Painting Michelle Obama brought Amy Sherald fame

On Thursday evening, the crowd at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis overflowed the room in which Amy Sherald was speaking, so late arrivals watched the artist talk on monitors in the atrium. It’s been a little over three months since Sherald, the artist who painted Michelle Obama’s official portrait for the National Portrait Gallery, became a public figure, admired and reviled according to the usual cleavages of race and culture that divide this country. But for an artist who confesses a “healthy amount of self-doubt,” she is poised, confident and funny when addressing a crowd of people who deeply appreciate what she has done for painting, for women, for the Obamas, and for the cause of African American artists.

“I thought I was going to die when I was 39,” the 44-year-old Sherald says. Her life story is part of the bond that ties her to the people in this room, many of whom already know the basic outlines: She was a struggling painter from Columbus, Ga., when she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure at age 31. She lived with the fear of death through a fraught but formative decade that included a lifesaving heart transplant in 2012. She emerged from the nightmare stronger, more confident and with a deeper sense of artistic purpose. In 2016, the Baltimore-based artist won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever competition, and she was then selected by Michelle Obama to paint the first lady’s portrait.

“Everybody should be a donor,” she tells the crowd, deflecting their curiosity about her health onto a constructive message about organ donation. She is good at this, inviting people into her story and then steering them to something else — to her art, or the people she has painted, or some sense of constructive social purpose.

 

Source: The Washington Post

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