AN EMPOWERING MURAL of a North Philadelphia teen graces the facade of the Target in Center City. Rising high above the downtown expanse, Najee Spencer-Young wears a mustard-colored hat cocked just so with a black-and-white floral coat. Despite the coat’s bold print, one’s attention is drawn to her eyes. Almond-shaped, they gaze directly back at you. Rendered in grayscale against a bright blue backdrop, the six-story portrait is unmistakably the work of Amy Sherald.

 


Installation view of “Untitled” Amy Sherald project. | Photo by Steve Weinik, Courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia

 

Mural Arts Philadelphia collaborated with Sherald on the untitled project. For more than three decades, the organization has been connecting artists with communities “to create art that transforms public spaces and individual lives.” Mural Arts “ignites change” by employing artists and offering programs focusing on youth education and restorative justice.

Spencer-Young, 19, participates in the art education program and got a chance to spend some time with Sherald, who is known for her portraits depicting ordinary people in interesting, often brightly colored outfits.

The artist, who has been based in Baltimore, recently took a studio space in Jersey City, N.J. Teens from the art education program visited her studio and spent the day learning about her practice and exploring ideas and concepts for the mural.

What they ultimately came up with engages with issues surrounding identity and the public gaze. In its description of the project, Mural Arts states that the work raises a few key questions: “Who is allowed to be comfortable in public spaces? Who is represented in art? How can one woman’s portrait begin to shift that experience for others?”

 


From left, Najee Spencer-Young, the student portrayed in the mural, and artist Amy Sherald. | Photo by Steve Weinik, Courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia

 

SHERALD HAS SAID, “I paint American people. Black people doing stuff.” In 2016, she won the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. She was the first woman and first African American to be awarded the prize. The recognition from the Washington, D.C., museum led to a seminal experience. Sherald gained widespread attention when First Lady Michelle Obama selected her to paint her official portrait for the Portrait Gallery. The painting was unveiled in February 2018 and has helped attract a record number of visitors to the museum.

For the mural project, Sherald was immediately drawn to Spencer-Young as an individual subject and larger symbol. “She had a special energy. I really liked her face. I met her, and probably within 15 minutes, I knew that I wanted to paint her,” the artist told NPR. “I think it’s important that, you know, girls like Najee get to see themselves beautiful and empowered. You know, she’s the reflection of so many girls that look like her in the community.”

Jane Golden, executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia said the program was honored to work with Sherald. “For years we have admired her painting; there is such strength in her composition, her color and the way she captures a gaze,” she said on the organization’s website. “And now she has teamed up with our art education program to create a unique mural in the heart of our city. What an extraordinary moment for Mural Arts and for Philadelphia.”

Three assistant artists from the program worked directly on the project. Kien Nguyen, Arthur Haywood, and Emily White studied with Sherald to gain an understanding of her artistic process and, based on her design specifications, helped paint the mural.

Completed in June, the mural is incredibly symbolic. Like the flowers on her coat, Spencer-Young blossoms in the portrait, sprouting up toward the sky as though her potential, and that of the wider community she represents, is limitless. CT

 

“Amy Sherald” opens Sept. 10 at Hauser & Wirth. The exhibition is her inaugural show with the gallery and her first solo presentation in New York City

 

FIND MORE about Mural Arts Philadelphia

 

FIND MORE about Amy Sherald on her website

READ MORE about Amy Sherald in a new profile published in Vogue magazine

FIND MORE about a Baltimore mural completed last year by Amy Sherald

 

BOOKSHELF
“Amy Sherald,” the artist’s first monograph, was published recently by the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis on the occasion of her first solo museum show.

 


Artist Amy Sherald and Mural Arts Philadelphia assistant artist Kien Nguyen work on mural. | Photo by Steve Weinik, Courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia

 

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