Finding Her Place at a Historic Art Academy

It took a push from a famous painter to convince Dara Haskins (BFA ’19) to try art school.

“Amy Sherald, she’s my mentor,” Haskins said of the figurative painter who is most well known for painting the official portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. “She kind of pushed me in the direction of, ‘You should think about painting and pursuing your passion and applying to some schools.’”

Haskins was taking classes at a community college in Baltimore and considering joining the Marines, when she realized painting might make her happier.

“I was in the cadet program for 2 ½ years and thought that I’m not going to be happy doing this, that’s not going to make me happy at all,” she said.



  • Artist Dara Haskins in her studio
    Artist Dara Haskins in her studio
  • An oil painting by Dara Haskins
    An oil painting by Dara Haskins

A chance meeting with Sherald while the two worked on a community mural with a local arts organization opened up Haskins’ eyes to a future career in art.

“I couldn’t believe there were black women painters who are still alive, doing something with their lives,” she said. “Amy is painting representational pieces about not only herself but also a history. A reflection of what we look like in such a beautiful subtle way. I just was like, wow!”

The two have stayed in touch since their initial meeting several years ago and Sherald visits Haskins studio when her schedule allows.

“She’s very honest and straightforward, she’ll ask me questions about things that I’m interested in and tells me which piece is stronger than other ones,” Haskins said. “She kind of hits the nail on the head in a way that is honest. It doesn’t like sear into me but sets me in a good direction.”

Having a female African American artist in Haskins corner means the world to her.

“Hearing a critique from somebody who looks like me is really big,” she said. “It’s different than someone who comes into your studio and wants you to explain everything, kind of like okay you’re black and you have black paintings, now what?”

Meeting Sherald showed Haskins what life as an artist of color could look like, and coming to PAFA is helping her get there.

“I came to Philly and toured and I loved it. I loved the city,” she said. “It just felt like a home away from away home, somewhere I could grow. Not just grow as an artist but also grow as a woman in Philly, I love it here.”

Though she did feel some apprehension when she first started taking classes at the oldest art school in the country.

“The old Historic Landmark Building has the building blocks of old white male paintings, and painting women nude so when I got here I had a moment of, ‘Oh jeez, is this going to be the right place for me?’”

She credits keeping an open mind, and the school faculty and museum leaders with showing her the PAFA of today.

“The contemporary art is exciting. It’s drawing more people into the space, different people into the space, it’s a diversity of people coming into this space,” she said crediting the work of the museum team with incorporating newer works of art into PAFA’s traditionally fine arts collection.

When she walks through Cast Hall and the museum, Haskins studies the figurative work and incorporates those techniques into her art practice.

“I read a lot and I look at the old stuff and I look at the figurative pieces and I kind of like to flip them into my own language,” she said. “I do butt heads especially when it comes to language here but I think at the end of the day I’m going to do what I want and makes me happy.”

It’s not just the artwork that is fueling Haskins growth.

“If I find myself in a rut, I go to Didier’s studio (Didier William, MFA Program Chair) and Brittany Webb (PAFA’s John Rhoden curator) is in there and they’re just talking, but I learn so much,” she said. “I write notes and I keep listening and note the books they mention. It’s the little things that I learn from them.”

She plans to stay in Philadelphia after graduating in May to keep building her circle of support and art practice.

“I’ve built a community here. I’m meeting people, I’m going to places, there’s so much you can do outside of PAFA,” she said. “Things start to happen when you talk to people and get into their spaces.”