68 Sydney G. James



Born Detroit, 1979 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit

I’m not a street artist, but I can paint on anything,” asserts Sydney James, prolific muralist, painter, and illustrator. After graduating from College for Creative Studies in 2001, she forged ahead as designer, art director, and “ghost artist” (for television dramas), at first in Detroit and subsequently in Los Angeles. Reviewing the evolution of her practice up to that point, she recalls, “I was an illustrator, [but] when I took control of the stories, I became a fine artist.” This epiphany coincided with her timely move back to Detroit in late 2011, where she encountered a burgeoning art community and street art stirrings, fueled in part by the Grand River Creative Corridor and Murals in the Market initiatives.

As a painter, she produced a number of portraits of family and acquaintances, including a likeness of her grandfather, American Dream? (2012), and The Purge (2014), from a series entitled “House of Mirrors.” Both imply something of the anxiety of their protagonists’ predicaments; in the case of the former, the shadowed visage suggests the recognition of a dream deferred, ironically limned in an all-American palette of red, white, and blue. Many of the “House of Mirrors” images likewise focus on close up studies of intimate, unguarded moments. Executed on medicine cabinet mirrors, a setting especially conducive to one-on-one probings of the self, these include The Purge, in which a woman boldly alters her appearance, a fraught decision heightened by the shattered glass just above her head. Implicit vulnerability also emerges in the installational “Appropriated Not Appreciated” series of 2016. Wall-mounted drawings of nude black women surround Preach, an acrylic on vinyl self-portrait, displayed on the floor. Positioning her arms to protect her body, James hugs the margin of the support as if to avoid the footsteps of passerby, to little avail, it would seem. This literal presentation of woman as doormat speaks to a societal climate that, James notes, can be as sexist as it is racist.

James’s king-size visage of musician Rodriguez (2014), her first mural, measures approximately 9 x 9 feet. Ensconced on the second floor of the side wall of a building located at Grand River and Calumet, the grisaille countenance of “Sugar Man” commands the blue-violet background against which he is silhouetted. His identifiable presence—long hair, accented in red, distinctive rectangular glasses, and intense expression—joins others nearby, also commissioned by the Grand River Creative Corridor, to spruce up and personalize a shopworn stretch of Grand River.

Subsequently, in rather rapid succession, James produced several additional wall paintings in Detroit over the next few years. Her Black List was commissioned by Murals in the Market in 2016. Located in Eastern Market at Division and Orleans, its “definitive list” is left “blank to symbolize the current state of racial injustice and attack that we are under in America.” Precious Freedom, of the same year, located in the Corktown neighborhood, addresses personal liberation in the guise of a tall, willowy, orange-gowned woman, nearly 30 feet in height, who has escaped the gilded cage of incarceration. The elongated train of her gauzy gown flows around the corner where it is surrounded by a flurry of flowers on a wall painted by fellow artist Ouizi.

Additional exemplars of James’s muralist skills, conceived and realized in 2016, include two Detroit themed designs. Out of the Ashes We Will Rise, contracted by Bedrock Detroit, is comprised of two long walls leading to a loading dock in the Federal Reserve Building. Ballerinas on each side, leaping and pirouetting in primary hued garb, represent the rising of Detroit. One, in blue, leans forward, beckoning and welcoming the viewer with outstretched arm and hand. And in the anthemic Methodical Harmony, commissioned by GM, a diverse panoply of workers, mustered from the factory floor, stretches 30 feet in length. Albeit compartmentalized by stainless steel columns, they strive individually and in unison to produce the gleaming Cadillac CTS rolling off the assembly line. Harkening back to familiar emblems of Detroit—the city’s 1805 credo, “We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes” and the Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera introduced to the nascent artist during childhood visits to the DIA—James has re-embraced her hometown with a Motor City mix of resolve and reality: “Grind is my brand. It’s an acronym for Girl Raised in Detroit….We all grind as artists. We had to grind to get here.”

Dennis Alan Nawrocki, May 2017

Copyright Essay’d 2017