Painter Sydney G. James is making her mark on Detr...

Painter Sydney G. James is making her mark on Detroit’s art scene — and celebrating the black women that inspire her

Detroit artist Sydney G. James in her studio.

If you haven’t memorized the name Sydney G. James, it’s time to take notes.

James, a native Detroiter and College for Creative Studies graduate, returned to the city from Los Angeles in 2011 and immediately started making her mark on the local art scene. You’ve probably seen her paintings, larger than life, adorning buildings in Detroit — last year, she created 13 murals in just 10 months.

One of the standouts is “Appropriated Not Appreciated,” for 2016’s Murals in the Market Festival, with text by Scheherazade Washington Parrish that reads: “The Definitive List Of Everything That Will Keep You Safe As A Black Woman Being In America.” The list, in James’ mural, is blank. 

In her paintings, James explores black womanhood and often paints other black artists and leaders that inspire her. So it’s no surprise that poet and writer Parrish is one of the subjects in her debut solo show, “Sit Down Somewhere,” currently on view at Playground Detroit. Parrish will also moderate an artist talk with James on Oct. 24

Sydney G. James painting "Oprah Said That I Get a..."
“Oprah Said That I Get a…,” acrylic and oil on canvas, 64 x 54 inches, 2019.

Parrish, James and artists Tylonn J. Sawyer and Rashaun Rucker make up the Vanguard Artist Collective — references to Sawyer and Rucker’s work are included in the “Appropriated Not Appreciated” mural as well. The group formed in 2011, and each member creates their own work – but influence and help each other. 

“The collective speaks more to the relationship that we have and how that feeds the art,” Parrish told the Free Press. “We feed each other. We hold each other accountable… We are walking safe spaces for each other that allows us to be ourselves and not just the expectations of who we’re supposed to be.”

In 2016, James told me that her mural referencing police shootings of African Americans was intended to “bother” onlookers.

“I want you to be shocked, because I think it is shocking, but I want you to be educated at the same time,” she said. 

Sydney G. James painting "Maya Ode to Sweet Thang,
" acrylic and oil on canvas, diptych, 48 x 96 inches
, 2019
Maya Ode to Sweet Thang,” acrylic and oil on canvas, diptych, 48 x 96 inches, 2019.

James’ current collection is an extension of that piece, she told the Metro Times, but takes a more celebratory approach. Her most recent series of drawings and paintings feature female muses alongside their own inspirational figures and are meant to serve as a “call to action for black women to reclaim their thrones.” 

“Whenever our mothers, mentors, and guides wanted to share wisdoms — they made us — literally — take a seat in order to share an err of caution, or offerings of life lessons, provide encouragement to move forward or, to stop and think, she said. “Often, these women had to ‘stand up’ so that others would have the ability to ‘sit down somewhere.’”

See James’ show “Sit Down Somewhere” at Playground Detroit, and hear from the artist herself at the Oct. 24 discussion.

Think we should feature you, or an artist you admire, in this recurring section? Submit work by emailing Kate.  

Top image: Sydney G. James, studio portrait. Credit: Bre’Ann White for Playground Detroit.

Kate Abbey-Lambertz is the co-founder and editorial director for Detour Media. She leads editorial strategy for the signature Detour Detroit newsletter, The Blend and special projects, while shaping Detour’s membership program, audience development initiatives and design. Kate was previously a national reporter at HuffPost, where she covered equitable cities and urban issues. She launched HuffPost’s Detroit vertical, serving as reporter and editor, and has reported on Detroit for a decade. Follow her on Twitter: @kabbeyl