Artist Survives Heart Disease and Wins Prestigious Art Prize

Amy Sherald with her winning entry. Image: National Portrait Gallery

Artist Amy Sherald with ‘Miss Everything’, her winning entry on display at National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C. shows the brilliance of this artist.  Image: National Portrait Gallery

ARTIST: Amy Sherald survives heart failure and wins $25,000 prestigious art award


Amy Sherald, Miss Everything (Unsupressed Deliverance) 2014, 54″ × 43″. Oil on Canvas, Image: National Portrait Gallery

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND When Amy Sherald was called as the winner of this year’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, she was consumed by insurmountable joy.  As she walked across the exhibition hall in her beautiful brown attire, she was radiant and beautiful.  She had not only surpassed all expectations, she had also won $25,000. She is the first woman to ever win the prize.

Hanging on the exhibition wall behind her was the painting that won her the most prestigious portraiture award in the United States.  Titled Miss Everything, the oil on canvas painting is the portrait of a young slender Baltimore woman standing in front of a rich, blue background.  In her had is an oversize white tea cup.  Her look is piercing  as she gazes at the viewer in a clear and yet contemplatively manner. She is both inviting and repelling all at once. It is more like “look at me,” and “What are you looking at.”

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The paradox of this image is carried on in the woman’s dress. Divided down the center with polka dots on one side and plain dark fabric on the other, the artist presents a duplexity which engenders multiple readings and questions.  Adding to that complexity is Miss Everything’s immaculate white gloves and a chirpy red hat that emphasizes Sunday best. On one hand, Miss Everything represents a servant in a fictional dress. On the other, she epitomizes that rich woman we have all seen in historical films.

Inspired by the recent riots in the Baltimore and Black Lives Matter movement, Miss Everything holds multiple stories. Perhaps, the most important is that people just want to be appreciated for who they are.  Sherald put it succinctly:  “A lot of people are just asking to be seen as human beings, and not as a product of their environment.”

In addition to winning the $25,000 prize money, Sherald will also be commissioned to paint the portrait of a famous living person for the museum’s permanent collection. When she was asked who she would paint, she smiled and her face brightened. “Lenny Kravitz,” she relied blushingly.  Of course there are other choices like Collin Powell, Serena Williams and Spike Lee.

The National Portrait Gallery has a long list of  American icons that Sherald can select from. “You can imagine the history of America. There are a lot of people that need to come into the collection,” said Kim Sajet, National Portrait Gallery Director.  Before 2001, the portrait of the American icon to be added to the collection was reserved for those who had been dead for 10 years. The rule, however, changed in 2001 to include living people. The commissioned portraits of past winners include Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Esperanza Spalding.

That Amy Sherald was able to walk on stage to celebrate her prize was a miracle.  When she was just 30 years old, she got a devastating diagnosis that put her on the precipice of death. One day “my heart just didn’t want to work anymore,” she said.  Soon after, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.  From then on, her health went down the hill. For several months she laid on the sick bed, and her cardiologist told her to expect the worst.   But at a point when she was almost giving up hope, a miracle happened.  A marching donor was found and a transplant was performed. It was successful.

Today, Sherald is as fit as fiddle, and her career is blooming in many ways.  Standing on stage, she acknowledged the fact of how unreal it was that she was right there. “I never imagined that I’d be standing here right now talking to you.”  Her survival became the impetus to go on. “I know this is what I’m born to do. And I feel like I’m on the path, standing here right now. I am on path,” she said.

Sherald’s route to excellence has been filled with spikes.  When she made the decision to become an artist, her mother would not hear it.  She advised her to become a lawyer, doctor or dentist. “You can do art by the side,” she said.  Artists had a reputation as paupers and Sherald’s mom did not want that for her daughter.   She wanted her to have a job that would feed her.” I wanted her to be able to eat, I wanted her to be able to buy her own groceries.

Sympathetic as Sherald was to her mother’s quest, she did not allow it to dissuade her. She was persistent and determined to follow her dreams.  After high school, Sherald attended Clark-Atlanta University where, she received a degree in painting.  She later attended the  Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where she earned her masters of fine art in painting  in 2004.

In the early part of her career, Sherald’s artworks were autobiographical. They speak of her experience growing up and the where she lived. They also reflected the adversities she experienced.  Her new works are, however, following a different course.  They are informed by the issues of gender, race, and identity. Her large-sized portraits have taken on a more social context narrative as a way of stimulate relevant discourses about topical matters.

One of those large-sized  portraits is Miss Everything. Like this award winning piece,  Sherald’s artworks have brought her great recognition.  Her focus is to continue to create works that dig deep into social issues, especially when it comes to gender disparity, racial degradation and identity.  “My work is inspired by fantasy and bit of reality,” she said during the award ceremony.  Her focus continues to be on “creating  a body of work that was  an archetype.” The hope is that “it’s going to carry me for a while,” she said.

Born in Georgia, Sherald’s devotion to her craft has given her recognition at home and  abroad.  She was an artist in residence at a program in Panama.  While in Larvik, Norway, she studied with acclaimed Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum. Influenced by Rembrandt  and Caravaggio, Nerdrum is celebrated for his anecdote and narrative theme and style. In 1999, Sherald also curated and installed shows at the South American Biennale in Lima Peru.

While committed to her art, Sherald is deeply involved in teaching art.  Presently an artist in residence at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown,  Sherald also volunteers to teach art at the Baltimore City Detention Center.  Her artwork can be found at the Smithsonian African America Museum and at The National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The Outwin Boocheve Portrait Competition is held every three years. Sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, the exhibition encourages “artists to explore the ever-evolving art of portraiture. For this year’s competition, entries came from 19 states and D.C. “They are absolutely referencing what they’re seeing around them: single mothers, youth at risk, Black Lives Matter, gender issues,” Kim Sajet, National Portrait Gallery Director said.  Unlike other years,  the 2016 competition shows a shift from conceptual and non-traditional reformations of the genre.

Sherald’s  Miss Everything is part of The Outwin 2016: American Portraiture Today exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  The show features 43 top entries to the competition.  It includes Mavis in the Basket, by photographer Cynthia Henebry. The image captures an emotionally charged young girl sitting pensively in a car. Also on display  is Joel Daniel Phillip’s amazingly detailed drawing of an African American who seems to be down on his luck. It won the third place prize.

The Outwin2016: American Portraiture Today, runs through  January 8, 2017 at National Portrait Gallery.

Amy Sherald, Well Prepared and Maladjusted. Image: courtesy of the artist.

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