AN INTERVIEW WITH DETROIT ARTIST SYDNEY JAMES: A Conversation Displaying the Wisdom and Talent of a Social Conscious Artist

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The Confidence and Calling of a True Visual Artist

Sydney G. James is a woman small in stature but her stance resonates with power, knowledge, and strength.  If she was standing before the world on a platform her voice would echo, “I’m a visual artist.  I am an Illustrative Fine Artist and I paint on anything – clothes, walls, canvas – it doesn’t matter.”  Her murals tell the story of profound wisdom, bold features, and the definition of one’s character.  Also, the essence of her murals is to spark change, ignite social activism, and bother people. 

Ms. James is a Detroit native who truly embraces her roots.  She is a graduate of Cass Technical High School.  After graduating high school, she attended and graduated from The College of Creative Studies (CCS) where she enhanced and perfected her gift.  Let’s rewind to the moment when she discovered her passion for the arts.  At the age of three she designed her first masterpiece in her dining room.  Ms. James recalled recreating a page from her Smurf’s coloring book.  On a blank sheet of paper, she drew a picture of the evil villain Gargamel.  Once she completed her work of art she proudly walked to the kitchen to share the magic of her craft with her mother.  She stated, “Mom, look what I just drew.  Look what I just did.”  Her mother looked in disbelief and challenged her tiny hands to activate the gift of her artistic abilities right before her eyes.  At this point in her life she became dedicated to drawing at every opportunity.  While attending Mason Elementary school her kindergarten teacher informed her mother, “hey when she gets older you need to start getting her in classes because she is an artist.”  By the age of seven, without missing a stroke of a paintbrush, Ms. James’ mother enrolled her in extra art classes which helped contribute to her success of becoming a talented artist.

The Journey of Being an Artist

Once she earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts at CCS she began her career at Global Hue Advertising Agency.  She was the Art Director, for three years, until she decided to part ways with the company.  Ultimately, Ms. James decided to relocate to Los Angeles, California with the inspiration of becoming an animation artist.  Her goal was to pitch a cartoon idea.  However, the idea was rejected by those who didn’t accept her vision which made her realize she was not an animator.  Although her plan failed, she landed a role behind the scenes on television.  Her impressive work allowed her to become a TV Ghost Artist.  A Ghost Artist is an individual, such as Ernie Barnes, who painted all the artwork for the character J.J. on the television show Good Times.  For four seasons Ms. James was the Ghost Artist for the character Cassie on Lincoln Heights.  Ms. James explained, “So all of her (Cassie) artwork that she created on the show was really mine.”  She assured me her talents did not go without recognition because she received all the credit for her works of art.  

Throughout Ms. James’ seven year stay in Los Angeles, she visited Detroit quite frequently.  Eventually, Detroit called her heart and told her to return home.  She decided to answer the call because she felt resurgence was on the forefront of her city.  Ms. James believes people should have a longing to go back home.  The artist feels Detroit is in a phase where you could comfortably own a home without spending billions of dollars.  “To me it doesn’t even make sense, at this point of time, if you are a new home owner to have a mortgage, that’s just my opinion and this is land that you can do that.  You can be a landowner, homeowner, you can even not necessarily make minimum wage but a moderate wage and live a good life here, if you chose to, if you make that choice, but that’s another issue that we must resolve.  People need to be not just educated but they need to be financially educated.”  Detroit became home again because she knew of its rich history filled with greatness and natural resources.  Most importantly, not only did she need Detroit but Detroit needed her in return.  As much as Ms. James enjoys traveling, she has planted herself in her native home and plans to remain here.  She stresses to other native Detroiters, “find your niche.  Don’t leave, build.  We need to get back to building our own neighborhoods.  Come back, because they’re taking it over; come back while it is affordable to be here.” 

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The Fine Artist is dedicated to her city by investing her time in community art projects.  It is imperative for her to be visible while giving back to the community.  Her proudest moments are when children, especially young girls, observe her in action while painting a mural.  She told me of a time when she was standing tall on a scaffold, painting a mural and a little girl asked, “You are doing that by yourself?”  Recently, she was commissioned to paint a detailed mural at Pershing High School (shown above) located in Detroit, Michigan.  It took one week for her to complete the mural.  However, she ensured me that her short visit had a positive impact on the students and she was just as influential as some of the teachers who had interactions with the students for the entire year.   

When faced with adversity in the art world

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During the interview, Ms. James indicated having the first name Sydney does make people assume she is a male artist.  It is important to say assumptions allow people to believe false evidence.  The adversities she faced as an artist haven’t been great in number.  However, being a female in the art community has presented some challenges.  While working in advertising her salary wasn’t as comparable to her male counterparts even when they were less qualified.  Ms. James also spoke of the lack of diversity in the art community especially relative to the street art world.  She implied…” there’s not many people that look like this, like if you do see women they’re Hispanic, they’re Asian or they’re White and there are still few and far between and then I paint aggressively.  I don’t paint friendly looking things.”  She stated at times the art world can be racist and sexist.  She expressed her sentiments of sexism being more prevalent than racism.  Men have asked questions such as, “You did this by yourself?  You’re coloring this?”  Her reply is, “I don’t color, I paint!”  She also spoke about painting live on one of the sets at MTV studio on Election Day.  She painted a black woman holding a protest sign while grabbing her crotch.  Ms. James indicated it was an illustration of women declaring sovereignty over their bodies.  The piece is called, “Declaration of Independence” (shown above).

The findings of Sydney G. James Masterpieces

Ms. James’ artwork is featured throughout Detroit.  One prominent place that is known for its uniqueness is Eastern Market.  During the interview, she tells of one painting, where she paid tribute to other artists, which can be found in the Eastern Market area (shown below).  In the painting, she explains how she added the pigeon and its value to the finished product. 

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She spoke of her artist friend Rashawn Rucker who equated the migration of pigeons as being similar of how Blacks were brought over to the United States during the slavery era.  I was educated on how pigeons are not natures of the states.  She explains their sole purpose was for pest control.  Since then, pigeons have been deemed ’rodents of the sky’ and they never returned home.  Ms. James discussed how the similarity relates to Blacks and how we were brought to this country to work and stayed.  She said, “And now we both have bad reputations.  They’re known as the rats of the sky and we’re just known as rats.  Period.  We even call ourselves ‘Cellar Rats.’”  The explanation was deep but, at the same time, true.  The focal point of adding the pigeon was not to look down on a culture but to encourage them by saying, “Hey, we’ve either got to fly away or we got to elevate.”  This theory is evident that her art can tell the history and origination of any form of life.  Also, when you know the true interpretation behind a painting, it can provide knowledge that can change your perspective on many issues. 

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Other works painted by Ms. James can be found inside the Federal Reserve Building entitled, “Out of the Ashes, We Will Rise”(shown above).  The representation of this mural is her interpretation of the Detroit Flag.  There are two women in the background of the flag.  Ms. James explained, “the Detroit flag was designed in 1905 and there’s a city burning on one side and then a city restored on the next and it has a Latin saying on it with the translation, ’It will rise out of the ashes.’  The painting is talking about Detroit because the city has burned down, figuratively and literally, several times throughout its conception and history.  So right now, we’re going through the rising so I made an ethereal version of the flag.”  I was in awe because I felt the picture was coming to life and I could step into the phone and rise with liberty from the painting. 

Ms. James enjoys initiating her own community projects.  She doesn’t just paint conversational pieces but real portraits.  One of her recent works can be found inside the Live Cycle Delight cycling boutique which was founded by Amina Daniels and located in Detroit within the West Village community.  The mural will motivate you to keep your pace and invite others while cycling at the boutique.

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Understanding the Purpose of one’s artistic abilities

Day by day is how she explains her purpose in life.  Ms. James classifies herself as an artist even though her journey as an artist has changed course and a transformation has taken place over the years.  Initially, her background was illustration which she considered more restrictive.  She feels people pay you to paint the picture they want.  Currently, she knows without a doubt, she is a Fine Artist within. She can be creative without limitations.  The artist indicated, as she paints her murals, her work is more defining, gives her purpose, and she has all the freedom to tell the story.  She enjoys painting murals and it most definitely pays the bills.  It is an honor for people to know her signature work.  Ms. James feels it’s cool when people say, “Oh Sydney did that.”  Murals align her purpose with her regular body of work.  Her inspiration includes various artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sebastian Kruger, and Tim Burton.  However, the true artists who inspire her are friends and people who are Doper than her!  She feels it is essential for her to hang around other artists.  What continues to motivate her artwork?  Her answer is current events that occur in this society. 

After interviewing Ms. James, I felt it is important for individuals to have the will to transform throughout the distinct phases of their life.  It will help people discover who they are and what their purpose is in life.  We all have a story to tell.  Make sure you paint a bright picture that has meaning and can have a positive influence for yourself and your community. 

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 -Let your heart be full of new ventures that will lead you to the possibilities of limitless conversations! 

-ChellyzView

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6 comments on “AN INTERVIEW WITH DETROIT ARTIST SYDNEY JAMES: A Conversation Displaying the Wisdom and Talent of a Social Conscious Artist”

  1. Beautiful
    I can feel the heartbeat of the city like listening through a stethoscope !
    Brilliant applase to you both for so vividly displaying such a heartfelt article!

  2. Wonderful! I truly enjoyed this interview, and her artwork is breathtaking. I’ll have to take a field trip to the Eastern Market.

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