At one time, the Baltimore artist Amy Sherald intended to paint a portrait of herself as the Tin Man from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”
At age 39, Sherald, a person who stops to talk — really talk — to panhandlers and who recently raised $1,600 for a friend’s rent, found herself desperately in need of a heart.
“I blacked out in a Rite Aid,” she said. “The doctor told me my heart function was at 5 percent. I spent two months in the hospital waiting to have a transplant. For me, that was the end of the world.”
It was also a beginning of, if not a new world, at least a new way of living in the old one.
On Sherald’s coffee table now stands a photograph of the young heart donor who made the artist’s current success possible.
After years in which Sherald’s career was derailed — first when she cared for gravely ill family members and later by her own medical emergency — her supporters say she could become one of the leading American painters of her generation.
Her work is on view at three Washington museums, and at Baltimore’s Creative Alliance through January.
Three Sherald paintings are included in a group show called “About Face” featuring portraiture that challenges racial stereotypes. (The show also includes artwork by Tim Okamura, Ebony Patterson and Iona Rozeal Brown.)
“Amy is definitely an artist to watch,” said Dorothy Moss, associate curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery.
This year, Sherald beat 2,500 other entries to win the 2016 Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which includes a $25,000 award and a commission from the National Portrait Gallery.
“Museums are calling,” Moss said. “Art critics are writing about Amy. She’s starting to get the recognition she deserves.”
Sherald’s life-size portraits pull viewers in from across the room. Her subjects are African American, but Sherald paints their skin in shades of gray. The charcoal flesh makes more vibrant objects — a two-piece yellow bathing suit, red yarn — pop like firecrackers.
“We were all stunned by the fresh approach that Amy was taking to portraiture,” Moss said.
“Her use of gray skin tone was something we’d never seen before. The paintings’ surfaces look flat, but the closer you get, the more dynamic they become.”
Sherald’s work also contains otherworldly details that wouldn’t be out of place in a dream landscape, or in Oz.
In her 2011 work, “High Yella Masterpiece: We Ain’t No Cotton Pickin’ Negroes,” two men in white three-piece suits stare deadpan at viewers while holding enormous cones of spun pink sugar.
“We loved the strength and confidence of her subjects,” Moss said. “They look directly at the viewer with this intense engagement. They are very self-possessed and self-assured.”
The daughter of a dentist and a homemaker who grew up in Georgia, Sherald is one of those intriguing artists who more or less created themselves.
“When I started school,” she said, “I would draw pictures at the end of my sentences: a house, a flower, a tree, a bird. Whatever was in the sentence, I’d draw it.”
Sherald’s parents hoped she would become a doctor, and she recalls visiting a museum just once as a child.
On that sixth-grade field trip, she encountered Bo Bartlett’s “Object Permanence,” a family portrait in which the artist, who is white, painted himself as a black man.
“That painting did something to me,” Sherald says.
“I’ve forgotten a lot of things. I’ve forgotten how to play the piano and how to speak Arabic, though I studied it for two years. But I’ll never forget how much it meant to me to see myself in that museum.”
Sherald chooses subjects who have a strong inner sense of themselves — perhaps because that’s a quality she herself possesses. She’s taken charge of her career from practically the moment she picked up a brush.
“I don’t say this about a lot of people, but Amy was born to be a painter,” said Arturo Lindsay, Sherald’s mentor. “From the day I met her, Amy just had this thirst to paint very, very well.”
Sherald wanted to be a painter so badly that she worked free for Lindsay, her former painting teacher, for five years.
She wanted to be a painter so badly that she supported herself by waiting tables until age 38, when she could finally afford to paint full time.
And Sherald wanted to be a painter so badly that she talked the renowned figurative painter Odd Nerdrum into accepting her as a student in Norway.
So it was all the more disturbing that, shortly after returning to America, Sherald found herself, like the Tin Man, severed from her truest self.
Sherald’s family had been hit by a tsunami of loss. Her father had died in 2000 of Parkinson’s disease. An aunt developed a brain infection. Her great-aunt was in her 90s and fading.
Her exhausted mother asked Sherald to come home and help out.
At the age of 30, she had decided to train for a triathlon but went for a checkup first. She was stunned when the doctor diagnosed her with congestive heart failure and told her the organ was functioning at 18 percent efficiency.
“I had no symptoms at all,” Sherald said. “The day before, I had run an eight-minute mile.”
Nonetheless, she clearly was the best person to help her family. So the artist stepped away from her easel and moved back to Georgia.
For the next three years, Sherald stopped painting entirely. She wondered if she really wanted to be an artist. She told herself, “You’re just another person with a master’s degree in fine arts.”
But her long hiatus had important payoffs.
“I got to know my brother as a person,” she said. “We had great conversations about life and religion and philosophy.”
Four years later, Sherald’s brother, Michael, succumbed to lung cancer.
“I made his eyes sparkle,” she said. “That’s what gives me solace now.”
After returning to Baltimore, she slowly resumed her art. In 2010, she was featured in the publication New American Paintings. The National Museum of Women in the Arts bought a portrait.
But Sherald’s disease was advancing. She lost 25 pounds. Breathing became difficult. It became increasingly obvious that medicine couldn’t control her condition. Nonetheless, she wasn’t considered sick enough to qualify for a transplant until the day in 2012 that she collapsed on the pharmacy floor.
Even after the transplant, it took a year for Sherald to build up enough energy to resume painting.
The experience changed her. Sherald taught art to prison inmates and began working on art projects with teens.
In 2013, she created a painting of a poker-faced luncheon guest wearing a proper navy shift and red fascinator — and hefting a white china teacup nearly as large as her head.
The result won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition.
“Some works of art have a life force,” Lindsay said.
“That’s why people destroy them, why they go into churches and slash paintings. When the life force is there, it’s undeniable. You feel the presence of something great and strong. Amy’s work has that quality.”
The Tin Woman has a new heart, and now there’s no holding her back.