art · life curation

5 Lessons from Amy Sherald, An American Success Story

A few months back, the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama was unveiled and put on display at the National Portrait Gallery. The painter, Amy Sherald, quickly became a household name, as her unique portraiture captivated art appreciators and stirred discussion on what makes an “acceptable” political portrait.

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Michelle Obama as portrayed by Amy Sherald (I took this photo a few weeks ago)

But today, I’m not talking about whether Sherald’s painting was aesthetically pleasing or suitable for a First Lady (though, after seeing it in person, I agree that it is both beautiful and a fitting tribute to Mrs. Obama). I want to talk about Sherald and what makes her the ultimate American success story. Here are five lessons we can learn from Amy Sherald:

  • Be committed to your craft.

Sherald studied art in her undergraduate and graduate years. Before committing to art school, she practiced her craft daily and participated in arts camps during the summer. Much like Sherald, if you want success, you have to be committed to your craft

  • Seize as many opportunities as you possibly can.

Sherald apprenticed for art historians, curated for museums abroad, and she also lived and studied in Norway, China and Panama. She didn’t let distance keep her from seizing opportunities that brought her closer to her dream. Likewise, the opportunities we need are rarely in our own backyard: we have to seize them wherever they are, even if that takes us around the world and away from everything familiar.

  • Don’t allow discouragement to distract you.

Despite Sherald’s immense talent, her family wasn’t particularly supportive of her decision to be a full-time artist. In fact, it wasn’t until she won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition that her mother view art as a viable career for Amy. Our loved ones mean well, but we may have to “tune out” their well-meaning advice that doesn’t bring us closer to what we want.

  • Be courageous enough to choose discomfort in service to your vision.

Sherald herself mentioned that she chose “discomfort” in order to create art that inspires. Discomfort means that we sacrifice certainty for the possibility of realizing our highest selves. Try a little discomfort to help you make strides toward your goal.

  • It’s never too late to be what you envision yourself to be.

Sherald was 42 when she won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Dreams aren’t just for the young and wide-eyed: consistency and focus will bring you the success you desire, even if it’s a little later than you expected. By consistently following the previously mentioned steps, you’ll be prepared for your “big break” whenever it comes along.

Have you had a chance to check out Amy Sherald’s work? Let me know in the comments below!

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