Columbus native Amy Sherald will be featured in new season of TV series about art

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Acclaimed artist and Columbus native Amy Sherald is among the 12 artists in the 11th season of the PBS TV series “Art in the Twenty-First Century” — and she will be the first one featured in the premiere episode, April 7 at 10 p.m.

The Emmy-nominated documentary series profiles what the producer, Art21, calls “groundbreaking” contemporary artists in three one-hour episodes.

“While recent seasons focused on the connections between artists and the cities in which they live and work,” Art21 wrote in a news release, “our current moment asks us to consider the communities, cultures, and commitments that artists carry with them regardless of where they call home.”

Columbus connection

Sherald, a 1991 graduate of St. Anne-Pacelli Catholic School in Columbus, credits Geri Davis, the school’s late art teacher, for planting a seed that inspired her career.

And her career skyrocketed to pop culture fame when former first lady Michelle Obama selected Sherald in 2017 to paint her official portrait. Sherald is the first Black woman chosen for such an honor.

Former first lady Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald, right, unveil Michelle Obama’s official portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington.
Former first lady Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald, right, unveil Michelle Obama’s official portrait at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Feb. 12, 2018, in Washington.

In 2020, Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman fatally shot by police in Louisville, Kentucky, graced the cover of Vanity Fair magazine’s September issue.

Chadd Scott wrote in a 2021 article for Forbes magazine, “Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor may prove to be the most important painting of the 21st century. A brilliant artist at the top of her game. A beautifully, powerfully, sensitively rendered picture of a tragic figure. Simultaneously traumatic and hopeful. A singular statement managing to condense a world gone mad into one image.”

In 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery awarded Sherald first prize in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition for her oil on canvas titled “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverances).” She is the first woman and the first African American to win the competition that was established in 2006.

The piece depicts a young girl with gray skin and black facial features, wearing white gloves and holding an oversized teacup and saucer while “standing front and center against a nondescript naturalistic blue-red background,” the North Carolina Museum of Art wrote during its 2018 exhibition there.

Sherald told the museum “Alice in Wonderland” was the inspiration for the painting.

“That’s where the teacup is coming from — bending temporal space and thinking of yourself outside of how the world sees you,” she told the museum. The painting “originated as a creation of a fairytale, illustrating an alternative existence in response to a dominant narrative of black history.”

In its description of her work, Smithsonian magazine wrote, “Sherald creates innovative, dynamic portraits that, through color and form, confront the psychological effects of stereotypical imagery on African American subjects. Her subjects are often set in whimsical, nondescript settings with surreal details that add a bit of satire.

“The dreamlike backgrounds create what the artist refers to as ‘the amorphous personal space of my own existence within the context of black identity and my search for ways to clarify and ground it.’ Using light gray paint, Sherald ‘omits’ skin color so her subjects appear both realistic and otherworldly.”

Sherald’s paintings have been popular at auctions as well. “The Bathers” (2015) sold for $4.2 million in 2020, and “Welfare Queen” (2012) sold for $3.9 million in 2021.

New season’s first episode

Simpson, Da Corte and Lind-Ramos will be featured along with Sherald in the new season’s first episode “as they build new and exciting visual worlds and question the monuments and icons that came before,” Art21 said in the news release. “This hour explores artists who reflect on the aesthetic traditions and histories we encounter daily. Their work expands our visual vocabulary to reflect a changing society.

“In these artists’ practices, the often rigid boundaries of expectation are put aside in favor of new ideas, unorthodox approaches, and playful propositions for who and what symbolizes a culture. Their freedom and innovation give audiences permission to build new and unexpected worlds of their own and inspire empathy, connection, and critical thought.”

In the episode, Sherald describes her Columbus roots and how old family photographs influenced her artistic style. The episode also shows Sherald visiting the Bo Bartlett Center at Columbus State University, where she recounts a sixth-grade field trip in which she viewed Bartlett’s “Object Permanence” (1986) and was inspired to become an artist.

Sherald told in September 2019 it was “the first real painting I ever saw in my whole life.”

In the painting, Bartlett, a white man, depicts himself as Black.

“The image of a young black man looking at me, just seeing myself in that work was powerful,” she told ArtNet. “I still feel the same about it and it’s still a great part of my inspiration as a figurative painter. It’s a reminder that there need to be more images out there existing in the world that can offer other children and people that same experience that I had in that moment when I first saw that painting in a museum.”

The following is a Q&A the L-E conducted via email with Sherald, who resides in the New York City area:

Q: How do you feel about being featured in “Art in the Twenty-First Century”?

A: It’s the kind of thing where if Art21 calls, you answer. I spent so much time as a young artist developing my voice and finding my world by watching Art21. It felt like an organic and natural experience to be working with them, and it was enlightening to see my artistic process play out on screen.

Q: What do you hope viewers get out of watching your episode?

A: Our world is created through still and moving images. Art makes anything possible! So many paintings came to life over the course of filming the episode. I hope that it gives viewers and especially young artists a chance to witness that experience and be inspired to create for themselves.

Q: How did the publicity from painting Michelle Obama’s portrait change your life and your art?

A: It didn’t change my art but it facilitated an expansive forum and context for the work. I love that it’s used to educate children about art history and themselves.

Q: How did growing up in Columbus influence your life and your art?

A: For the episode, I was able to go back to Columbus, to my childhood home and reflect on the journey that I’ve been on. I would spend afternoons in our family room with photo albums and photographs that anchored me in my history and fostered a deep sense of who I am, and who I should be no matter where the world takes me.

There’s a very special moment in the segment where I’m looking with my mom at the black and white photograph of my grandmother Jewel that continues to inspire so much of what I do. Her photograph is always a reminder that the visual legacy I realize through my paintings has been with me since the beginning and keeps me grounded in what I do.