Detroit artist Sydney G. James says she’s been an artist her whole life.
A self-described “Girl Raised in Detroit,” James earned her bachelor’s degree in fine arts at the College for Creative Studies in 2001 before moving to Los Angeles in 2004 to work as a visual artist in TV and filmmaking.
James moved back to Detroit in 2011. The interdisciplinary artist, now 44, creates through her studio work, murals and sculptures, and is best known for her mural “Girl With the D Earring,” which watches over East Grand Boulevard from the Chroma building.
She’s also an art activist. James recently spoke out against the lack of Detroit artists in a city-funded mural project around downtown. She also co-founded the BLKOUT Walls Mural Festival in 2021 to create opportunities for other muralists.
We chatted with James to discuss her work, her purpose and the artists who inspire her.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Outlier: What fascinates you about doing artwork around Detroit?
James: At the age of 3, I copied a picture of Gargamel (the “Smurfs” character) based off what I saw in my coloring book. I shared it with my mother, and she didn’t believe I did it. She thought I traced it. So she sat me down and made me do it in front of her again, and I’ve been an artist ever since.
(Mural work) is really good community interaction. You get to interact with people. You know, art is personal. Even on a building, it’s personal while you’re up there working. But they can actually see it done in real-time, so it’s not a surprise where they’ll be like, “Oh my God, I don’t know how this art was made.” People get to see the process and interact in the process.
My community members and children get to see people who look like themselves doing large art. These things might not be on your radar for a career as a child. I think it’s a good thing. I don’t even know what I would be doing if it wasn’t this.
Your art serves a bigger social purpose, changing the narrative of Black women. Why is this important?
We are the most underserved people in this country — really in the world. For some reason, we are created as the villain. More often than not, we are the savior of situations. We are painted in a (negative light) even in how we’re treated. Mentally, physically, even just going to the doctor — it’s just proof that we’re placed at the bottom in every aspect of our lives. I intentionally focus on us to shift that narrative.
You recently spoke out about the lack of local artists in the city-funded Detroit Be the Change mural project. Why did you get involved?
It makes me just angry. I’m sick of the narrative that we are not worthy or that we’re not up to par. We have a thriving arts community here, and (the art) doesn’t even look like one thing. We have such a vast art community here that we touch every corner of the city. It’s not the same people. It’s subgroups inside one large group. We all have different capabilities.
We have Murals in the Market, which was named by (Smithsonian Magazine) as one of the best mural festivals. We have the City Walls program. We have the BLKOUT Walls festival. So many programs where we highlight Detroit’s best artists and showcase their abilities that this shouldn’t be even existing right now. It wasn’t even publicized.
We’re not welcome on the largest canvases in the city.
Which artists influence your work?
I’m influenced, style-wise, by plenty of artists. Sebastian Krüger, Barkley L. Hendricks, Jenny Saville. Sabrina Nelson was a large voice. But then, as I got older, it became my peers: Dwayne “Dubelyoo” Wright, based out of Atlanta, and Kevin A. Williams (aka WAK) and Mario Moore.
My day-to-day interactions are what really inspires my work. It’s more like an inspiration exchange. So that’s pretty dope, too.
What’s your favorite Detroit mural that isn’t your own?
I have so many favorites. We have so many beautiful pieces and artists to choose from.
Two are by Bakpak Durden, both created in the BLKOUT Walls festival. The first one (“Evocative of Ingenuity”) is on Clay Street, and the other (“[Show Me] Where Ya From”) is on Woodward Avenue at the BP gas station.
I also like the Ruth Ellis mural painted by Ijania Cortez. Pat Perry and his drumline — I love everything that Pat Perry does. Then there’s the J Dilla mural (“Dilla is Forever”) painted by Victor “Marka27” Quiñonez. That’s definitely a top-five.
What’s a place, person or thing that just screams ‘Detroit’?
It will have to be Sabrina Nelson. She reps Detroit wherever she goes. She’s a Detroit icon.
Want to shout out another Detroit artist we should talk to? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.