'She Had A Special Energy': Philly Teen Inspires Amy Sherald's 6-Story Mural
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama is still drawing crowds to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. This week, another of her works, a mural, was dedicated in Philadelphia on the side of a building. WHYY's Darryl C. Murphy has that story.
DARRYL C MURPHY, BYLINE: Walk down Sansom Street in Philadelphia, and you might come upon a vivid six-story mural. It shows a young black woman wearing a brown cloche hat, sporting a white and black floral print coat in front of an electric blue background.
Describe to me what it is you're seeing.
NAJEE SPENCER-YOUNG: A beautiful, independent young lady trying to prepare her life before the real world 'cause the real world is hard.
MURPHY: That's Najee Spencer-Young of North Philadelphia. She's looking at an image of herself painted by artist Amy Sherald. The world hasn't been an easy place for the 19-year-old. She didn't graduate high school, and she was bullied when she was younger.
SPENCER-YOUNG: I fought every day. I fought every day cause I got picked on. Nobody liked me.
MURPHY: Spencer-Young met Amy Sherald to Mural Arts Philadelphia, a public arts program. Sherald worked with the organization for the piece, and they organized a trip for young people to visit her Jersey City studio. Sherald says she wanted to paint someone who'd reflect the community, and she was drawn to Spencer-Young almost immediately.
AMY SHERALD: She had a special energy. I really liked her face. I met her, and probably within 15 minutes, I knew that I wanted to paint her.
MURPHY: Sherald took photos of the 19-year-old dressed in the coat and hat. She then, with some tweaks, created a 2,400-square-foot image with her likeness. Spencer-Young knew she'd be the subject of a painting, but she didn't know it would be like this.
SPENCER-YOUNG: My mom called me. She was like, guess what? Guess what? Guess what? I was like, what, Mom? I'm in a job interview. I can't be on the phone. She was just like, you up on a mural. I said, what? And I got up here. I cried.
MURPHY: The mural took two months to complete. Sherald says it's a celebration of young black women in the city.
SHERALD: I think it's important that, you know, girls like Najee get to see themselves beautiful and empowered. You know, she's the reflection of so many girls that look like her in the community.
MURPHY: Spencer-Young plans to get her diploma. She wants to become a hairdresser. She says the painting makes her feel special.
SPENCER-YOUNG: I look like a model. I am a model, anyway (laughter).
MURPHY: But she won't let it go to her head.
SPENCER-YOUNG: I'm still going to be me. I'm not going to be, oh, I'm famous, this, that and the third, don't talk to me. Y'all could still come talk to me. I'm still going to be the same.
MURPHY: Except now, she's a six-story inspiration in her city. For NPR News, I'm Darryl C. Murphy in Philadelphia.
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