Create Like You Mean It: Sydney G. James Means Business

A promising artist since the age of three, Sydney G. James (’01, Illustration) started taking extension courses at CCS at seven. By the time she was an undergraduate, she already had an emerging aesthetic and the work ethic to make it happen. That’s the who, the what and the how. The why, however, wouldn’t come until much later.

After graduation, James spent three years as an Art Director for multicultural advertising legend GlobalHue. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she eventually worked as an illustrator and painter for film and TV shows, including the ABC Family series Lincoln Heights, for which she created the paintings for Cassie, a teen art prodigy. But if James arrived in LA as an illustrator, she left as a fine artist.

“One of my first jobs in LA was working at Utrecht Art Supplies,” James explains. “Don’t be too proud to take on certain opportunities. If you’re a fine artist, get a job at an art supply store. If you’re a fashion designer, get a job at Macy’s or Nordstrom or as a wardrobe stylist. That way, you can more easily maneuver to advance your career.” This particular opportunity put her in the path of a local publicist, who announced one day that she had gotten James a slot at a local hotel that hosted art shows and pop-ups.

“I just painted as much as I could — painted anything — because I didn’t know yet,” she says. “But the transition happened because someone forced me to paint. The more you paint, the better you get. The act of painting wasn’t new, but I was experimenting and developing a different mindset around painting.”

Back in Detroit in 2011, the opportunities continued to flow. Community art projects, in particular, created a domino effect within her career: collaborations with the Grand River Creative Corridor, an artist’s residency with the Red Bull House of Art and the inaugural public art celebration Murals in the Market (2015). In 2017, she was named a Kresge Artist Fellow in the Visual Arts.

James’ work has been shown in venues around the country, as well as internationally, and she recently returned from a mural project in Accra, Ghana.

“I didn’t realize the power of doing murals until a woman saw me up on a scaffold painting at Murals in the Market. She had taken a wrong turn and was with her daughter, whose name was also Sydney. When Sydney saw me up on the scaffold, her jaw hit the floor! She’s thinking, ‘You’re not supposed to be up there, but you’re up there.’ I think it’s really important that girls see me doing what I’m doing — the action of painting.”

People had begun to recognize her signature paintings and murals, which explore black life. Her 2015 series of graphite drawings, “Appropriated Not Appreciated,” was created in the wake of several national incidents of police brutality against black women. The drawings, intimate female nudes, were displayed on the floor. Gallery attendants faced the dilemma of whether to walk on the drawings. “I made a figurative doormat a literal doormat. Some people, mostly women, were hesitant. But a lot of men treated the drawings as if they were supposed to be walked on.” James had finally discovered her why.

“I don’t paint pretty pictures. Every crevice in a face is a plane or a landscape.” James’ paintings feel entirely self-possessed yet reveal a shared human struggle. They are also clear evidence of her philosophy as an artist. “Treat a $50 job like a $2 million job. Create like you mean it. That’s not just my philosophy. That’s my practice.”