The Lesson of Falling Leaves
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Arty Fact

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The Lesson of Falling Leaves is a standout poetic work among Amy Sherald’s body of poetic works.

Literally - the title comes from Lucille Clifton’s short poem of the same name:

the leaves believe

such letting go is love

such love is faith

such faith is grace

such grace is god.

i agree with the leaves.

Both of these creatives, Sherald and Clifton, are black women who are interested in history and representation. Clifton once said “'With my poetry, I hope to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Sherald seems to echo this, saying that she “tr[ies] to take care of the viewer, to see a self reflected back. That’s a loving self, a gentle presentation of Black identity.” She does this using grey tones to render her black subjects, thereby both highlighting the concept of race, and obscuring the individual’s racial identity at first pass. Perhaps Sherald’s letting go of skin color (and amping up the background, props, and outfits of her sitters), is her way of loving.

The Lesson of Falling Leaves is emblematic of Sherald’s work in many ways: her sitter strikes a strong pose, has some defining object, a bold outfit, and is in front of a colorful, flat background. Remind you of anything, perhaps Sherald’s iconic portrait of Michelle Obama? Sherald was put on the Portrait Gallery’s radar in 2016, when she won the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition - and was the first black woman to do so. Soon enough, she was selected to paint the First Lady’s iconic (though divisive) portrait. 

The Lesson of Falling Leaves falls (if you will) right between these two works. Painted in 2017, it is a bridge between the two NPG works, and there is something very restful and meditative about it. Even without knowing Clifton’s elegant poem, Sherald’s painting has a deep stillness. The intense green of the leaf is petrified in paint - never to wilt. The man’s gaze remains softly forward, his graphic pants and shirt are frozen in a casual drape across his body. This is a model-gorgeous portrait! Yet rather than being sultry, it’s like a portal to some spiritually enlightened world - maybe Sherald painted this after one of her acupuncture sessions, or upon completing her daily meditation practice. That’s right, people, Amy Sherald is an art badass who is also mindful (which is important, because she is in such high demand that if she didn’t find a way to calm down, she might explode). 

Honestly, there isn’t much out there about this painting, other than it is one of the first Sherald works to be in a museum west of the Mississippi. As that bridge between Outwin and Obama, it’s kind of a cool mystery: poetic, thematically on point with Sherald’s body of work, and yet the sitter is unnamed and unknown. There is a faith in the work itself, and thereby in Sherald. Clifton might call that a kind of grace (or even, just maybe, go as far as to call Sherald a god(dess).



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