TRANSCRIPT: Ep. 219 Radically Free Portrait Artists


Speaker 1:
It’s the Inspiration Place podcast with artist Miriam Schulman. Welcome to the Inspiration Place podcast, an art world inside a podcast for artists by an artist, where each week we go behind the scenes to uncover the perspiration and inspiration behind the art. Now your host, Miriam Schulman.

Miriam Schulman:
Well, hey there, my friend, it’s Miriam Schulman here, your curator of inspiration. I’m bringing you a roundup from the art entrepreneur flash briefings for the week. This week, we’re covering the artist behind the official White House portraits, the artist and singer songwriter Issy Wood, enslaved pottery artists and American outsider artist Nelly May Brow.

So the official Obama portraits were unveiled at the White House. So yes, the White House held a formal ceremony to unveil the Obama’s official portraits. Now, in case you’re wondering, is this a bit late? Yeah, it is. Normally the immediate president does this. So for example, Obama who did the unveiling of the portrait of George W. Bush, who by the way, has himself taken up portrait painting in his retirement. And we should do a segment on him in the future. Now, when I saw this little bit of news, I was a little bit confused. I was like, oh, didn’t we already do this? And yes, many other people are also confused because there are two sets of “official” presidential portraits. So the White House official portraits were commissioned by the White House historical society. And then the other set of portraits were commissioned by this Smithsonian’s national portrait galleries.

So those are the ones we’ve talked about in the past. Amy Sherald did Michelle Obama’s portrait and Kehinde Wiley did Barack Obama’s portrait, and these have done incredible things for those two artists. Okay, so drum roll please. Mr. Obama chose 60 year old artist Robert McCurdy. I have been familiar with his art and I do follow him on Instagram. His art is fantastic. He is known for hyper realistic oil paintings. McCurdy has already painted the Dali Lama, Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, as well as Jeff Bezos, Warren buffet and Mohammed Ali. Here’s the speech that this portrait artist gives his subjects, which I love because I actually give a very similar speech to my subjects and I teach people who go through watercolor portrait academy to do the same thing. So the portrait artist tells the subjects, hey, look directly into the lens and do not smile. So I thought that was very interesting, because that’s exactly what I do and exactly what I teach. Because the reason is when you smile, your eyes crinkle and the eyes convey much more psychology and emotion.

Also, you don’t see too many pictures of smiling subjects in the museums, and that’s the look I’m going for. Now, McCurdy shared this as the reason that he directs his subjects not to smile. He says we’re looking for a more meditative or transcendental moment. I thought that was really good and really interesting. Now, Michelle Obama’s portrait was painted by lesser known artist Sharon Sprung. We’re going to talk more about sprung later, but for now I want to share what Mrs. Obama had to say about being painted.

“A girl like me was never supposed to be up there next to Jacqueline Kennedy and Dolly Madison,” she said. “She was never supposed to live in this house and she definitely wasn’t supposed to serve as first lady. What we’re looking at today, a portrait of a biracial kid with an unusual name and the daughter of a water pump operator and a stay at home mom. What we are seeing is a reminder that there’s a place for everyone in this country, because as Barack said, if the two of us can end up on the walls of the most famous address in the world, then again, it is so important for every young kid who is doubting themselves to believe that they can too.” End of quote. All right. I just want to say one more thing about why Obama chose McCurdy to paint his portrait.

So one of his missions was because McCurdy was so hyper realistic, he wanted to show that he’s a real person. He didn’t want like an idealized version hanging on the wall. He wanted him to look more relatable and real. I thought that was very interesting. Now, if you want to learn more about the Smithsonian portraits, be sure you check out the rise of the black portrait artist. I did that in episode number 127. So go to The identity of the artist behind the official White House portraits is always top secret. Normally the portraits are revealed in the first year that the president leaves office and the new president hosts the ceremony. And this is a tradition that dates back to the Carter administration, but you can’t have the ceremony without the approval of the sitting president.

So you can only guess why the Obamas had to wait five years to have their official portraits revealed. Now the portrait itself, Michelle Obama’s portrait, took nine months for Brooklyn artist Sharon Sprung to create, but she had to keep it hidden in her studio for six years. Here’s the tragedy of it. Moving totally away from the political situation, we’re not even talking about it. That’s kind of, besides the point. We’re talking about artists. The point is that Sharon Sprung, we never heard of her, right?

But if her portrait was revealed five years ago or six years ago when it was supposed to be revealed, we would have known who she was and she would’ve benefited from that publicity and probably got another important commission. So part of being an artist is you benefit when you’re officially a portrait artist, you benefit from each client. She had to keep that quiet. She couldn’t put it on her website. She couldn’t put it in her portfolio. She couldn’t tell anybody. And that is a big loss in an artist’s career. And she certainly missed out on income and opportunity. So that piece of it makes me really angry. Let’s put that aside. Now we know who she is. Let’s celebrate it. And I’ll tell you a little bit more about Sharon Sprung. So she studied at the art students league in New York with Daniel Green and also Harvey Dinnerstein.
We talked about Harvey Dinnerstein in episode number 207, which was our artist born or made. So you can listen to that one at Now Sprung is known for portraits of women. So that’s the work she’s done before. She got her renowned when she first moved to Brooklyn, she was painting a series of young single mothers who lived near her. And then as her work became more visible, she started taking on commissions around 2007. So just so you can put some dates in your head, so if she started taking commissions around 2007, we are in 2022, but don’t forget she was commissioned six years ago. So she was commissioned in 2016. So between the time she started taking commissions in 2007 and then nine years later, she was painting the first lady, which is I think fantastic to show that that can all be possible for someone within a nine-year period.

So those of you who do portrait commissions, this is possible for you too. So she started painting other politicians. Also, I think that some of these are posthumous portraits. So she painted Jeanette Rankin, who was the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. And she also painted Patsy Takamoto Mink, Congress’s first woman of color who was elected in 1964. Now Sprung shared with reporters that what holds her interest about portrait painting is the crinkle of an eye and a little noise of a lip. Being selected to paint official portraits, the artist was also interviewed by not just the Obamas, but also Selma Golden. Now is that name isn’t familiar to you, she is the director and chief curator of the studio museum in Harlem. And she served as a guide in helping the Obamas select their artists for the portraits. So Golden asked Sprung, why do you paint?

I love what she said. Listen. “My father died when I was six, and all the photographs were destroyed. So I had nothing of him that was left and remembering his face and other people’s faces was so embedded in my being. That’s why I’m a portrait painter.” I love that. My own father died when I was five. And I think also it’s part of the reason I like to paint portraits. I grew up with a very strong sense of my own mortality. And every time I paint, I’m creating a bit of immortality, both for myself as well as for those that I’m painting. So I completely related to that. Now, if you want to learn how to paint portraits, I do have a masterclass that is on demand that’s completely free. It’s called the five simple steps to painting portraits that your friends and family love. Even if you think you can’t draw or have never taken an art class, to go watch it, go to to get my on demand training and painting portraits in watercolor.

So this little item is about artist, singer, songwriter, Issy Wood. And she proves that you do not have to choose between your passions for music and art. Another artist who is also a singer songwriter is the great Joni Mitchell. So she still paints and she’s very well known for her music. Now for the last few years, this British painter and musician has been making a splash at art fairs, auctions, and galleries, and doing it all throughout a global pandemic. She’s only 29 years old and she’s been taking a page from her own hype handbook. Let’s talk about some of the shenanigans that Wood has been up to. She rejected mega dealer, Larry Gagosian, who at first praised Wood for her boundaries, but after she rejected him or during the process of her rejecting him, he began starting asking her, why are you being so difficult?

Which is a classic question only said to woman and never to men. Now, instead of Gagosian, she went with a different blue chip gallery. She went with traditional upper east side gallery Michael Werner. Now about Gagosian, the 77 year old art dealer, she shared, “Well, if I wanted an older man to hold money over my head, I would’ve gotten back in touch with my dad.” By the way, she’s very famous for these quips and just not afraid to hold back. So what kind of art does she does? Well, her body of work Time Sensitive are figurative paintings, which shows surrealist, closeup of body parts like teeth and gums. And her music is equally provocative. The latest album produced by the independent label, forget what it’s called. I can’t find it here, but she rejected Sony records, but only to find out that her new record label is actually an imprint of Sony.

So she calls them Zony. So I think the record labels begins with the letter Z, but I can’t can’t remember what it is. So her album is called “My body, Your choice.” You can only imagine. So just how successful is she? Let’s talk about it. For one of her paintings this year sold for half a million dollars. And she’s also very good at offending people. Apparently before her deal with Gagosian went south, she asked the 77 year old who would be responsible for her career when he died. And then the frustrated dealer texted her later, the other galleries you’re considering will all go out of business long before my demise. And he accidentally texted it to her three times. How did she get discovered? And then by the way, let’s be honest. Nobody just gets discovered. It’s a long time work of in progress.

So she actually was documenting her music, her inner art in a blog, which she began over a decade ago. So she started blogging when she was 14 years old. I just love this artist. I just think all the things she’s up to really take a page out of the hype handbook. And if you’re interested in learning more about hype techniques that artists and musicians use that you can apply yourself, I think you would really like the episode that I did with Michael Shine, the hype handbook. So to go listen to it, go to

All right. There’s a new exhibit that just opened up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s up until February 2023. It is definitely on the top of my list. Dave the Potter inscribed the word concatenation on his clay pot. Dave the Potter is also Dave the slave and that’s a pretty fancy word. So I had to look it up. Concatenation means things link together to create an effect. Now Dave, whose full name is Dave Drake, was an enslaved artisan and he etched it in June of 1834, which was around the same time that South Carolina passed an anti-literacy law, which was of course directed at slaves. Now, since Dave obviously had a command of the English language, it’s possibly he read about these laws. So the word concatenation, I may not even be pronouncing this right. Concatenation, okay. It seems like a direct reference to this law and an ironic one on that because he is linking an SAT worthy word that I can barely pronounce to his craftmanship, which is a black anthropomorphic pot.

Now you can see the show currently at the Met, but it’s also traveling to Boston. I believe that’s the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s traveling to Michigan. And of course, well, not of course, but luckily it’s also traveling to Atlanta. Dave known as Dave Drake was part of a cohort of enslaved African American potters working in Edgefield in the years leading up to the civil war, and Drake often inscribed words and even poetry into his pieces. This group of slaves worked in a region known for its clay and were responsible for harvesting the clay, shaping the vessels, constructing and overseeing kilns. The show is complimented by contemporary black artists who have created works in response to the Edgefield potters. If you enjoy learning about the history of unknown and overlooked artists, I made sure to include a diversity of artists, male, female, black, white, Latinx, and more inside my forthcoming book, Artpreneur.

Now I do remember reading about Dave Drake in my research for the book. And I can’t remember anymore if that story got cut from the book, but there are lots of stories in the book of both art historical figures, as well as contemporary figures. So I included people who are ceramicists, who are working today in Brooklyn, who are outside the typical white male, cisgender mainstream. So inclusion is a very important value of mine, both here on the podcast, as well as inside my book. I really grew tired of picking up books where I didn’t see myself. There were no women artists, every quote is by a male author or a male thought leader. And I see this a lot in the business books. And I see this a lot in art books. They only talk about Picasso and Michelangelo. So yes, of course when I needed to, I believe I did talk about Picasso inside this book, as well as some other European artists.

But I also made sure to include lots of examples of women artists doing very important things like Alice Neal and Julie Meretu. So guess what? The book is actually now ready for pre-order and I have created a bunch of pre-order goodies because I know the book doesn’t come out until January, and I want you to enjoy some things while you’re waiting. You can check out all those pre-order bonuses and buy the book, which is available by paperback, which means it’s less than $20. Go to And the book is called Artpreneur, just like the flash briefings.

The American artist Nellie Mae Rowe was in her sixties, twice widowed and retired from decades of domestic service when she began to transform her Atlanta home into what she called her playhouse, filling it inside and out with found object, awesome lodges, soft sculpture, and colorful drawings. I can’t wait to check out this exhibit. It’s at the Brooklyn museum. I just know it’s going to refill my creative well. Now, if you can’t travel to Brooklyn or heck, even if you can, you’re going to want to check out a book that shows her work. It’s called Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe, and it was named a New York Times critics best pick for best art books in 2021. So I will include a link to purchase that book over in the show notes. You can get that Want to tell you a little bit about her.

So really free, really free. Nellie Mae was born to a father who I believe he was enslaved. And the mother, I think her parents were slaves. I believe that’s right. She was born in 1900. I get that right? Yeah. She was born in 1900 and she died in 1982. She grew up in Fayetteville, Georgia, and her Playhouse became an Atlanta attraction. She began to exhibit her art outside of her home, beginning with Missing Pieces, Georgia folk art, which was a traveling exhibition that brought attention to several outsider artists, several Southern self-taught artists, including Rowe and also others. Howard Finster is one of them. She died in 1982, and when she did her work received a new level of acclaim and she was honored in a solo exhibition at Spelman College, which included her as one of three women artists in their galleries landmark exhibition.

Okay, so we’ve included links to her book as well as links to my book, Artpreneur, in the show notes. You’re going to find links to everything we talked about all week long. So when you’re adding her book to your cart, you can add Artpreneur, and then don’t forget to go back to the bonus page because that is where you can enter your order number and get all those pre-order bonuses. So All right, my friend. Well, that’s it until next time. Until then, stay inspired.

Speaker 1:
Thank you for listening to the Inspiration Place podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at, on Instagram at @schulmanart, and of course on


Subscribe & Review in iTunes

Are you subscribed to my podcast? If you’re not, I want to encourage you to do that today. I don’t want you to miss an episode. I’m adding a bunch of bonus episodes to the mix and if you’re not subscribed there’s a good chance you’ll miss out on those. Click here to subscribe in iTunes!

Now if you’re feeling extra loving, I would be really grateful if you left me a review over on iTunes, too. Those reviews help other people find my podcast and they’re also fun for me to go in and read. Just click here to review, select “Ratings and Reviews” and “Write a Review” and let me know what your favorite part of the podcast is. Thank you!