After facing death, facing Michelle Obama was no challenge.
Still, Amy Sherald said, it was stressful.
Her portrait of the former First Lady would make history. Could she stand up to the pressure?
Today, we all know how Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama was received.
It hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., drawing huge crowds.
But few people know that this historic moment wouldn’t have been possible without a woman named Kristen Lin Smith, who died too young of a heroin overdose.
This is a story of how tragedy and triumph intersected to make history.
It serves as a reminder that we are all connected in ways we can’t fathom.
Sherald wasn’t supposed to be an artist.
Her father wanted her to be a dentist instead. “There was this attitude of, ‘The civil rights movement was not about you being an artist,’” she explains.1
Which makes is fitting that the heart beating inside Sherald right now belongs to a dental hygienist.
Sherald keeps a picture of her heart donor on her coffee table. “Unfortunately, the end of her life meant the beginning of mine,” she told a Baltimore news station. “My joy to be alive always stands at attention to her family, their grief and their loss.”2
Sherald always knew she might die young. She’d had a dream since she was a little girl where she’d run a marathon and died.
So when she was 30 years old, a graduate student running 50 miles a week in preparation for a triathlon, she decided to get a checkup. Just a routine thing. Just to be sure.
Her doctor advised her that her heart was barely functioning.
She had the heart of an 80-year-old woman, they said.
If she hadn’t followed her gut and got a checkup, who knows what might have happened. “I would have been one of those athletes whose heart just stops and no one knows why,” she said.3
The diagnosis didn’t stop Sherald. After all, what could she do? She had the heart she had. She was often exhausted, but her medical expenses were so high she had to wait tables to afford them.
Then one day, in October 2012, she popped into Rite Aid for supplies for her studio. She felt her heart flutter. She waited, expecting it to right itself.
The next thing she knew, she was on the floor in a pool of blood. The manager had called an ambulance.
“I felt like I could die then,” she remembers. “I actually felt that for the first time, and it did scare me. I thought, ‘I can’t be afraid to die,’ so I just made peace with it at that moment. I said, ‘I’m not going to be afraid, it’s all going to be okay.’”4
Doctors discovered that her heart was functioning at just 5%. She needed a transplant.
To make matters worse, she wasn’t the only sick one in her family. Her brother was dying from Stage 4 lung cancer.
His funeral would be four days before her heart transplant.
Everyone would have forgiven Sherald for taking life easy after that.
She struggled to adjust to life with her new heart and without her beloved brother. She felt an unusual sense of depression and anxiety. She didn’t want to paint anymore. She wasn’t herself anymore.
But she couldn’t shake off the feeling…
If her life had been saved, then surely it was for a reason.
And it was up to her to figure out that reason.
“There’s a lot of things I want to do, and a lot of ways I want to engage, not just sit back and make money,” she explained. “I got a second chance in life. I have [my heart donor] Kristen Lin Smith beating inside of me right now.”
Sherald kept painting. She won the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. She was the first woman—and the first African-American—to do so.
Her achievement brought her to Michelle Obama’s attention. Sherald would make history again—as the first African-American to paint a First Lady.
Sherald’s story reminds us how precious life is.
None of us know how long we will have. Health is never a given.
It’s up to us to listen to our hearts and follow our calling—even when it’s not convenient, even when it would be easier to give up.
For Sherald, her mission and purpose in life is now clear.
Her dream is for people “to look at a black child and see themselves. I want my paintings to take you to a different space in reality and allow you to recognize yourself. That’s the magic that I want all of my paintings to have.”5
She’s grateful she didn’t give up painting. She’s grateful she got a second chance at life.
“Art is all I have,” she explains. “It’s what I wake up to do. I’m lost without it.6
Stay Tuned for More #BrilliantBabe Profiles
Here at Your Brilliance, we believe the best way to figure out how bright you’re able to shine is to look up to other woman who are doing what you’ve always wanted to do.
The women you see featured in glossy magazines, climbing sheer rock cliffs and heading Fortune 500 businesses and crafting unique Etsy art from the comfort of their own homes, got there on guts and faith.
They didn’t know if they’d be able to succeed at their dream. But each and every one made the decision to take the first step. And the second. And the third.
We hope these profiles of brilliant women inspire you to reach for your dreams.