North Philly teen inspires six-story mural by artist who painted Michelle Obama’s portrait

Najee Spencer-Young cried when she heard that Amy Sherald had painted her portrait on the side of Center City building.

Najee Spencer-Young poses in front of her mural portrait by artist Amy Sherald. Spencer-Young is a participant in the Mural Arts’ Achieving Independence Center classes. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Najee Spencer-Young poses in front of her mural portrait by artist Amy Sherald. Spencer-Young is a participant in the Mural Arts’ Achieving Independence Center classes. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This story originally appeared on PlanPhilly.

Najee Spencer-Young is one of the few who can call Michelle Obama a peer.

The aspiring hairdresser from North Philadelphia and the former first lady share a rare status. Both have been immortalized by artist Amy Sherald.

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Obama’s portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Sherald’s 2,400-square-foot painting of the 19-year-old dominates the 1100 block of Sansom Street covering the west-facing wall of a Target.

She’s standing in front of an electric blue background, wearing a white top coat with a black floral print. A brown cloche hat tilts over her left eye. Spencer-Young’s deep brown skin is shown as a shade of grey like that of old black and white photos. Her gaze is confident and unbothered.

“I look like a model,” she said.

Spencer-Young wept when she saw the six-story Center City portrait for the first time.

“My mom called me and she was like, ‘Guess what, guess what, guess what,’” she said. “And 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. You up on side of somebody’s Target’ I said, ‘What?’ And I got up here… I cried.”

Spencer-Young met Sherald as a student in an arts education program run by Mural Arts Philadelphia. The arts organization had commissioned Sherald to paint a mural in Philadelphia and they wanted the young people they teach to meet the artist, who is internationally recognized for her commanding portraits of ordinary African Americans.

“Amy Sherald was on our wishlist for a number of years,” said Jane Golden, Mural Arts’ executive director.

Sherald told PlanPhilly that from the beginning she wanted to paint someone to reflect the Philadelphia community. She was drawn to Spencer-Young almost instantly.

“She had a special energy,” Sherald said. “I really liked her face. I met her and, probably, within 15 minutes I knew that I wanted to paint her.”

Sherald picked the brown hat and bold flower print trench, with the teen’s approval.

The artist then took photos of Spencer-Young. She then, with some tweaks, transferred her image to a canvas 20 feet up from the sidewalk. The piece is the latest in Sherald’s collection which depicts black Americans in a world free of the burden of race.

Mural Arts program director Jane Golden (left), the mural’s inspiration Najee Spencer-Young (center), and the mural’s lead artist Amy Sherald. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The mural took two months to complete. Sherald says it’s meant to be a celebration of young black women like Spencer-Young.

“I think it’s important that girls like Najee get to see themselves beautiful and empowered,” she said. “She’s a reflection of so many girls that look like her in the community.”

Spencer-Young says the mural makes her feel special, but she won’t let it go to her head.

“I’m still going to be me,” she said. “I’m not going to be I’m famous, this that and the third, don’t talk to me. Y’all can still come and talk to me. I’m still going to be the same.”

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