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The life — and near-death — of Michelle Obama portrait artist Amy Sherald

Former first lady Michelle Obama and artist Amy Sherald stand next to Obama’s portrait at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Baltimore artist Amy Sherald made a routine stop at a Rite Aid in October 2012. She needed supplies for her studio. The trip almost killed her.

While shopping, Sherald felt her heart galloping unevenly inside her chest, she later recounted in an interview. This was not unusual. Years earlier she had been diagnosed 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. The flutters were part of the condition. They usually just went away.

Such a medical condition upends any life, but for a young painter — already facing the long odds of mainstream success — the ailment threw new obstacles at Sherald. She was often sapped of energy, too exhausted to paint. To pay for treatment, she waited  tables five nights a week.

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.’ ”

This week, the artist is in the national spotlight with a new level of professional success.

On Monday, the National Portrait Gallery presented the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama. The former president’s picture was painted by Kehinde Wiley. The former first lady’s image was captured by Sherald, in a piece that presented Michelle Obama in “a curious mix of confidence and vulnerability,” as The Washington Post’s critic Philip Kennicott put it.

The National Portrait Gallery unveiled the official portraits of former president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama in 2018. (Video: Reuters)

Both canvases are bold and vivid depictions that depart dramatically from the traditional concept of how a first couple should be portrayed on the walls of a museum. By asking two African American artists, the Obamas also sent an important message about representation.

But Wiley and Sherald also are artists with distinct styles and art world experiences. As New York magazine’s Jerry Saltz wrote Monday, Wiley is “a mega-art star whose work commands astronomical prices” and is “known for sartorial snazz” and as the “runner of a major studio with assistants working on canvases.” Sherald is still based in Baltimore, and her work has only recently found major critical attention. That achievement comes despite serious health issues — including a heart transplant.

Sherald was raised in Columbus, Ga. Her father was a dentist. A self-described “introvert,” Sherald enjoyed art classes because she could do them without interacting with other students. “Art class was my safe haven,” she has said. Her family, however, initially hoped she would choose a traditional calling.

“My father wanted me to be a dentist like him, or any doctor, really,” Sherald told Baltimore magazine. “There was this attitude of, ‘The civil rights movement was not about you being an artist.’ ”

She did eventually pursue a painting career, earning 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’s health issues sprang from nowhere.

At the time, she was 30 and training for a triathlon, a lifelong goal. But Sherald told Baltimore magazine, she had a recurring dream, from the time she was a little girl, about running a race and collapsing dead at the finish line. She went to a doctor before her event. 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 18 percent.

“I would have been one of those athletes whose heart just stops and no one knows why,” Sherald told the magazine. Doctors warned a heart transplant could later be necessary.

Sherald continued to paint and study. But bad health continued to draw her away from work. Eventually, she had to move home to Georgia to take care of her mother and two ailing aunts. Sherald did not paint for three years, according to the Baltimore Sun. Her brother Michael also was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

After her Rite Aid blackout in October 2012, doctors informed Sherald her heart was now 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.”

The scene during the Obamas’ portrait unveiling

Feb. 12, 2018 | Former president Barack Obama is seen during the unveiling of the official portraits of him and former first lady Michelle Obama at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

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