4 Questions with Amy Sherald

Blog Category:  Artist Spotlight
Vibrant painting of a young lady with medium skin tone staring out against a bright pink background. The painting is partially obscured by the silhouetted heads of museum visitors.

Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald (b. 1973) spoke with attendees at NMWA’s eighth Artists in Conversation program earlier this year. Designed as an intimate in-gallery discussion, Artists in Conversation offer visitors the opportunity to explore the museum and engage with artists and their works in the galleries. Sherald discussed her background, artistic process, and works featured in the museum, eliciting questions from program participants.

Amy Sherald in front of her work at NMWA; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA
Amy Sherald in front of her work at NMWA; Photo: Emily Haight, NMWA

How did you first develop your signature backgrounds?

“I was trying to work my way through some ideas, and I actually tried to destroy a painting. I poured turpentine all over it and I just left it on the floor. I came back the next day and there were parts of it that had this speckling effect that I really liked. It’s important that these figures don’t exist in a space or time. I feel like the backgrounds work for that—they exist in a liminal space.”

Can you talk about the way you portray skin color?

“In graduate school I was creating self-portraits. . . . I painted people in different colors. One was black, one was a raw sienna, and one was a yellow ochre. It was a way of deconstructing race and asking that question about what race means to us as a people. The gray was an under color and I decided to leave it. Mars black and Naples yellow make these beautiful skin tones. . . . Each [figure] is a different color because each background is a different color. Green comes through, blue comes through, pink comes through. It just worked.”

Wearing a bright yellow apron-style dress with strawberries and lace-trim details, an expressionless young woman with medium-dark skin tone rendered in grayscale stares out with her hands in her dress pockets. Her head is cocked to one side against an intensely pink-colored background.
Amy Sherald, They call me Redbone but I’d rather be Strawberry Shortcake, 2009; Oil on canvas, 54 x 43 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of the artist and the 25th Anniversary of NMWA; © Amy Sherald; Photo by Lee Stalsworth

What was it like studying with Grace Hartigan?

“She was a great role model—especially the stories she would tell about what her life was like as a woman trying to be an artist, working with [Jackson] Pollock and [Willem] de Kooning, and the tension that was there…the way they would put her down sometimes. All those things were learning experiences.

Amy Sherald—a medium skin-toned adult woman—stands and speaks to a crowd in a gallery beside her striking portraits depicting individuals with gray skintones against vibrant, solid-colored backgrounds. She smiles, her dark hair pulled tightly into a bun, and wears mostly black.
Amy Sherald speaks in front of two of her works as part of the Artists in Conversation series, 2017; Photo by Emily Haight, NMWA

Would you ever consider making smaller works?

“I really love drawing with charcoal…so, yes, I have. But then when I think about the work being in a museum. For me, the bigger the better because I want to take up that space and…I don’t want anyone visiting the museum and wondering if there was an Amy Sherald in there. I want them to know it was an Amy Sherald.”

Visit the museum to see Sherald’s paintings in person. Stay tuned about future programs through the online calendar and by signing up for e-news.

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