As he unveils his portrait of Oprah Winfrey for the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Chicago artist Shawn Michael Warren is ready to step into the spotlight.
It’s no secret that the Windy City’s cultural scene is one of the country’s finest. The next headline-maker? Painter and muralist Shawn Michael Warren.
Two years ago, the Streeterville-based artist was selected to paint Oprah Winfrey’s portrait for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. On Dec. 13, the 6-foot-tall work will be added to the museum's permanent collection—marking the most significant achievement in his career to date.
Oprah Winfrey by Shawn Michael Warren, oil on linen, 2023. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
After he created a vibrant mural depicting her in the West Loop in 2020, Winfrey handpicked Warren, an American Academy of Art graduate who spent time studying at Italy’s Florence Academy of Art, for the job for his mastery of medium and sophisticated approach to the craft. His oeuvre primarily explores historical and current events and figures, balancing historical accuracy and thorough research with stark realism. “Similar to artists of previous centuries like Caravaggio, William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Sir Frederic Leighton, I gravitate toward storytelling through art to pique the curiosity of the viewer and cause them to engage with what or who they’re observing,” says Warren. “I paint and draw in a realistic style and capture the likeness and essence of the individuals portrayed in my work.”
In early 2023, Warren was selected to join the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies Program, which was created in 1963 to promote diplomacy and cultural understanding between nations across the globe through art. Today, his portrait titled “La Reina Calafia” hangs in the ambassador’s residence in the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain. “It’s programs like this that validate the importance of art in our society,” he says. “I’m proud to play an active role in sharing cultural dialogue with world leaders and other artists from around the world through art.”
Closer to home, Warren is busy making his impression on our community through a series of high-profile projects. He recently wrapped up a mural at Bally’s River North casino inside Medinah Temple and is preparing for his debut solo exhibition, which is slated to open in 2025. And with a handful of public art projects on the horizon, including a 5-story mural created in collaboration with Chicago artist C J Hungerman that will adorn the facade of the iconic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, it’s clear Warren is making all the right moves—and serves as a prime example of Chicago’s world-class art scene. “[You have to] be willing to be a lifetime student of the craft,” he says. “Always be open to learning and discovering.”
Photography by: PORTRAIT COURTESY OF SUBJECT; ART Acquired through the generosity of Tommie L. Pegues and Donald A. Capoccia; Taylor and Wemimo Abbey; Anonymous; Deon Jones and Cameron J. Ross; Lisa Opoku and Loki Muthu; Mack Wilbourn; Charles Young and Andrea Wishom Young