Last Friday, PAFA’s Historic Landmark Building contained a full house on deck for its Visiting Artist Program lecture, rescheduled from weeks ago. Amy Sherald spoke on her personal painting history, providing a thoughtful, humbling backstory for the many young, hungry artists present in the room. It was a treat to watch this incredibly gifted artist discuss the journey, a hard, long, prosperous journey, that eventually brought an attentive, rapt audience vital inspiration.
Colorism contributed harsh experiences growing up in the problematic South for Sherald. Born and raised in Columbia, Georgia, with her fair skin and auburn hair, few with the exception of her family believed her to be black, especially horrid smaller children believed this perception. She recounted a story of a child who used the “n” word around her. And this was the late seventies, early eighties.
She then addresses being uncomfortable with being called “redbone,” a term formerly described dogs with a red coat. “Redbone,” a popular Donald Glover song, is said as an endearment. Meanwhile, it is a destructive adjective that her beauty, her attractiveness is privileged to having white inherited attributes, dismissing her blackness.
Sherald entered painting later than most, having been declared pre-med in college (failing biology wasn’t helping), changing her major to painting a few years before graduating. She wasn’t sure exactly the path to undergo and hadn’t received adequate “training” or having the artist vocabulary, but knew that figuration was a keen interest. Without the skills and resources of fellow classmates, she considered herself self taught, relying solely on instincts and research sessions from frequent library visits. It was also a challenge ascribing to racial and gender politics, disappointed through limited lenses her fellow peers and instructors had expected, which became “performative identity.”
After college, she took a break from painting for four years.
The shocking confession brought apart startling insight, especially seeing as now post-graduate years are depicted as a crucial time to be in that eager need to network and find supportive benefactors.
All the while, Sherald also admits to frequently visiting New York City openings to talk to gallerists in hopes of attaining a show in the past, a hoop some young artists still believe would ring true to them.
In the end, as she continued reading books, going to the movies, and seeing gallery shows, she developed relationships with collectors and advocates.
Her influences were a wide range of scientific fascination and sideshow fantasies, finding exciting, colorful pieces at Panama circuses, at the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida, and in Tim Burton’s dreamy tale Big Fish. However, the missing component was identity, the lack of blackness, of black people in experiences that mattered to her awakening imagination. Among her reading, she uncovered W.E.B. DuBois’s compiled photographs for the 1900 Paris Exposition entitled, American Negroes. Sherald fell in love with his Georgia Negroes series, letting the “aha” moment sink. In that, she saw black dandyism– black men and black women in suits and hats, appearing gorgeously confident and stylish at a time denying them existence, creativity. That was what she wanted to paint.
Inspired by photography, where she found images of herself leafing through her family’s historic archives, formulated ideas around her penetration, curving away American perception of black pain, the effervescent knowledge that black photographers could create and own positive portrayals. In the process, her paintings became “meditations on photography,” and realists such as Bo Bartlett, Kerry James Marshall, and Barkley Hendricks began to effectively shape her painting vocabulary.
The more Sherald painted, the more advanced her skills became, growing more so than what graduate school had offered her. She took a wondrous opportunity to study with great painter Odd Nerdrum in the Netherlands and continued on her trips to Panama.
Amy Sherald gave a kind, humbling, relatable lecture for an artist who has gone on to win prestigious honors such as the Pollack-Krasner Grant, Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant, and the Bethesda Painting Award. She has shown at Studio Museum in Harlem in New York City, New York, Spelman College of the Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Embassy of the United States in Dakar, Senegal. She is in collections at the Columbus Museum in her hometown, Columbus, Georgia, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery all in Washington D.C, and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
She closes with a Kerry James Marshall quote, something along the lines of “nothing has never been able to transform the world.”
Yet with Sherald’s work, his L.A. Times discussion on the history of representational painting is most appropriate as well:
“When you visit an art museum, you’re less likely to encounter the work of a black person. When it comes to ideas about art and about beauty, the black figure is absent.”
Alongside Marshall and a slew of other phenomenal black artists dismantling contemporary art field, Sherald is changing the way viewers look at painting, inserting blackness whilst examining its absence with utilizing greyscale as her figures’ flesh tone. By learning preemptive steps she took to make it this far, she is certainly an artist to root for and champion, paving ways and breaking barriers to those who never believed they ever could.