In the late 1990s, then-Westchester County Legislator Clinton Young proposed the creation of a statue honoring the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. “And I knew the talent I was looking for,” says Young, now Mayor of Mount Vernon. “Milton Sherrill.”
Since 2007, Sherrill’s 20-foot, two-ton monument of a smiling Dr. King has graced the entrance to the county’s courthouse in White Plains. Best known for his finely detailed, meticulously crafted bronze figures and busts, Sherrill’s paintings and sculptures have been exhibited in galleries from Madison Avenue and SoHo to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. His pieces are owned by the likes of Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte, Arthur Ashe, and Coretta Scott King, and have been commissioned by, among others, the Apollo Theater and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Sherrill, a Mount Vernon resident since 1976, has been drawing and painting since he was a child living with his grandmother in North Carolina. By the time he was in high school, he was selling his art. As a member of the class of 1968 at Palmer Memorial Institute, a boarding school in North Carolina, his creative work was nurtured by an appreciative teacher. “She gave me what I needed and let me do my thing,” Sherrill says. Visiting parents were attracted to his paintings; when they inquired about purchasing them, he says, “It was a boost for the part of me that was interested in that possibility.”
Sherrill graduated from SUNY Westbury, but not before a false start in pre-med (“I realized quickly that I wouldn’t be interested long-term”); a stint in the United States Air Force, where he was injured during training and honorably discharged (“Fortunate for me, because I didn’t want to go to Vietnam”); and a year at Cooper Union.
It wasn’t until he started a Master of Fine Arts program at Pratt Institute that he homed in on sculpture. His graduate thesis, completed in 1976, was 14 life-size bronze busts of African-American women, soon to evolve into the 18-piece The Woman series, Sherrill’s first body of work.
On a recent morning, Sherrill discussed his work at his combination home and office, a 19th-century white Colonial that he purchased seven years ago. He wore a dark green beret and tasseled loafers, his sideburns blending into a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. On the lapel of his tweed sports coat was a silver-plated pin depicting the determined-looking image of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of several such pins he designed and sells on his website (miltonsherrill.com).
The inspiration for The Woman series, Sherrill says, came from women he knew as well as historical figures. “There’s some portraiture, some stylization. Some are from photographs, others are from antiquities, particularly from Nigeria.”
Photo by Danny Titus
His next bodies of work were Knowledge of Man 1 and Knowledge of Man 2, created in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These futuristic figures, some made from highly polished bronze, are Sherrill’s commentary on where scientific and technological advancements may lead us. “My warning to people,” he says, “to wake up.” Knowledge of Man 1 consists of featureless heads, both frightening and beautiful, with names like Spacewalker and Delta Thrust. Knowledge of Man 2 includes full figures, draped and in motion, influenced, Sherrill says, by Martha Graham.
The Cosmic Totem series contains 25 designs for textural towers that can ant mounds and American Indian totems.” One piece, Pathfinder 1, stands 25 feet tall at the entrance to Bank Street Commons, a condominium complex in White Plains. Another, Evolution 1, is outside the Doles Center in Mount Vernon.
Sherrill currently is at work on his Legends series of iconic African American figures. Subjects range from Harriet Tubman to Michael Jordan, Larry Doby to President Obama.
Unlike many artists whose work is often compromised by the demands of earning a living, Sherrill has managed to support his art through commissions and sales, along with a few small grants. His sculptures sell for $5,000 to $50,000; commissions run upwards of $350,000, depending on size and scope. He cites his professionalism as well as his content as contributing to the appeal of his work. “There’s something beyond that, too,” he adds, “a transcendent energy. It comes through me in the process of creating and attaches itself to the pieces.”
Mayor Clinton Young owns three of Sherrill’s sculptures and a painting. “I’m amazed by his talent,” Young says. “He’s a true artist.”
Waccabuc residents Alfred DelBello, Westchester’s county executive from 1973 until 1982, and his wife, Dee DelBello, owner of Westfair Business Publications in White Plains, have two of Sherrill’s drawings, acquired more than 30 years ago when the couple was actively involved in the development of the Westchester Arts Council. “We met and mingled with many rising Westchester artists, one of whom was Milton,” Dee recalls. “We admired his clean and elegant work. We continue to marvel at his incredible ability to convey so much with so few lines.”
The artist with Muhammad Ali at a private showing of his work in 1989.
For those who collect Sherrill’s sculptures, their presence can become a part of their lives. “Sometimes when I’ve asked to borrow a sculpture to include in an exhibit,” Sherrill says, “they tell me it’s like letting go of a family member.”
While Sherrill is an artist with no shortage of ideas, he often feels the limitations of time. He used to teach and lecture, but decided “it was too hard to split my time.” He attributes his bachelor status to his concentration on his art. “I’m still single,” he says. “All this time I wasn’t rushing, but now I’m ready. I’m serious about starting a family.”
He notes that he’s been a vegetarian for 24 years, and macrobiotic for 10. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke—I’ve probably added years to my life!”
Sherrill’s living room is adorned with framed photographs of events he has attended: a private showing of his work hosted by Muhammad Ali in 1989, Knowledge of Man figures surrounding Ali’s pool; at the Aaron Davis Hall Harlem Renaissance Award gala in 1997, where Harry Belafonte was being presented with the award Sherrill designed. Nearby hangs the Congressional Award he received in 1999 in recognition of his sculpture of Florence Griffith Joyner in Los Angeles. “It’s like a storyboarded history of my career, a way for me to reflect on what I’ve accomplished, and a reminder to keep moving forward.”
Susan Hodara is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about the arts in Westchester.