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Artist Amy Sherald Discusses Portrait Of Former First Lady Michelle Obama


MICHELLE OBAMA: Let's just start by saying wow again.


At the National Portrait Gallery in Washington today, the subjects of two new paintings helped with their unveiling.


BARACK OBAMA: How about that?


OBAMA: That's pretty sharp.


SHAPIRO: Barack Obama helped with the unveiling of a painting by a New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley. The former president is depicted leaning forward in a chair against a lush background of thick, green leaves. Michelle Obama is also seated in her portrait, one hand across her lap, the other under her chin. The background is light-blue. She wears a sleeveless white dress with geometric patterns almost like a Mondrian painting with touches of red, yellow and pink. Her face, arms and hair are all in gray like a charcoal drawing. That's how Amy Sherald paints African-Americans, something that grabbed the first lady's attention before they even met.


OBAMA: I'd seen her work, and I was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter. So I was wondering, who is this woman?

SHAPIRO: Well, she's 44. She lives in Baltimore. And until just a few years ago, she was supporting her art with a side job waiting tables. When I spoke with Amy Sherald this afternoon, I asked her about how she started painting the skin tones of her subjects in gray.

AMY SHERALD: After the invention of the camera when black families were finally able to photograph themselves in the ways that they wanted to be represented and I was able to look at those images and see myself in a way that was extricated from the dominant historical narrative - those are things that I thought about. And I think that when I looked around to see what work was being made and what conversations were being had amongst my contemporaries and, as a young artist, being influenced by American realism, I saw that there was a gap that I could fit myself into as a figurative painter. As a black woman and somebody who paints Americans, that narrative of images of us just being us were things that I wanted to see exist, you know, within the museum institutions.

SHAPIRO: You're known for painting people who are not famous, are ordinary, elevating them to the level of extraordinary. What changes when you're painting somebody who is world-famous (laughter), who's anything but ordinary?

SHERALD: Michelle Obama is extraordinary, but she is also the kind of woman that exists in a way that is - she's a hundred percent relatable to all kinds of people, all genders all around the world. And so she sits symbolically in the world in a way - in the same way that I want my images to sit. They are just being themselves. And her just being herself, you know, was a profound statement that really engaged all of us because she is just accessible. And I think that she is ideally the same as the sitters that I've had before.

SHAPIRO: I'd like to talk about the dress that she's wearing in this portrait because it's not just a dress. There's some symbolism there. Tell me about it.

SHERALD: Yeah. We looked at several dresses as I worked with her stylists and just trying to figure out what I wanted her to wear because, you know, she's known for a lot of things, and one of them is fashion. So I knew that that was important. I knew I wanted something that was colorful or something that had a bold kind of pattern on it. And I had narrowed it down to two dresses.

But once I saw her in that one, I knew that that was the one that, you know, she needed to be frozen in time in. It has a connection to, you know, the art canon. But then it also speaks to black culture. And it reminded me of the Gee's Bend quilts that women made over the course of their lifetimes and were discovered later on in life. But quilting is a huge part of black culture.

SHAPIRO: Did she give you any parameters of ways she wanted to be seen or what she hoped this portrait would do?

SHERALD: No. She gave me complete and total creative freedom. So she trusted me to do what I do, basically. So there were no parameters at all.

SHAPIRO: Before we let you go, you've described today as a defining milestone in your life's work. You're still a very young artist. So what happens after this milestone?

SHERALD: You know, I make jokes about going back to school to get another master's degree and, like, going into urban planning or something.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SHERALD: But I just keep working. I have...


SHERALD: You know, you can't really top this. But, I mean, I just keep working. I have a lot more to do with my life, and my life is my art. And so I'll just keep painting. But she'll always be the highlight of everything.

SHAPIRO: Well, Amy Sherald, thanks so much for talking to us on this momentous day.

SHERALD: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: And tomorrow on Morning Edition - the artist behind President Obama's new portrait. Kehinde Wiley is known for his larger-than-life paintings of African-Americans in powerful, heroic poses and for his bold, colorful backgrounds. He talks with Steve Inskeep about what it was like painting the country's first African-American president. That's tomorrow on Morning Edition from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.