After receiving international attention for her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama–so much so that her painting had to be moved to a larger space within the gallery to accommodate the crowds–Amy Sherald is scheduled to unveil a large work of public art in Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District, where she has a studio.
“Equilibrium” is the title of a billboard-sized mural that will be installed on the west wall of the Parkway Theatre, home of the Maryland Film Festival.
A Georgia native who earned a master’s degree at the Maryland Institute College of Art and now lives and works in Baltimore, Sherald is known for her stylized portraits of African-Americans.
“Equilibrium” depicts a woman balancing on a tightrope, dangling a heart-shaped locket from one hand. Printed on vinyl, with a vibrant red-orange background, it’s a supersized version of an oil-on-canvas painting that Sherald painted in 2012 and is now part of the collection of the U.S. Embassy in Senegal.
Commissioned before Sherald painted Obama’s portrait, the mural exemplifies the artist’s signature technique of making African-American skin tones gray.
According to the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts, the mural project was funded in 2014 as one of the agency’s Transformative Art Prize recipients. The Transformative Art program, supported by Baltimore’s housing department and PNC Bank, seeks to “enliven underutilized public spaces through high-impact, community-driven public art projects” and allocated $28,000 for the Station North commission.
The mural will be owned jointly by BOPA and the Station North arts district. Installation will take place from Aug. 17 to 20, and the piece will be dedicated in a ceremony with Mayor Catherine Pugh on Aug. 21 at 1 p.m. Once up, the mural is expected to remain on display indefinitely.
City arts leaders say it’s a coup for Baltimore to gain a prominent work by Sherald, given the acclaim she’s received. Exemplifying Sherald’s rise, the artist, who once waited on tables at the Baltimore Museum of Art’s restaurant, now serves on the museum’s board of trustees.
“The inclusion of the mural, ‘Equilibrium,’ created while Ms. Sherald was an artist working in this city, underscores the caliber of the creative community here in Baltimore,” said Krista Green, BOPA’s interim cultural affairs director. “The Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts is fortunate to have the opportunity to mark this space for her, and… proud to produce programs like the Transformative Art Prize.”
Sherald was chosen to complete the mural for Station North when Ben Stone was still leading the arts district, and before she got her first big break by winning first prize in the Smithsonian’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition in 2016, said Cassandra Miller, managing director of the Motor House arts center, where Sherald has her studio. (Disclosure: Miller is a freelancer for Baltimore Fishbowl).
“Having a mural by such a Baltimore art star in Station North is evidence of the neighborhood’s exciting place in and for the city’s creative community,” Miller said. “It’s a tangible reminder of Amy’s social and historic significance, and of what our city’s artists can accomplish, whether they were born here or simply flourished here.”
Sherald, 44, declined to comment about the installation, citing her busy schedule, but she talked about searching for equilibrium after the Transformative Art Prize was awarded in 2014.
“Embracing an in-between state is an ideal situation in which we open our hearts and our minds and walk the line in search of equilibrium,” Sherald said in a statement published by Baltimore Style magazine. “Pointing to our own hearts to discover what is true isn’t just a matter of honesty, but also compassion and respect for what we see in each other around the world.”
The work was originally supposed to go on an exterior wall of the J. Van Story Branch Jr. apartment tower on 20th Street, but installation was delayed due to renovation work on the building and a change in ownership, according to Amelia Rambissoon, executive director of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District.
Ultimately, Station North planners had to find another location for the mural and selected the Parkway. Then they had to wait for the theater renovation to be complete and for approval by the Maryland Historical Trust, which has an easement on the theater’s exterior.
Jed Dietz, founding director of the Maryland Film Festival, said the mural is a fitting addition both to the historic theater and the arts district.
“We’re thrilled,” he said. “I think it’s a beautiful piece of art,” and it’s from an artist whose studio is “right down the street.”
Dietz noted that the refurbished Parkway was always meant to be a combination of old and new, with a contemporary addition at the corner of N. Charles Street and W. North Avenue supplementing layers of history inside the original theater.
Before, he said, “the modern part was confined to the left side of the building. Now we’ll have it on the right side of the building too. It’s wonderful that the modern and the historic continue to live together.”
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