art history as a corrective narrative. They sit in our history as a critique to an art historical narrative, especially within the American art canon. And they do work in ways that question how much of the Black experience do we really want to allocate to grief. I make this work for my own mental health because I paint the things that I want to see in the world. I think these are images that we don’t get to see enough of, and this work also exists in a way where it could introduce people to the Black experience that may not have prior knowledge to that. But then at the end of the day, they’re also just very beautiful paintings, and I think they can be enjoyed in that capacity, too. It doesn’t have to carry the weight of being something that’s didactic all the time.
I always used to say that I felt like being Black was a verb because you’re always in action, and you’re always resisting, in a way, but this is my way of resisting. And it’s just by offering a place of respite and a reflection of love and kindness that you may not get in the world.
KCRW: Is that why so often there are blues or golds in there because those are healing, warming colors?
Sherald: My favorite color to use, and I often have to stop myself from using it is kind of like a minty green-blue, because it is so soothing. I don’t think I really understood the psychological impact of color, until I was in a hospital for two months waiting on a heart donor. And it was in the new wing of a hospital, and they just renovated everything, and there was green everywhere. And green was not my favorite color unless I’m actually outside sitting in nature, but after being in a hospital room for two months being surrounded by all different kinds of green, I understood that it helped me psychologically to be in a space that had those colors. And so I really began to look at color theory a little bit differently. You read that orange will make you hungry. You read that blue is relaxing. But I’m like, so is that really true? I do believe that it does. It can psychologically bring you up or bring you down.
KCRW: As you’re talking about being in the hospital, one of things when I visit people in the hospital and it actually emerges in some of your bigger pieces, are feet. In “A Midsummer Afternoon,” there is all that grass in that picture, too, and we can almost feel a breeze on the grass in that work.
Sherald: Yeah, it was a breezy day when I photographed for that painting, and for the larger paintings, it makes sense. I feel like showing the whole figure, it doesn’t take away from the idea that I’m trying to portray. But I felt like with the smaller individual figures, it would have been a tall, skinny canvas; it just aesthetically didn’t work. When I first started doing these, I played around with cropping and where I should crop it. And I realized, for me, it worked at the knees, because I could have the figure still be life size, and not have a canvas that was too big, or too tall. I really want those to give the viewer a more intimate experience almost like you’re walking up to a stranger, a friendly stranger or like a monologue where it’s just a singular focus, in a dark theater, and there’s just a light on one person. And you’re completely focused on what energy they’re giving you and what they’re saying to you.
KCRW: You talked before about the grammar of portraiture, and those are so often, especially for people of color, cut from thighs up or the waist up and we find ourselves looking at the eyes, and then the placement of the hands, and I thought at least subtextually that was something you were looking to do as well.
Sherald: Yeah, with these, it’s been really great to have to take all those things into consideration. Like what shoes they’re gonna wear because shoes become a signifier as well, whether they should have them on or whether they should not have them on. If you don’t paint their feet right, if you don’t paint their hands right, if you don’t get their nostrils right, or the top of the lip, the little curve at the top of everyone’s lip, it really tells you who they are. There are these things about our body that are like our name, like I can recognize my mother’s feet.
KCRW: This idea of scale and what that does for figures of color is something that you’re constantly aware of, and you want to make sure that it does strike those notes between the presentational and the intimate. There are so many, I think, ironies and things that people aren’t used to seeing, playing constantly in your pieces.
Sherald: Yeah. It’s all of that. And when I talk about my story, I say I didn’t get into this not to have the work be in a museum or hanging on a museum wall. And if I ever do have that opportunity to have this work hang on a museum wall, people are going to know it’s there. They’re not going to go to that museum and accidentally miss it. They’re going to know that it was there, and I want them to feel impacted by it.
KCRW: Just to have Black bodies that size on canvas. I mean, that’s a statement to make. And that’s basically claiming somebody’s point of view. You’re basically saying, this is going to occupy this much space in your line of sight.
Sherald: Yeah, I’m reclaiming time, reclaiming space and time. It’s like, you’re gonna give me one wall? I’m gonna take up two. If you think about how many Black female figurative painters there are in the world, or maybe even have been in the world that made it onto a museum wall, you could probably count us all on two hands. I wake up knowing that every day and it’s really a huge part of my inspiration, because it’s like, I didn’t have me growing up, you know?
My story of how I discovered art, the narrative starts with all white men, until I met my godfather, who’s Panamanian. He was the first living artist that I met. But, when I talk about my inspiration for being an artist, I talk about Bo Bartlett, because he was the first real artist I saw on a museum wall, and it just so happened, he painted himself as a Black man. So it was like a self portrait of himself as a Black man.
When I think about it, I feel this responsibility to show up in that way, hoping that I can have that same impact. And when people ask me about the Michelle Obama portrait and how it’s changed my life, I say the most valuable thing that’s happened is that they’re teaching kids about art with the work. And that’s really important, because, prior to that, I don’t know what they were teaching, but I get emails and pictures all the time of all kinds of kids: Black, white, Latino, whatever, they’re making these self portraits and exploring identity in the same way that I put my work in the world. And I think that’s just truly special.
KCRW: Especially the bigger pieces, which are in these landscapes, feel sometimes like movie frames to me.
Sherald: Yeah, I’m a big Wes Anderson fan. I had to almost stop myself from just becoming a painter that just painted stills from Wes Anderson’s movies while replacing them with Black people because I love what he does so much.
KCRW: Yeah, down to the way you frame your subjects and the looks in their eyes, they could be frames from Wes Anderson movies.
Sherald: I guess he’s a kindred spirit of sorts. But I like symmetry and so it’s really natural for me to do that. I like things centered and organized and tight. And you know, what’s really fun is that, whenever I’m making a painting, now I make it my job to try to come up with a new color. That’s been my challenge because I found myself going back and re-using the same color. But over the past couple of years, I’ve been like, I’m gonna try to come up with a new color that’s on the Pantone scale, but maybe somewhere in between one and the other. So that’s become really fun for me.
KCRW: I want to ask you about the Breonna Taylor portrait. I’ve only seen photographs of it, but that color: what’s really beautiful and scary about it, is that it suggests a future. There’s something subliminal about the color blue, and we see it as a sky or as an ocean scape or something that suggests the possibility of life. To see that and have that subconscious trigger go on in the painting about her, knowing what has happened to her, gives it both this warmth and this really almost primordial, scary quality. It’s again, to me about the state of being Black in this country.
Sherald: Color, with making that portrait was probably the most important part of it because had I put her in a red dress, it just would have felt different. Like every color that I tried wasn’t the right color, and I remember walking into the bathroom, and I looked at so many colors that I was almost confused. And I couldn’t remember what I thought was kind of good and like what was really bad and wasn’t going to work. I left my studio when I was walking to the bathroom, and I just remember saying, Breonna, what color do you want this dress? After two or three days of trying to figure out which one it was, I think I realized that it all had to be the same color, but different because the dress is a little bit darker. And it just really worked out because it allows you to focus on her face. It’s soothing, it’s ethereal. It’s heavenly. It’s peaceful, but it’s proud. And I think that I think it really worked out well.