Former First Lady Michelle Obama's speech at the portrait unveiling at the Smithsonian National
To watch the video and read the interactive transcript, see here.
DSÔøΩ David Sorkton
MOÔøΩ Michelle Obama
ASÔøΩ Amy Sherald
DS: And now, it is my honor and privilege to invite Mrs. Obama and Amy Sherald to unveil the portrait.
MO: Good morning, everyone. Let's just start by saying wow again. Let me just take a minute. It's amazing. Wow.
MO: How are you all doing? Well, it is a pleasure and an honor to be here in this beautiful museum with all of you today. Let me start, of course, by thanking Secretary Skorton and Kim Sajet for their remarks and for their outstanding leadership in everything they have done to support us, to support the arts over these many, many years.
MO: I also want to recognize all of our dear friends and colleagues and our team members and family who are here with us today, too many to mention. Joe, and I know Jill's in traffic, thank you. Thank you all for being here. We love you.
Hi, Mom. What's going on? Whatcha think? It's pretty nice, isn't it?
I see so many people that I could thank, people who've been with us on this journey. We love you all. Thank you for taking the time. I have to tell you that, as I stand here today with all of you and look at this amazing portrait that will hang among so many iconic figures, I am a little overwhelmed, to say the least. I have so many thoughts and feelings rolling around inside of me now. I am humbled, I am honored, I'm proud, but most of all, I am so incredibly grateful to all of the people who came before me in this journey. The folks who built the foundation upon which I stand.
MO: As you may have guessed, I don't think there is anybody in my family who has ever had a portrait done let alone a portrait that will be hanging in the National Gallery, at least as far as I know, Mom. But all those folks who helped me be here today, they're with us physically and they are with us in spirit. I'm thinking about my grandparents, Rebecca and Purnell Shields, "Southside" as he is known now throughout the nation. LaVaughn and Fraser Robinson Jr. They were all intelligent, highly capable men and women. They had the kind of talent and work ethic that usually destines people for greatness, but their dreams and aspirations were limited because of the color of their skin.
MO: I'm, of course, thinking about my dad, Fraser Robinson III. A man who sacrificed everything to give me and my brother opportunities he never dreamed for himself. And of course, I'm thinking about my mommy, Marian Robinson, who is sitting in the front row, supporting us like she has always done. Always putting herself last on her list so that she could give me and Craig and our children everything that makes today possible.
MO: I'm also thinking about all of the young people, particularly girls and girls of color, who, in years ahead, will come to this place and they will look up and they will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the wall of this great American institution. I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls and, when I think about those future generations and generations past, I think, again, wow. Wow, what an incredible journey we are on together in this country. We have come so far. And, yes, as we see today, we still have a lot more work to do, but we have every reason to be hopeful and proud and I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to stand alongside my husband and play a very small part in that history and in that future. But I'm even more proud of the extraordinary woman and artist who made this portrait possible, Amy Sherald. Not yet, I got more to say about you, girl.
MO: Now Barack and I had the privilege of considering a number of outstanding portraitists and I want to thank Bill Allman, Thelma Golden, Michael Smith, our team. We love you guys, I know you're out there, who guided us every step of the way. Oh, there you go. Of course, I can see you guys, but thank you. They guided us through every step of the way through this process. We never could have done this without you because you not only know your craft and all these folks, but you know us intimately. You knew what we were looking for and what we wanted to say, so thank you three, The Dynamic Trio. With their help, we narrowed down the field to a few key artists who Barack and I then interviewed and each of these artists had to walk into the Oval Office, yikes. I almost wanted to start off each conversation by apologizing for putting them through this process. Just to get this job, they had to come to the White House, to the Oval Office, and get grilled by the President and First Lady. I'm sorry. I am so sorry. So it wasn't lost on us how or how unnerving this experience was for each and every one of them.
MO: When Amy came in and it was her turn, I have to admit that I was intrigued. I was intrigued before she walked into the room. I had seen her work and I was blown away by the boldness of her colors and the uniqueness of her subject matter, so I was wondering, "Who is this woman? And she's so cute too." And then she walked in and she was fly and poised and I just wanted to stare at her for a minute. She had this lightness and freshness of personality. She was hip and cool in that totally expected/unexpected kind of way. And, within the first few sentences of our conversation, I knew she was the one for me. Maybe it was the moment she came in and she looked at Barack and she said, "Well, Mr. President, I'm really excited to be here and I know I'm being considered for both portraits," she said, "but, Mrs. Obama," she physically turned to me and she said, "I'm really hoping that you and I can work together." And after that, she and I, we started talking and Barack kind of faded into the woodwork.
There was an instant connection, that kind of sister girl connection that I had with this woman and that was true all the way through the process, which is a good thing because, when someone is doing your portrait, they spend hours staring at you. Yikes. It's very intimate, the experience, so you really have to trust the person and feel comfortable enough to let yourself go and Amy made that possible for me. We had that connection. So today I want to thank Amy for being willing to put herself through this process, especially after it was leaked. I just felt for you, girl, to have to do that.
MO: To paint a portrait of Michelle and Barack Obama is like cooking Thanksgiving dinner for strangers. Everybody has an idea of what Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to taste like. The dressing that you love is the dressing you love; you don't want other stuff in it and that's what it's like. People know what they feel and think and how they see us, so Amy had to interpret that and do it under the spotlight. So I can only imagine that it's been a little stressful for her, but she has handled it all with remarkable poise and grace, which I think tells you a lot about who she is.
MO: She is, obviously, a woman of extraordinary talent and it is thrilling to see her getting the recognition she deserves with all the awards and the calls from museums and buyers lining up to purchase her work. But even more important, Amy is a woman of extraordinary character and strength. Her path has been strewn with obstacle after obstacle. She's faced life-threatening medical conditions of her own, she's made tremendous sacrifices to care for the people she loves, she's endured the heartbreak of losing some of those that she's loved and, all through it, she kept going. All along, she stayed faithful to her gifts, she refused to give up on what she had to offer to the world and, as a result, she is well on her way to distinguishing herself as one of the great artists of her generation.
It was a total joy to work with you, Amy. I am so pleased and honored and proud of you. So it is my honor to introduce Amy to all of you today, the woman who created this beautiful portrait, Amy Sherald.
AS: Good Morning. Thanks for being here so early. Mrs. Obama, I want to begin by saying thank you. Thank you for seeing my vision and thank you for being a part of my vision. I paint American people and I tell American stories through the paintings I create. I find my models, I style them, and I photograph them. I then use that photograph as a reference. My approach to portraiture is conceptual. Once my paintings are complete, the model no longer lives in that painting as themselves. I see something bigger, more symbolic, an archetype. So approaching the commission with you as the subject of this painting is deeply connected to what I hold as my truth. This portrait delivers the same kind of symbolism.
AS: The dress chosen for this painting was designed by Millie. It has an abstract pattern that reminded me of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian's geometric paintings, but Millie's design also resembles the inspired quilt masterpieces made by the women of Gee's Bend, a small, remote, Black community in Alabama where they compose quilts and geometries that transform clothes and fabric remnants into masterpieces.
AS: Photographer and historian Deborah Willis wrote, "You have engaged the imagination of a new generation of writers and artists as we chronicle the commanding role you played in American visual culture." Mrs. Obama, you are omnipresent in that way. You exist in our minds, in our hearts in the way that you do because we can see ourselves in you. The act of Michelle Obama being her authentic self became a profound statement that engaged all of us because what you represent to this country is an ideal. A human being with integrity, intellect, confidence, and compassion and the paintings I create aspire to express these attributes, a message of humanity, and I'd like to think that they hold the same possibilities of being read universally.
AS: So I will always be grateful for this enormous opportunity to work with you. This experience has humbled, it has honored and informed me in ways that will stay with me forever. So thank you again for bringing light and clarity to my journey as a painter of American stories and I truly consider today to be a defining milestone in my life's work. And I just want to say, without crying, a quick thank you to my mom for supporting me all the way through.
To watch the video and read the interactive transcript, see here.