Through Sunday, Aug. 26
Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill

With her statuesque proportions and freckled complexion encasing a megawatt smile, Amy Sherald, one of today’s leading painters, commands the attention of any room simply by walking in. Her sandy blonde afro is like a crown that adorns her stylish ensemble. Behind bold acrylic frames, her eyes twinkle with artistic ingenuity. It is not hard to see why Michelle Obama hand-picked Sherald to immortalize her at the National Portrait Gallery last year.

Sherald recently visited the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill for the opening of The Outwin: American Portraiture Today because her portrait “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)” won first prize in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, which this touring Smithsonian exhibit celebrates. The painting exemplifies Sherald’s now-iconic style. Interestingly, it began with the garment, not the subject.

Sherald found a dress that spoke to her in a North Baltimore secondhand store. It reminded her of something her mother would have dressed her in as a child. It was bright orange with cream polka dots, and so tiny that she had a hard time finding a model to wear it. But it was a perfect fit for Crystal Mack, a friendly preteen with a loquacious personality who was famous for selling candy in Sherald’s Baltimore neighborhood.

In the portrait, Sherald changed the color of the dress to blue and added a vintage headpiece. One is drawn into the young woman’s confident gazesomething Sherald said she was programmed not to have as a black girl growing up in the South. She is motivated to empower women to own their truth while also leaving room for an identity separate of race labels.

Sherald had been hard at work for many years before winning the Outwin competition in 2016. In fact, this exhibit is a full-circle moment; she had her first solo exhibit at UNC’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History in 2011.

When asked what it was like working with Michelle Obama, Sherald simply replied, “stressful.” She clarified that Obama herself was a joy to work with, but the pressure to produce something so historic was great. True to her process, she began with the dress.

Working with Obama’s stylist, Sherald narrowed down a selection of dresses that ultimately led to the Milly gown depicted in the now-historic portrait, which made Sherald, along with Barack Obama portraitist Kehinde Wiley, the first black artist to paint a presidential portrait. Sherald felt it was important to pose the former First Lady in a way that showcased the beauty of the dress while simultaneously elevating her iconic stature. But she brings the same level of care and attention to her portrait of Crystal Mack, as do the dozens of other portraitists in the exhibit. (As it happens, another Outwin finalist also went on to gain presidential ties: Sedrick Huckaby, a Fort Worth, Texas native, became George W. Bush’s painting instructor.)

Dorothy Moss, an associate curator at the National Portrait Gallery and director of the Outwin competition, said that the jurors who selected the finalists focused on the psychological connection between the artist and the subject, the experience rather than objectivity. This is especially evident in the mixed-media work of Adrián Román.

To capture the grandeur of his grandmother in “Caja De Memoria Viva II: Constancia Colón de Clemente,” Román masterfully depicted her in charcoal on a large wooden box suspended only a few feet from the ceiling. The sound of her voice, in her native Spanish, emanates from the box, and mementos line its illuminated interior. The piece is vastly different from many of the others, but intimacy and individuality are ever-present.

National Portrait Gallery director Kim Sajet said that when the collection was first revealed, some questioned whether the selections were politically motivated. There are portraits featuring LGBTQ people, migrants, and people with disabilities. She said that political messaging was not a factor for the jurors, but she is excited about the open dialogue the exhibit has fostered. She recalled a previous showing where an elderly gentleman said to artist Jess T. Dugan, after viewing her post-mastectomy, gender-ambiguous self-portrait, “I just have to ask, are you a girl or a boy?”

In a time when the political climate is so divisive, it’s important for people to be having these conversations about humanity. The authenticity of the work on display at the Ackland leads us on a journey of self-reflection and deeper thought about what America looks like today.