Amy Sherald, A Second Life
As she was preparing to run a marathon in 2004, Baltimore artist Amy Sherald, then 31, learned that she had heart failure. Some people can live with congestive heart failure in its earlier stages and not know it.
In 2012, Sherald received a new heart. Art is what got her through eight difficult years. Now she is an artist on the verge of wide recognition for her ability to make figurative painting speak in new ways.
The momentum began in the 1990s when she was a pre-med student at Clark Atlanta University. One day Sherald paused to talk to a man who was usually out in front of the library selling his artwork. Discovering that she liked art, the man asked to see some of her work. The next day she showed him a painting she had done in high school.
Sharald had long wanted to be an artist but was not encouraged by her dentist dad and stay-at-home mom. “They thought I’d be broke if I became an artist. I was expected to be a lawyer, doctor or teacher.”
She chose “doctor.” But the artist outside the library warned her, “If you don’t use your talent, you’ll lose your talent.” Heeding his advice, she changed her major to painting, even though she was in her junior year.
Growing up in Columbus, Georgia, Amy was very shy and self-conscious. A self-described “introvert,” she stayed inside during recess. “Art class was my safe haven,” she recalls. One of the reasons she enjoyed art was because it didn’t require interaction with people.
Sherald attended private schools and didn’t have any black friends until she was in the 9th grade. “I didn’t think anything of it really until high school” she says. “The innocence of childhood leaves and the reality of identity politics crushed the utopia that I worked so hard to maintain.”
As an art major, she studied at Spelman College with the noted artist and art historian Arturo Lindsay. After graduating in 1997, Sherald worked as an assistant to Lindsay for a number of years. She relocated to Maryland and enrolled in the MFA program at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
At MICA, she studied with the renowned abstract expressionist artist Grace Hartigan and adopted Hartigan’s dripping method. Dripping is the process of putting the paint on your canvas and letting the paint “do what it do.” Sherald mostly uses the dripping method for the background of her paintings.
In a practice that has roots in her youth, Sherald depicts subjects based on the photographs that she shoots of her models. As a child, she riffled through magazines to find pictures that she liked and she drew them. Now she embellishes her figurative subjects with clothing, accessories and other items drawn from her imagination or personal experience. The painting of a woman holding a hobby horse, for example, recalls the horseback lessons she took as a child. The painting also seems to be commenting on the class pretensions of black people.
Sharald’s early experience of being very socially and culturally assimilated was balanced by attending an HBCU and an evolving racial identity which has influenced her to “try to find a way to reconstruct or make room for new ways to think about ‘self.’”
She still enjoys being alone in her studio.
Just as Sherald was coming out of MICA and coming into her own as an artist, she was given the life-altering diagnosis about her heart condition at a checkup before running a marathon. Art making was an integral part of her therapy during this challenging time.
“Art is all I have,” she explains. “It’s what I wake up to do, I’m lost without it.” In the hospital waiting for her new heart, she drew, did research for art, and joked with the nurses about her next piece being a tin woman. Like the tin man, the tin woman needed a heart.
While Sherald was in the hospital, her younger brother was fighting a battle of his own with cancer. Her family had to divide their time between the two. The outcome was good and bad. A heart was found for Sherald. Her brother died.
Four days after her brother’s funeral on December 18, 2012, her mother’s birthday, Sherald underwent a successful heart transplant.
Now she’s moving into a new studio in Baltimore and preparing for a solo exhibition at the city’s Reginald F. Lewis Museum.
“Before my transplant I was exhausted all the time, now that I have a new heart, it’s a lot different.”
The old studio was underground. The new studio with windows allowing fresh air and natural light corresponds with this part of her life. Amy Sherald sees it as start of a new journey, a second life.
Marlisa Sanders is an IRAAA editorial assistant.