May 12, 2022

Exploring the Obama Portraits in VR: Getting Meta with History-Making Artist Amy Sherald

Kai XR

For Black History Month, Kai XR hosted world-renowned artist Amy Sherald for a virtual fireside chat to explore the iconic Obama portraits.

We heard directly from Amy about what it was like to be the first African American woman to paint a presidential portrait—the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama.

If you’re an educator looking for innovative, engaging Black History Month activities or content, check out our program.

 

Barack and Michelle Obama stand center stage, smiling. Beside each is their respective portrait. Beside each portrait is the portrait's painter. Background is a dark blue curtain.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

 

A Brief Background on the Obama Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery first unveiled their official portraits of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama on February 12, 2018, in a private ceremony that coincided with the museum’s 50th anniversary celebrations. Since then, the stunning works of art have attracted global attention and critical acclaim for their unconventional artistry and groundbreaking, historical significance.

Prior to leaving the White House, President and Mrs. Obama selected two prominent African American Artists—Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald—to paint their respective portraits for the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Their selection marked the first time African American artists have been commissioned to paint the official portraits of a President or First Lady in the museum’s history.

Collaboration on the portraits between the artists and their subjects began while President Obama was approaching the end of his second term. New-York based Wiley and Baltimore-based Sherald—both known for painting “lush, vivid canvases of ordinary black subjects”—worked closely with the President and First Lady to develop their own, unique approaches to capturing and conveying the essence of their subjects while reflecting their personal style and sensibility as artists.

 

Side by side of a photograph of Michelle Obama and Amy Sherald's portait of her (based on the photo). In each, Michelle Obama wears a white flowing dress with black geometric shapes. She supports her chin on her hand and looks at the camera. In the photo, the background is bright green trees and bushes. In the portrait, the background is a pale gray-blue.

 

The result is nothing short of astounding as both pieces stand alone and together as two distinct but complementary works of art that have managed to stir admiration among art critics and tourists alike—with attendance at the National Portrait Gallery increasing by 300% in the week after the paintings were unveiled. Since then, millions of Americans have seen them in person.

Who is Amy Sherald?

Amy Sherald poses in her studio with one foot on a tall red ladder and one hand in her pocket. Two oversized works in progress are behind her. The dominant color on each is bright blue.
Source: Cultured Magazine

Born in Columbus, Georgia, formerly based in Baltimore, Maryland, and now living in the Greater New York City Area, Amy Sherald says that painting has always come naturally to her. But that doesn’t mean the road to being a critically acclaimed artist was always easy.

Growing up in the American south, Amy “identifies those early years negotiating issues of race and identity” as one of only a few Black students at her Georgia private school as being a “major influence on her art.” After graduating from Clark-Atlanta University with her bachelor’s degree, she went on to work in Central and South America organizing and installing international art exhibitions before relocating to Baltimore, where she earned her MFA at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Later in life, Amy’s professional ambitions had to be put on hold as she struggled to provide care for ill family members before having to focus on health problems of her own. At age 39, doctors informed Amy her heart was only functioning at 5 percent after she blacked out in a Rite Aid and woke up in the hospital. With her life literally on hold, Amy could do nothing but lie and wait—which she did for two months in the hospital. Fortunately, good things come to those who wait and, in this case, that good thing came in the form of a new heart.

Just four years later, in 2016, Amy overcame the challenges life had been throwing at her, taking first place in the Outwin Boochver Portrait Competition—beating out 2,500 competitors to claim the $25,000 prize and a commission by the National Portrait Gallery—for her painting, “Miss Everything (Unsuppressed Deliverance)." In just one of a career full of history-making moments, Amy was the first woman and first African American to take home first prize at the prestigious competition.

Since then, her career has continued its steady climb to the top, with her portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama being unveiled two years later—the same year she was awarded the 2018 David C. Driskell Prize from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. Amy continues to paint—as well as teach art in prisons and work with teenagers on a variety of creative projects—today.

Amy Sherald sits on the top of a ladder in a button down shirt next to her portrait of Breonna Taylor. Breonna wears a bright blue dress and stands out in black and white against a lighter blue canvas. She has her right hand on her hip and wears a gold cross necklace. Sherald's pose mirrors Breonna's; her left elbow is bent at her side to support her on the ladder. Both women look at the camera with a barely-there smile.
Source: Vanity Fair

Black History Month Field Trips

Gif of Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama and Kai helping a smiling toddler take off a VR headset.

In addition to our sit-down with Amy Sherald, Kai XR offers a range of exciting, engaging, and educational virtual experiences and activities that celebrate Black joy and Black excellence just in time for Black History Month.

Kai XR’s digital library includes virtual field trips that let students explore some of the most influential people, places, and experiences that have helped shape or that honor Black history, including: 

  • The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. – Take students on a trip to the National Mall to pay tribute to one of the leaders of the Civil Rights movement and a pivotal figure in Black history. 
  • Ruby Bridges – Help students understand the perseverance, resilience, and courage of Ruby Bridges and her entire family as she became the first Black student to integrate her all-white New Orleans elementary school. 
  • The Official Obama Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery – Give students a cultural and historical learning experience while highlighting Black artistic excellence by viewing the official Obama portraits in 360°. 
  • The Obama White House – Get a behind-the-scenes look at the Obama White House to help students reflect on and better understand the historical significance of the first African American President and First Lady.

purple, blue, and green graphics from four Kai XR VR field trips: Ruby Briges, Martin Luther King Jr. Monument, Obama Portraits, and the People' House.

 

With suggestions for tailoring these virtual experiences and integrating them into the curricula for every age level—elementary, middle, and high school—Kai XR’s virtual field trips offer educators a powerful tool to help keep students engaged in learning about history during Black History Month and all year-round.

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