Amy Sherald broke into the national consciousness after former first lady Michelle Obama selected the artist to create her portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. She discussed her path to this career highlight during the opening of her new major solo exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on Thursday (May 10). 

The Washington Post reported yesterday (May 14) that Sherald explained her works, many of which explore life-sized Black subjects, as reactions to earlier art movements that often depicted Black people in subservient roles to White subjects. She said that she wishes to tell Black stories within the artistic tradition of American realism. “I feel like there’s not enough of that in the American art canon,” she said.

Sherald carried this mission into her earliest paintings before hitting a roadblock: a diagnosis of congestive heart failure. “I thought I was going to die when I was 39,” she said of the experience.

Sherald also noted that she encountered tremendous racist criticism after the Smithsonian Institute unveiled the portrait of Michelle Obama in February. She responded to an audience member’s question about what she hopes Americans wll come to understand about Blackness, with this: “Maybe just that: That we are American, too.”

The exhibit runs through August 19.