Amy Sherald, Columbus native, unveils her portrait of Michelle Obama

Credit: Justin T. Gellerson

Credit: Justin T. Gellerson

Last year, the fortunes of artist Amy Sherald, a Columbus, Ga., native and a fine arts graduate of Clark Atlanta University, took a sharp turn upward.

In October, she was chosen to paint the official portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama, a painting that will hang in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The painting was revealed Monday in Washington, D.C., along with the official portrait of former President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley.

MORE: The Obamas' portraits are not what you'd expect, and that's why they're great

When the Baltimore resident was picked, she had already gained some renown, winning the Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. With the Obama commission, Sherald’s career gathered steam.

“There is going to be a spotlight on her,” portraiture expert and Mount Holyoke College professor Paul Staiti told The New York Times. “She should fasten her seatbelt.”

Staiti's words were prescient. On Thursday, the High Museum of Art announced that Sherald, 44, would be the 2018 winner of the David C. Driskell Prize, in recognition of her contribution to African-American art. The award was founded by the High in 2005 as the "first national award to celebrate an early- or mid-career scholar or artist whose work makes an original and important contribution to the field of African-American art or art history."

It carries a $25,000 prize, and the acknowledgment of Sherald’s significance. The artist will be celebrated at an April 27 dinner at the High, which will also serve as a money-raiser to support the David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Funds.

Since their inception, the funds have supported the acquisition of 48 works by African-American artists for the High's collection, though none by Sherald. (Such efforts at diversifying the museum's collections and outreach have dramatically increased minority attendance at the High.)

“Sherald is a remarkable talent who in recent years has gained the recognition she so thoroughly deserves as a unique force in contemporary art,” said the High’s director, Rand Suffolk, in a statement.

Born in Columbus in 1973, Sherald graduated from Clark Atlanta University in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in painting.

She received her master’s in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2004, but a few circumstances delayed her career in the arts. That same year, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and moved back to Columbus to care for two ailing relatives.

Sherald received a life-saving heart transplant in 2012, and resumed working in her Baltimore studio, with the aid of daily anti-rejection drugs. Her portraits are of everyday African-American figures, often in colorful clothes.

Nominations for the 2018 Driskell Prize came from a national pool of artists, curators, teachers, collectors and art historians. Sherald was chosen from among these nominations by a review committee composed of former Driskell winners and the High’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Michael Rooks.

David Driskell was born in 1931 in Eatonton, Ga., and is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Maryland, College Park. The author of several significant works on African-American art history, Driskell was honored in 2000 with the National Humanities Medal by President Bill Clinton.