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Sydney James is bringing color to Detroit's communities

As a newly minted 2017 Kresge Arts Fellow, artist Sydney James gains recognition for her work painting murals across the city.

Photo by Lamar Landers

“I tried to channel my inner Beyoncé to accept this award,” Sydney James said. The crowd erupts. She’s dressed in a vintage shift dress, decorated with beaded peacock feathers and emerald-colored fringe.

She was onstage at the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education to accept the 2017 Kresge Artist Fellowship award – and not unlike Beyoncé, James is beautiful, talented and “woke.”

Illustrator-turned-fine artist James is one of 18 selected for the $25,000 fellowship this year, funded by the Kresge Arts Foundation and administered by the Kresge Arts in Detroit office of the College of Creative Studies. The unrestricted money also comes with a year of professional development, for which James says she’s most excited.

You can find her murals all around town. Arguably, one of James’ most famous in the city is her 2015 Murals in the Market piece. In it, she uses the likeness of fellow artists Rashaun Rucker, Tylonn Sawyer and Tiff Massey, along with her own portrait, to recreate the iconic 1996 Vibe magazine Death Row Records cover.

James studied at Cass Tech and received her bachelor of fine arts from CCS before moving to Los Angeles in 2004. Back then, she considered herself only an illustrator, but she started to paint while out west – and that led to an art show in Beverly Hills and work on television shows such as Lincoln Heights and No Ordinary Family.

While living in LA, James frequently traveled back to Detroit, and, on one visit in 2009, she caught wind of the work her friend and fellow artist Halima Cassells was doing turning vacant lots into community gardens. She wanted to contribute in her own way and decided that, with the help of fellow artists, she would erect art – and she’d start with the vacant lot belonging to her church. Thus, the Conant Gardens Outdoor Gallery was born.

James moved back home in 2011, revitalized the project and, with that, attracted the attention of other artists and developers. That led to more community projects and to the commissioned murals James has become known for. When asked what spurred her decision to return, she mentions Detroit’s resurgence.

“What’s happening now is definitely going to go down in somebody’s history book, and I want to be a part of it,” she says.

James’ work is particularly black and female focused and, of late, has become more political. Take, for example, her second Murals in the Market composition which shows a disheveled, somber-looking woman holding up a paper that reads “The Definitive List of Everything That Will Keep You Safe as a Black Being in America” – while a pigeon picks at her natural afro.

“I think that what the panelists saw in her work is just an incredible development of skill and technique paired with critical content that is particularly relevant at this moment in time,” Kresge Arts in Detroit director Christina deRoos says. “The work is just both beautiful and important.”

James is excited about the outside talent that the city’s revitalization is attracting but is protective of her city and its local artists.

“I know a lot of artists, especially since Detroit seems so desolate, they come in and they want to create stuff. And I welcome that, but I also want to educate them,” she says. “There are already artists here doing dope stuff.”

As James stood at the podium to accept her Kresge award, she said, “I thank the city for creating me.”

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