Painting With Broad Strokes

Words by: Cara D. Clark

Photos By: Charity Rachelle

It’s a crass oversimplification to think of the city of Detroit as the Motor City—home to three automotive giants and a hub of industry that saw a job crash, financial disaster, and alarming crime rates. But this city is Motown, birthplace of songsters like Aretha Franklin and Madonna, and home to the second largest theater district in the nation.

The city’s culture is world-class, and its ability not only to survive but thrive in the face of obstacles is living proof of the city’s official motto: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.” Rise it has with a revitalization through a network of artists.

The biggest battle the city faces now is accessibility to its longtime residents in the face of its growing popularity among the affluent.

While some people still think of Detroit as a city of abandoned buildings—the city lost 63 percent of its population from the boomtime of the 1950s—an expanding art community has its own allure that has wrought revitalization and gentrification. During its tough times, some of the local artists dug in their heels and set about creating a new culture while honoring the old Detroit.

The city is also a unique blend of extravagant homes from the wealthy auto manufacturers side-by-side with more modest dwellings, but the complexities of the city are as vast as its 139-square-mile expanse. Urban farmer, entrepreneur, and Detroit native Bree Hietala, who was drawn back to her roots and is now part of a thriv-ing community, says, “The architecture here and history here is so amazing. This city is a beautiful patchwork. I don’t think you can find this in many American cities.”

She sees the work she and her husband do in cultivating both a farm and a community as an homage to Detroit’s early foundations. “There are so many farms here, built into the framework of Detroit,” Bree says. “Back in the day, when Detroit was being laid out, they gave every farmer a long parcel of land and access to the water along the Detroit River. They were long, narrow farms, mini farms all over Detroit, called ribbon farming.

That spirit, in essence, is Detroit.” Mural artist Sydney James has made a name for herself in visual art. Her brilliant murals bring a new vitality to a neighborhood, which entices investors to turn old buildings into hip new high-rent living space, breathing new life into the tapestry of a city woven from generations of industry, music, and art.

“The revitalization of this city started with art, and in other ways,” Sydney says. “My mural painting birthed doing community projects on my own to beautify my area. Like in other cities, artists tend to draw attention—especially street art. I think it’s one of the leading factors in revitalization. I say street artists are weapons of mass gentrification. Street artists always want to create art as big as we are and paint as often as we can. Others see art as opportunity, and it makes areas much more appealing.”

Detroit native and celebrated muralist Sydney G. James has a simple origin story, and it’s all about art and undeniable talent. When she was 3 years old, she took a coloring book image and redrew the entire thing, duplicating it perfectly. When she showed it to her mother, the incredulous response was that work must have been traced. Sydney sat back down and, as her mother watched, drew the same picture again. “She’s been a believer ever since,” Sydney says. Convinced of her daughter’s extraordinary ability, Sydney’s mom enrolled her in art classes from age 7.

It was a springboard for a career as an art director in advertising after graduating from the College for Creative Studies in 2001. Just three years later, her career path took her to Los Angeles, where she worked as a visual artist in film and television—working on shows like “Lincoln Heights” and “No Ordinary Family”—before the call of home drew her back to Detroit in 2011. It wasn’t long before she found a new mode of expression in mural art, demanding both physically and artistically as she broadcasts her messages on even broader buildings.

After two to three days of climbing up and down scaffolding repeatedly, her literally larger-than-life figures are vivid and alive with expression and attitude that speak truth to power, conveying stories of women, particularly black women, overcoming oppression in their lives.

Originally inspired by pop culture and historic paintings, Sydney has found her voice as an artist, and it shouts from the walls. “As of the last three and a half or four years, there’s been an escalation and publicity of police brutality against women,” Sydney says. “The public does not talk about it as much, but it has fueled my entire body of work for the last two years. I paint black women large and beautiful, textured and with different layers. Our situation is layered. I focus on painting us and how I want the world to see us and treat us.”

And the public is responding with an outpouring of love. “My target audience is definitely black women and children,” Sydney says. “If I can gain their attention; if they can see me doing my art and be inspired by it, that’s a win for me. Black women’s issues are everybody’s issues. Ours are just more concentrated, but every woman can sympathize with the scenarios in my work.”

Sydney put herself dead center in one of those scenarios when she put together a gallery showcase. Near the entry, she placed a nude self-portrait on the floor, giving the people the option to walk around the artwork or on it. “I made myself a literal doormat,” Sydney says. “My idea was that black women are doormats, and women in general are figurative doormats. We cater to everyone.

The piece introduced the series, and it connected with women definitely and with some men. We do have allies. It made a lot of people sad to see the painting on the ground and caused them to wonder why it was there and start reflecting.” The positioning of the painting and seeing the number of people who actually did choose to walk on, rather than around it, had a profound effect on Sydney’s own psyche, which she hadn’t expected.

“I’ve always made sure not to put anybody else on the floor,” Sydney says. “It made me think about how we treat the homeless or drug addicts or just people who are in positions to serve in restaurants or bars. If you are in a position that is perceived to be lesser, people treat you that way just to make themselves feel bigger. We have a lot of work to do as humans.”

And humanity is at the heart of her beloved city of Detroit. “The city is not about the geography—it’s the culture of the people of the city,” says Sydney, who hopes to take her work to the next level in a give-back that promises to have a ripple effect.

“My ultimate goal is to pay it forward,” she says. “You don’t often see female street artists and definitely not many black female street artists. I mentor now and would like that to be a more formal mentorship program for more people and eventually would like to have an incubator space to teach others how I did what I did. I want to share and make sure they are sharing it, too. It’s paying it forward in the broadest sense.”