artist, painter, social justice advocate. 

published 8/18/2020



Amy Sherald is an American painter based in Baltimore, Maryland. She is best known for painting portraits which showcase African-American stories through historical and novel conventions of realism. In 2016, Sherald was the first woman to win the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition grand prize, and has had her work displayed in multiple museums, exhibitions, and collections. Sherald is also the first African-American to paint an official First Lady portrait. Her portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC on February 12, 2018.

Who is someone who has inspired you?

My mother is especially inspiring because she's just a really strong person. She was born in the 1930s and she's been through so much and is an outstanding woman. She's so extraordinary in how she has taken care of our family and I've learned so much about who I am and who I could be from her.

What are your favorite hobbies and things to do in your free time?

Tap dancing, eating, going to the movies, spending a lot of time outside with my dogs.

Describe a typical day in your life. 

I wake up, take the dogs out, make a bowl of oatmeal, head to the gym for an hour or an hour and a half, come back home, shower, and go to the studio where I sit and read for about a half-hour before I start working. I usually work until 6pm, go home, take the dogs out, make dinner, and watch a little too much television.

What has been the toughest moment in your career and/or life, and how did you overcome it?

II don't really consider one moment the toughest moment, but I guess the toughest was when I had to stop my life to get a heart transplant, and then pick up from where I left off. I think I'm one of those people that tries to make the best out of any situation. It's just how you look at it, keeping your eye on the end goal, never quitting and always pushing forward. Not letting setbacks mean only disappointment. But during that period I was constantly thinking about my work and painting and doing research, reading, and just feeding my mind so when I got back to the studio the juices were still flowing. 

What inspired you to start painting?

Fortunately, I was someone who knew what I wanted to do from a young age. And I don't feel like I chose art, but that art chose me. I listened to my intuition and followed my heart and it didn't make that much sense all of the time, but I always believed in myself and that I could make it happen. Vision is important. I kept a vision of what I wanted my life and career to look like in my head and that stayed with me.

What has been your favorite work of art you’ve created and why?

Probably all of them! But if I had to choose one, I guess the recent painting of four figures at the beach (Precious jewels by the sea, 2019) because it was the first time I had the opportunity to make an expansively larger work and achieve some of the ideas I wanted to do for a long time when my studio was too small. 

Starting out with your career, did you think your work would amount to the success and impact it has had today?

At the end of the day, I never saw myself as a historical figure. I saw myself as a successful artist which for me meant having shows and selling paintings and living off my work. I didn't even really know enough to imagine it could be as big as it is now. I didn't realize what was possible until I met artists who were five times as big as I anticipated and I understood that I was underestimating myself. So it's always great to have people around you that are doing better than you because you then set higher expectations for yourself. 

What has been the most memorable part of your career?

Two things: being able to paint First Lady Michelle Obama for the National Portrait Gallery, but also my first New York solo show in September of 2019 because that's where I always saw myself when I would meditate on how I wanted my life to look like; so for that to happen it was really amazing.


“I'm very comfortable with risk. I'm not afraid to fail; I don't see failure as failure, I see it as an opportunity to grow."


"In order for your ideas to be sophisticated and smart, they have to come from inside."

How do you see the creative and artistic fields and workplaces changing in the next 10 years?

The market in the art world is very unpredictable. It's not a regulated market so people who are well-known now might not be in 10 years. However, one change I've been seeing recently is elementary and high schools and educational institutions in general catering more towards artists. I think that's really important especially for children of color because they grow up already having a lack of representation and rewritten historical narratives. I hope that we will see more brown and black people on the walls of museums and in curatorial positions in these institutions.

Where do you see yourself in 15 years? The world in relation to gender equality and promoting women in the workplace in 15 years?

I'll be 60! I see myself painting—hopefully by that time I will have a foundation to support upcoming artists, especially female artists, and I hope that the conversation around gender will evolve. For me, it is something that is second because I am a black woman and my race has always been the most salient part of my existence over my womanhood. I hope that the conversation will continue to progress and I hope that it will color itself in a way that the conversations black women are having about feminism can start to happen in a way that white feminist women can inform themselves because our conversations are the same but also really different. When it comes to things like that, it ensures justice for all. 

On her work in bringing to light racial injustices:

Because I paint black figures, almost by default I'm making a political statement since I'm filling in an absence that wasn't there before. I’m trying to clarify something that was written in history in a distorted way. I think a lot about the simple act of having an image or painting on a wall in a museum, an institution that informs society about what we should hold dear and what is valuable. These images being a part of museum collections is really important: an act of justice in itself.  



Go to a liberal arts college for undergraduate studies and spend your money on a master's degree because reading and writing and all those things that are so important for making art happen because you have the opportunity to expose yourself to many ways of thinking and discover how you see the world. It's important to read a lot, watch a lot of movies, and keep your antennas up so you're constantly pulling information. In doing that, you're developing a visual language for where your work comes from.  


If you don't quit, eventually you'll rise to the top because the world is full of quitters. 

That's how I always saw what I was going towards; I came out of graduate school moving slower than a lot of people in my cohort and I can guarantee you that no one from my graduate school would think that I would be where I am today based on the fact that they were better painters than I was, I always thought that they were smarter than I was, and they had been more exposed to art and ideas than I was at that point in my life. But because I didn't give up, I eventually rose to the top and was able to spend more time in the studio and put all my mental energy into what I wanted to make happen. It's important to not get comfortable. If there's something that you're striving for, you can't let anything get in the way of that and being comfortable is the worst thing that could happen to you. If you do, you're not really as desperate and might not be pushing yourself as you should—so I always purposefully put myself in a situation where I am desperately reaching for the next level or idea to get to the destiny I envisioned for myself. I think that no matter where you direct your energy, whether positively or negatively—that becomes your inspiration. If you're working forty hours a week and it's not in the studio, then you're not going to have the energy to constantly build what it is that you want. I made sure I was working smart and not hard, and when I was working hard, it was towards my craft and not somebody else's dream.