First impressions are important, and for many people, their introduction to artist Amy Sherald and her work came in February. That’s when she stood alongside First Lady Michelle Obama and helped unveil her official portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
Now the High Museum is honoring Sherald — who is a native of Columbus, Georgia — with this year’s David C. Driskell Prize, the first national award to honor and celebrate contributions to the field of art of the African Diaspora.
Sherald’s portrait of Obama features her seated in a stunning patterned dress, looking at once thoughtful and relaxed.
“As a portrait painter, you have the capacity to capture something that is not captured in photography, she tells City Lights host Lois Reitzes. “And in that moment, that’s what I saw. It was a piece of her or a type of energy that I hadn’t picked up in any of the photographs.”
The work also drew criticism due to Sherald’s use of grayscale for skin color.
“You grow up knowing that you’re black because other people look at you that way. Who would we be without all of the external directives?” she asks. Saying that her work is a means to explore “the crooks and the crannies of who you really are and how you really exist in the world.”
“I wanted these images to live in spaces where they can be commentary to black people. They can walk into a museum and rest their eyes on somebody that’s looking back and reflecting love to them,” Sherald said. “But viewers who are non-black can approach the image and maybe in a way internalize who these people are without dissecting them first based on their skin color.”
This story originally appeared with an audio interview on WABE.org.