In the winter of 2018, Amy Sherald's life turned upside-down, but not in a bad way. That's when her portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama was unveiled, causing a frenzy at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
"It was exciting," she said. "I was happy that everyone was really eager to see it. She is an icon and there should be lines to see her, and there should be lines to see this painting."
But Sherald has moved on to her next act. A new show at the gallery Hauser & Wirth in New York City displays her latest batch of paintings. Those, too, have been a hit.
"There were lines around the block," said "Sunday Morning" producer Sara Kugel.
"I didn't see that until afterwards, but I was shocked, and excited that so many people showed up," Sherald said. "And also just the diversity of the crowd, all ages, races. It was just really great to see that kind of energy in a gallery space where you normally assume it's kind of stuffy. It was really down-to-earth."
"Most people learned your name because you're painting one of the most famous women in the world, and in this exhibit you're going back to what you've always done," Kugel said.
"I never left it," said Sherald. "That's the assumption. But I never left it. [Michelle Obama] was one painting."
She prefers to paint what she calls "everyday people."
"I just see people and know immediately that there's somebody who I would like to make a painting of," she said. "I approach them, awkwardly, and pull out my cell phone."
What's her pitch? "'Hi, my name is Amy Sherald. This is my website, I make paintings, and I would like to photograph you. It only takes an hour. You get a hundred bucks.' And you don't really get how to make it seem as simple as possible."
She met the model for this painting on the subway (below, left); another, through a friend (below, right).
But regardless of where she meets her models, she paints all of them in gray skin tones.
Sherald said, "I look at the gray skin, I think about it's the inside of the outside that you normally experience, Like, you're experiencing the inside, the more private life of black people."
Adding to that intimacy, Sherald has placed the portraits at eye level. "The eyes are painted so they're able to meet your gaze. I just think that's really important, because it allows for the paintings to express their humanity."
The show also features two large-scale paintings, one inspired by a famous photo of construction workers on a break from building Rockefeller Center in New York City in 1932.
"It's a real pivotal painting for me," she said. "I think it really takes my work into a different direction. I oftentimes think about the history of America and construction. And I think that I'm processing those kinds of ideas about the meaning of my American-ness, and my history in this country."
Plans are already in the works for all of these paintings to head to American museums.
As for Amy Sherald, she says she plans to stick with her everyday models, but admits she is open to exceptions: "Serena Williams, or Megan Markle. They're amazing!"
For more info:
- "Amy Sherald: In the Studio," at Hauser & Wirth, 548 W. 22nd Street, New York City (through October 26, 2019).
Story produced by Sara Kugel and Roman Feeser.
- ("Sunday Morning," 2/18/18)