TRANSCRIPT: Ep. 127 Rise of the Black Portrait Artist


Miriam Schulman:
Well, hey, this is Miriam Schulman, Chief Inspiration Officer, host of The Inspiration Place podcast. You’re listening to episode number 127.

I’m so grateful that you’re here. Being that it’s Black History Month in the U.S., we’re going to talk about the rise of the Black portrait artist. Just for my international listeners, Black History Month began as a way of remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. It’s celebrated in February in the United States and Canada, while in Ireland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, it’s observed in October. But that is one of the reasons we’re talking about it today. Plus, I always love shining a light on amazing art for you, because we all learn from it.

So today, what we’re going to go over are 10 of what I’m calling… I don’t know if I would call them my favorite, but I would call them 10 artists you should know. It’s a shortlist. And after I wrote these down, I kept thinking of others that could have made the list. So this is definitely not a best of. I would not interpret it as the 10 best of anything. So that’s why it’s called a you should know list. And there’s others you should know too, but we’ll focus on these 10. I’ll mention a couple of bonus ones throughout this episode.

For example, one name that definitely could have been added to this list is Faith Ringgold. She’s mostly a fiber artist. I think I left her off because I don’t know that her artwork has a lot of figurative work. Maybe I’m ignorant about that, but you should definitely look her up. She’s now in her nineties and her art is included in Permanent Collections in the Museum of Modern Art.

Another artist, also not on this list. Again, I’m not sure if he really did much figurative work, but a very important artist. David Driskell, he’s one of the featured artists in a new HBO documentary, which is being released in February 2021. The documentary is called Black Art: In The Absence of Light. And by absence of light, I believe they mean because the media and art history world is not shining a light on their art.

I’ve been resisting signing up for HBO, not because I’m too cheap to pay for TV. Well, maybe I am, but I resist adding any television to my life. I really don’t like paid for stuff. I only actually added Netflix to my household during the pandemic lockdown. So that’s why I never get any Game of Throne references. They’re completely lost on me. However, I do subscribe to the New York Times and that arrives at my house in physical form every morning. Well, actually every weekday. So after my husband has carefully cut out the crossword puzzles, which in case you don’t know, or aren’t familiar with the New York Times, the art section always includes all the puzzles.

So he has to cut it out because he doesn’t want anyone else to touch it. Then next, it goes to my daughter. So she likes the Two Not Touch. She likes the KenKen puzzles. My son, by the way, I got accused the other day of not mentioning my son enough. He is not living at home right now and he’s not into the physical paper. But anyway, so my daughter next gets the paper. The Two Not Touche is one of our favorite puzzles. Sometimes, she copies it for me so we can both do it. She gets the KenKen, and that’s all in the art section.

So this morning, while my husband was mutilating the art section with scissors, he quizzed me if I knew this “Kerry Marshall” artist, who was featured in a review by the arts’ critic, Holland Cotter. Oh, yes, my husband, Kerry James Marshall, he had a huge retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is a really big deal for a living artist. Kerry James Marshall is on this list of artists you should know. We’re going to get there in a moment, but before I do, I want to just review the review, in the sort of book report of book reports.

And of course, if you do have HBO, then go watch it. It’s out now. And if you love it, you think I have to see it, please email me immediately. I am looking for an excuse to sign up for HBO, other than my very shallow reason of wanting to watch the revamped Sex and the City, that is coming out to feature Carrie and her friends in their fifties, definitely my demographic.

The feature length HBO documentary was inspired by a 1976 exhibition called Two Centuries of Black American Art. That exhibition was organized by the artist I mentioned earlier, David Driskell. Unfortunately, we’ve lost this artist to COVID, along with so many others. I believe he was in his late eighties. The ’76 exhibition featured 63 artists. And as you might expect, women were in the minority in that show. So Faith Gold wasn’t one of them, although she was practicing then, and probably should have been one of them.

In the curated list I’m sharing today, I’ve intentionally included five women and five men, just because it’s balanced, please don’t see these women as being the token artists. As I mentioned, I actually have made this list much longer. And most of the people I’m familiar with that I cut from the list are women. So it could have been very dominant of women if I had allowed it.

One important point about the documentary, is that although Black art is currently enjoying a gold rush right now in the marketplace, Black artists have been making very important art for over 200 years. One example of this… I don’t know if this is in the documentary or not, but this is recent news. One example of how Black artists have been making important art for a long time, is the recent art acquisition for the White House. So it’s not a purchase, exactly. And when I first heard about it, it was reported as if the Bidens collected it or acquired it and they did not. As part of the Biden’s inauguration, a large painting by the artist Robert Duncanson was loaned to the White House by the Smithsonian Museum. It’s titled Landscape with Rainbow. it was painted by Duncanson, a Black artist who painted it two years before the onset of the Civil War. This is not outsider art. This is a very, very traditional landscape, painted in the same kind of style you might expect from one of the Hudson River artists, very traditional landscape.

Landscape depicts a pastoral scene, sparsely populated with cows and people. And there’s actually a rainbow above that symbolizes renewal and hope. So it’s a very prescient painting, very timely for what’s happening right now. And like I said, it’s not an outsider art painting. It was very much painted in what was popular then.

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Duncanson was born in Cincinnati and he was considered “best-known African American painter” in the years surrounding the Civil War. It’s important because it shows that Black artists have always been part of the art scene. Even though, they’ve been largely underrepresented by White, male institutions.

One more thought I want to add before we dive into this list of 10 artists you should know, Duncanson is not on this list because, like I said, I’m focusing on artists painting in a figurative style. And forgive me if he also painted in a figurative style, but the painting I’m familiar with that he did, is a landscape.

When you do visit most museums, you’re going to see scowling White men looking down at you and naked White women. And the few Black figures may be depicted as maids or other subservient roles. You do not see a lot of art of or by Black people. That is why the exhibition by James Kerry Marshall was so groundbreaking, because he filled his exhibition, or the curator filled it with paintings of Black people by a Black person. So really owning the narrative, shining the light back on their story. By painting in a figurative style, artists are taking back the narrative and owning their own story.

This increased visibility for Black figurative painters has led to a shift in the dialogue around painting and identity, and has given more Black artists the opportunity to showcase their work in places where they had previously been excluded.

All right, so I’m going to begin this conversation of the 10 artists you should know, Black figurative artists you should know. We’re going to count down David Letterman style, 10, going all the way down to one.

Putting number 10 on the top of that list is Jacob Lawrence. Jacob Lawrence was born in 1917 and passed in the year 2000. He’s one of the most widely acclaimed African American artists of this century and one of only several works who are included in standard survey books on American art. Jacob Lawrence has enjoyed a very successful career for more than 50 years.

I recently visited an exhibition at, again, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which brought together… Oh, it was at a masked exhibition, I just want to tell you. It’s not totally socially distanced and they didn’t really mark off six feet apart, which was unfortunate, but everyone was wearing masks.

And at the Met, it was his art. It was called The American Struggle. The paintings were either titled or referenced quotes from colonial history, yet they depicted modern racial strife. And by modern, this was modern in the 1950s and yet so relevant to what’s happening right now. I just want to quote something from the Met catalog. They say, “Lawrence painted this series at the height of the Cold war and Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, which also coincided with landmark civil rights actions, such as the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education, Supreme Court ruling, that called for the desegregation of public schools. This more inclusive representation of the nation’s past is no less relevant today. And Lawrence’s visual reckoning with American history remains profoundly resonant with ongoing issues of racial justice and national identity.”

So if you are not familiar with Jacob Lawrence’s work, this is somebody to Google and look up right away. By the way, as I get into this, I just want to let you know that I did a Facebook Live, where I share images from all 10 of these artists’ work. And what we’ll do is put a link to both the Facebook Live, as well as, I broadcasted also on YouTube. So I will put both those links in the show notes so that you can see all of the art. So go to That’s where the show notes are, and there’ll be a link there so you can check out the live streams that I did when I’m sharing the art. So you can actually look at all the art.

Number nine, we’re going to do number nine and number eight together. So the next two artists, which really were significant and heralding in this era of what I’m calling the rise of the Black portrait artist, are the two artists who were chosen to do Barack and Michelle Obama’s portraits. So the two artists are Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley.

Hopefully, I pronounced everybody’s name correctly. I have a bit of an audiological processing disorder, which makes it hard for me sometimes to hear differences in the way names are pronounced. And I mean no disrespect when I mispronounce people’s names. I’m doing the best I can.

So Amy Sherald and Kehinde Wiley are the two artists who were chosen. Both of them had been well-known before they were chosen. Amy Sherald had won some significant portrait prize recognition before she was chosen to do Michelle Obama’s portrait. She depicts African Americans in everyday settings. You’ll see a very signature way that she paints their flesh tones in shades of gray. She has a very modern look to her art. It has a very flat look, very modern, very graphic looking, and the skin is very gray. The Michelle Obama portrait, it’s absolutely stunning. She has an abstract looking dress on and she used a very traditional pyramid shape to compose that figure.

Wiley, who did Barack’s portrait. Also, he was already well-known and all ready had his art featured in major collections because it was being collected by rap stars. So he’s known for highly naturalistic paintings of African Americans and he inserts them into old master paintings. He would paint a rap star as a king and put them into an old master look. Both of these artists were commissioned in 2017 to paint the official portraits. And you can see these portraits in the National Gallery.

The next artist that I want to share with you is Mickalene Thomas, number seven. She’s best known for her collage-like paintings, and those of you who are mixed media artists, you should definitely check out her art. Amazing, she creates these vibrant portraits and they address themes, including sexuality, race, beauty, gender, and she examines how the representation of women in popular culture informs our definition of femininity. I love the way she combines these collage images.

Artist that I did not include on this list, but could have included on this list is Dora Roberts. She is also working in a similar style to that. These kinds of collage paintings and taking back the narrative and really telling a story with her art in a very modern way. So both of those artists worth checking out.

Next is an artist, Bisa Butler, working right now. She’s born in 1973. She’s somebody I’ve mentioned on this podcast before. She’s American fiber artist. She’s known for quilted portraits. These all celebrate Black life. Like I said before, Deborah Roberts could have been just as easily added to this list, but Bisa Butler, definitely an artist having a moment. She is being collected by museums and she’s had some major shows. I saw exhibition of her work at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York. And I know that she’s also been collected, I want to say by the Toronto Museum, but other museums as well. You can’t even tell that they’re quilts. They look like paintings, and then you get close up and the intricacy of what she’s done is absolutely amazing. So they’re both visually stunning, as well as, having a narrative behind the art she’s creating.

That is actually true, I would say of all the artists on this list. It’s not just that they have this technique. The technique, of course, elevates what they’re doing, but it’s the combination of having a signature style, beautiful technique, and telling a story.

Next on the list, Jean Michel-Basquiat. He tragically died of a heroin overdose at age 27. That insidious age that we’ve lost many people to heroin at, 27. I don’t know. What’s so ominous about that number. But he has definitely left his influence on art, film and fashion. By the early 1980s, his neo expressionist paintings were being exhibited in galleries and museums internationally. It might be a bit of a stretch that he’s included on this list of figurative artist, but I love his abstract and emotive depictions. And he does have figures in some of them. His art focused on dichotomies, such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience.

Kara Walker, she’s about my age, actually. She was born in 1969. She’s an American contemporary painter, silhouettest printmaker, installation artist, and filmmaker, who explores race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity in her work. She’s best known for her room-size tableaux of Black cut-paper silhouettes. Her art addresses the history of American slavery and racism through violent and unsettling imagery. But what I love most about Kara Walker is her conviction, that she could be both a mother and an artist. She does not believe the lie that women artists have to choose. I also love this Kara Walker quote that I want to share with you, “There’s no diploma in the world that declares you as an artist. It’s not like becoming a doctor, you can declare yourself an artist and then figure out how to be an artist.” Beautiful.

Number three, Calida Garcia Rawles. Another contemporary artists working today. So she combines the meditative quality of water to reckon with Black trauma. You’ll see her art featured on the cover of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ most recent novel, The Water Dancer. Again, if you want to see this art and all the other art we’re talking about, head on over to my show notes, And we’ll have a link to the live stream that shows all 10 of these artists. You can look at these beautiful paintings.

Coming down to the last two artists. Number two, Dean Mitchell, who was born in 1957. And he’s actually of this list, probably lesser known because he works mostly in watercolor. He began his work as a hallmark card illustrator, and he climbed the ranks of the art world by entering juried competitions. So those of you who read those magazines, where they feature the competitions, you might be better known with this artist. He’s both a consistent winner of prizes over the years, and then became a consistent judge over the years. He’s illustrated U.S. postage stamps, such as the 1995 Louis Armstrong stamp in the jazz musician series. Those of you who like to do watercolor portraits, make sure you check out this artist.

And finally, number one, Kerry James Marshall, who was born in 1955. Like I said, he’s internationally known. He had a humongous exhibit, a humongous retrospective, not one room, not two rooms, but oh, my goodness, was it 80 paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? That’s a big deal for a living artist, to be featured in the Metropolitan, not even the Whitney or the Modern, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So he’s known for his large scale narrative history paintings featuring Black figures.

What I want to share with you is his quote, because his quote is so good. It reminds me a little bit of the episode I did a while back on make goals, not resolutions. Ready? “If you have a dream, number one, make a plan and then execute that plan. And there will be failures along that line, don’t let that discourage you because failure is part of the process. Make the necessary adjustments and you can be successful at whatever you do,” by Kerry James Marshall.

All right, so we counted from 10 down to one, artists you should know. Now, if you’re inspired to include the figure in your art, I’ve got a freebie to help you. It’s a guide for composing the figure. To get your hands on it, you can find that also at the show notes, or you can use this pretty link It will help you pose the figure. And I’ve given examples of my art, as well as, some well known art from art history to show you how to compose the figure.

All right, just to wrap up, just so you know, we’ve included links to everything we’ve mentioned today, in the show notes, If you liked this episode, I would love to hear from you, give me a tag over on the Gram or send me a note. And if you have ideas on what you want like me to include for future episodes, I’m always eager to hear from my listeners.

All right, my passion maker, thanks so much for being with me here today. I’ll see you same time, same place, next week. Stay inspired.

Thank you for listening to The Inspiration Place podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at On Instagram @schulmanart. And of course on


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