Amy Sherald discovered her love for art while dabbling in watercolors at St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School.
Her art teacher, Geri Davis, recognized her potential in kindergarten and then nurtured her talent for the next 12 years.
But after leaving Pacelli, Sherald took a few detours - majoring in pre-med to please her parents until she came to her senses, waiting tables to make ends meet and returning home to care for ailing relatives. Yet, she always knew deep down inside where she was headed.
“I always say, ‘I didn’t get into this not to be in a museum,’” she said in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. “The only reason that I wanted to do this is because I want to change people’s expectations as to what they may see when they walk into an institution that tells them what is valuable and to validate peoples’ existence in so many ways.”
Now, Sherald is a nationally acclaimed artist as the first woman to win the prestigious Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, rising from among 2,500 entries in the 2016 competition. Her winning painting, “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance),” hung at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery until January.
On Sept. 19, Sherald will return to Columbus as guest lecturer for an inaugural event organized by the Alma Thomas Society at the Columbus Museum. The event, which will be held 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., is free and open to the public. But seats are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis, according to news release.
The museum recently formed the society - named after another famous Columbus artist - as a dues-paying collection group to help select works by black artists. One of Sherald’s paintings, “What’s different about Alice is that she has the most incisive way of telling the truth,” was one of three pieces purchased with a donation made by Aflac CEO Dan Amos and his wife, Kathelen.
Sherald, 44, grew up in a prominent, black Columbus family. Her father, the late Dr. Amos P. Sherald III., was a local dentist. His uncle, Edward “Big” Sherald, operated Sherald’s Mortuary and a barbershop for many years. His sister and aunt were well-known teachers in the community.
Sherald, a heart transplant survivor, said her success didn’t come easily, and she waited on tables until her late 30s. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor, not an artist. So she developed her skills while flipping through encyclopedias that the family had at home, paying close attention to paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and other famous artists. Her knack for portraits was a natural progression.
Over the years, she developed a unique style, using gray colors for skin tones, challenging perceptions of color representing race.
“I started going to the library to look for different narratives that were extracted from the dominant historical narrative, like ideas about blackness that exist but aren’t normally seen or spoken about,” she explained. She didn’t find what she was looking for, so she started painting her own images.
“It’s the re-imagining of one’s identity without you internalizing who you are based off of stereotypes,” she said.
Sherald has a bachelor’s degree from Clark-Atlanta University and a master’s in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. She was a Spelman College International Artist-in-Residence in Portobelo, Panama in 1997.
Her Outwin painting, has been on tour since 2016 and will open at the Kemper Museum in Kansas City in October. She also has had solo shows at the Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago; Reginald F. Lewis Museum in Baltimore; and University of North Carolina, Sonja Haynes Stone Center at Chapel Hill. In May 2018, she will present a solo exhibition at the Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis.
Sherald said her paintings are of every day people, but from a different perspective.
“I’m painting the paintings that I want to see in museums,” she said. “And I’m hopefully presenting them in a way that’s universal enough that they become representative of something different than just a black body on a canvas.”