Interview with Artist Sydney James

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Sydney James is a truly multi-faceted creator. She has worked in the corporate worlds of advertising and televsion and also the very grassroots DIY worlds of public murals and community art takeovers of vacant spaces. She combines illustration, fine art, and story-telling in bold and stunning ways to vitalize the individuals she depicts, many of which are Black women. Determined to empower women and be part of the revitalization of her hometown of Detroit, Sydney creates captivating, inspiring work that shows all the strength and beauty Black women possess in a world that constantly tries to break them down.

First off, can you tell us how you first realized your passion for visual arts? What's your earliest memory of your creative journey?

I've been drawing since I was 3 years old. I drew a picture of Gargamel referenced from my Smurf's coloring book. I took the drawing to the kitchen where my mom was cooking to show her what I'd done, and she thought I traced it. She sat me down in front of her and made me redraw it. She's been my number one fan and support ever since. 

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I know you attended the College of Creative Studies in Detroit - what was that education like? Who are some of your mentors/teachers from that time in your life and since then?

I started taking extension classes there when I was 7. I knew I was going to go there for college when I was 9. Needless to say, like all other college experiences, it was challenging. CCS is one of the top art colleges in the world. It was an extremely competitive environment and just like in the real world, women have to work harder and smarter. I was an illustration major (Commercial Art Department). I learned from the classes but mostly from fellow classmates (not just those from the commercial art department but from all majors that CCS offered). 

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When you lived in LA after college, you worked as an artist for different television shows - what was that experience like?

I didn't move to LA right after college. I worked as an Art Director for an advertising agency in Detroit for 3 years. The experience working with television and various mediums is essentially what led me to Los Angeles. After the move, my experiences in Los Angeles transitioned me from Commercial Artist to Fine Artist. When I got hired to be the ghost artist for ABC Family's Lincoln Heights show, I was able to exhibit both sides. The work was my personal fine art and the licensing of the work was the commercial side. The experience was a great gateway to my current existence. Almost everyone watches television. It was an all eyes on "me" when my work was featured. It was the best PR an artist could ask for!   

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Why did you return to Detroit? What is special about this city, as far as its creative landscape, that drew you back?

Los Angeles was never a permanent move for me. I would visit home (Detroit) 5-6 times a year. I actually stayed 2 years over my initial 5 year plan. Detroit is the city that made the world move. It's also my hometown. I knew that it wouldn't stay "down" for long and that a "revitalization" was coming. I wanted to be a part of it. I started taking over vacant lots in my neighborhood erecting art 2 years before I moved home. The art garden takeovers were inspired by fellow artist and friend, Halima Cassells, who took over vacant lots and created urban gardens in her neighborhood. Those "takeovers" unbeknownst to me at that time led to my current career as a muralist.  

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Can you tell us about the community art projects you're involved with? Your murals are so powerful - what is it like working on a mural versus other creative projects you've worked on?

I honestly treat the murals exactly how I treat my fine art paintings. I maintain the same philosophies, similar medium, subject, and painting techniques. It's a faster process painting a mural than a smaller canvas because I have the use of my entire body and broad strokes with my arm versus just my hand. The biggest difference between gallery pieces and a mural really is the audience. With a gallery exhibition, the viewers are intentional. A mural has endless possibilities of who your viewers are and how many viewers you may have.  

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Your portraiture drawings are also very powerful - who are your subjects? Are they real, imagined, adapted? What is the process like in creating one of these pieces from the initial idea to final execution and sharing the piece?

I am a strict believer in the importance of using and having strong references. All of my subjects are real. I create the context in which I paint them, but they are real people. This is also an area where my illustrator meets or joins the fine artist in me. I still create detailed black and white thumbnails for most of my pieces (especially my murals and large paintings). I allow the painting process however, to be more organic as far my color pallette and paint distribution.

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What do you do when you're feeling unmotivated? Do you have any rituals or practices that help keep you focused, inspired, creating?

When I'm feeling unmotivated, I doodle, hang out with my artist friends, watch sci-fi/ fantasy movies, I doodle, read fiction, comic books, I doodle, watch social injustice videos as reminders of my "why" and I doodle. The most important thing is the "do" in doodle. I read in a publication speaking to creatives 20 years ago "to start anywhere." Those words stuck with me so I try my best to live by them.  

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Can you tell us more about your past series "Appropriated Not Appreciated”?

"Appropriated Not Appreciated" simply put is everyone wants black girl attributes (butt, lips, skin tone, etc) but no one wants black girl problems. For the past three years I have been creating large-scale pieces and murals that embody and demonstrate ideas and scenarios that affect me so emotionally they tamper with my physical health. This series consists of figurative paintings and drawings on a multitude of surfaces. Each piece that I create is a direct reflection of me, regardless of subject matter. Using paint, graphite and in some cases actual footprints of viewers and passersby, the current body of work that I have created consists of images of “strong” black women in vulnerable scenarios that may be figurative or literal. These pieces portray the placement of black women in American society – typically viewed as “lesser than,” as beings to walk over or not be seen at all. In some cases, I have displayed them on the floor, and in other cases I have painted murals pertaining to similar subject matter that is so large, it confronts viewers intentionally and unintentionally. Either way, the art has an intrusive appeal. Although the messages of these paintings, drawings and murals are mostly targeted to men, they naturally attract women as well. My art conveys the strength, the weakness and that place/space in between that signals the subject’s humanity and their ability to empower themselves. I believe that when black women are empowered, all women are empowered. It is this depiction of liberation that I strive for with my art. I create these pieces to awaken, inspire, enlighten and encourage my viewers. My art is always personal, and I want those viewing these works to experience a personal connection as well.

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Can you tell us about any special projects you're currently working on or have coming up?

I am steadily building the "Appropriated Not Appreciated" body of work. I am expanding the series to showcase the pieces in various shows throughout the country. I currently am a part of the "Beyond the Balcony" tribute to MLK group exhibition at Art Village Gallery in Memphis, TN and will possibly be a participating muralist in a couple more Pow Wow mural festivals later this year.

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Lastly, what does feminism mean to you? What are your thoughts on the recent wave of feminism in mainstream media and culture?

To me, the feminism movement has not been inclusive or inclusive enough of women of color. I think when it does truly include all women, the movement will become stronger and actually achieve goals needed to make necessary positive changes.