Artist Amy Sherald‘s father wanted her to be a dentist, just like him.
“There was this attitude of, ‘The civil rights movement was not about you being an artist,’” Sherald told Baltimore magazine.
But Sherald, a self-described introvert and the woman behind Michelle Obama’s official portrait, preferred art classes, calling them her “safe haven.”
Although her family initially hoped she would pursue medicine or dentistry, Sherald took up painting. She earned an undergraduate degree in painting from Clark-Atlanta University before heading to the Maryland Institute College of Art for her master’s degree.
Just weeks before finishing her degree in 2004, however, Sherald had a health scare while pursuing a lifelong goal: Completing a triathlon. She had a recurring dream, from the time she was a young girl, about running a race and collapsing dead at the finish line, Sherald told Baltimore magazine.
Before the triathlon, Sherald went to the doctor. The medical staff delivered the shocking news: her heart was barely functioning. The organ’s ejection fraction — the percentage of blood leaving the heart with each beat — was only 18 percent.
Doctors diagnosed her with cardiomyopathy, a form of heart disease. At the time, doctors said the 30-year-old graduate student had the organ of an 80-year-old woman, she said. They warned a heart transplant could later be necessary.
“I would have been one of those athletes whose heart just stops and no one knows why,” Sherald told the magazine.
Sherald continued to paint and study, but bad health continued to draw her away from her work. Her condition drained Sherald of her energy, and she was often too exhausted to paint. To pay for treatment, she was forced to wait tables five nights a week.
She left Baltimore for Georgia, where she grew up, to take care of her mother and two ailing aunts. Sherald did not paint fort three years, according to the Baltimore Sun. Her brother Michael also was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
Then, in 2012 when Sherald was back in Maryland, her heart reached a tipping point.
While shopping in Rite Aid, Sherald felt her heart galloping unevenly inside her chest, she later recounted in an interview. She was used to flutters, which are common with cardiomyopathy.
Inside the drugstore, she waited and hoped for her blood’s rhythm to settle. But she blacked out. Moments later she woke up on the store’s floor, blood pooling under her head. An ambulance raced her to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
“I felt like I could die then,” Sherald recalled to Baltimore Magazine. “I actually felt that for the first time, and it did scare me. I thought, ‘I can’t be afraid to die,’ so I just made peace with it at that moment. I said, ‘I’m not going to be afraid, it’s all going to be okay.’”
Doctors informed Sherald her heart was now only operating at a 5 percent ejection fraction. A transplant was necessary. She waited two months in the hospital for a suitable organ to become available. While stuck in a hospital bed, she learned her brother had succumbed to his cancer.
Eleven days later, on Dec. 18, 2012, a match became available, the donor a victim of an opioid overdose.
According to the Sun, even after her transplant, Sherald was not healthy enough to return to her paint brushes for a year.
Yet her subsequent work steadily attracted attention, particularly a combination of subject matter — everyday African Americans — and color. Her figures are painted in a gray skin tone, as a “way of challenging the concept of color-as-race,” the National Museum of Women in the Arts has written.
In 2016, Sherald won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, a distinction that came with a $25,000 award and national attention. “Museums are calling,” Dorothy Moss, the National Portrait Gallery’s associate curator of painting and sculpture, told the Sun when the awards were announced. “Art critics are writing about Amy. She’s starting to get the recognition she deserves.”
Obama chose Sherald to paint her official portrait, and this week, the artist stood beside the former first lady as she unveiled her work at the National Portrait Gallery. Sherald’s painting will have a lasting impact, Obama said.
Young girls of color “will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them, hanging on the wall of this great American institution,” Obama said. “I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives, because I was one of those girls.”