- Sydney’s Family Connection to Original Walk Inspired Her Personal, Moving Original Work
Detroit native Sydney James’ lifelong artistic talent and family history intersected in a meaningful way this summer when she was commissioned by the Ilitch Companies to create an original piece commemorating the Detroit Branch NAACP’s 60th annual Freedom Walk. Sydney’s mother participated in the original walk on June 23, 1963, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so the project was incredibly personal to the artist.
The centerpiece of the Sydney’s commissioned work, titled “Remember the Time,” is an iconic and historic photo of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., marching down Woodward Avenue, held in the present-day hand of Sydney’s mother as she reflected on the event. The painting was created into posters for the Detroit Branch NAACP’s Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, with each of the 4,000+ dinner attendees given a copy. The original artwork was donated to the Detroit Branch NAACP. Ilitch Companies CEO Chris Ilitch served as Senior Corporate Chair of this year’s event.
Honored to commemorate the historic event, Sydney appreciates that the march took place in her hometown. “This year is the 60th anniversary of the Freedom Walk, and Ilitch Companies wanted me to commemorate that day, really seal it in time and honor it,” said Sydney. “Dr. King found Detroit important enough to be here and do this walk. It’s legendary for him to even be in this space and activating Woodward Avenue.”
Sydney’s mother, who lived in the Jeffries Projects – up the street from where the walk took place – participated in the walk when she was 14 years old. This painting, and every other piece that Sydney produces, are pieces of her that gain inspiration from her daily interactions with family, friends, and most importantly, Detroit as a whole. “Detroit is everything to me. Detroit is where Blackness and Black love resides,” said Sydney. “This is the place that taught Black people how to strut in their Blackness. No matter where we are or where we go in the world, we strut. We walk like we mean it, like we belong there, because we belong wherever we set foot.”
Sydney has always had a talent for art. When she was three years old, she drew a picture she saw in her Smurfs coloring book that looked so much like the original, her mom made her re-draw it in front of her. This interaction affirmed to both Sydney and her mother that art wouldn’t just be a hobby for her in the future. “In kindergarten, my art teacher pulled my parents aside, and said, ‘this child has abilities. When she gets of age, you need to get her some real art classes,’” explained Sydney, whose parents eventually put her into art classes at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, where she later received her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2001.
Throughout her career as a fine arts painter, muralist and Detroit creative, Sydney’s award-winning and recognized works have been featured at Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCAD), the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit’s Murals in the Market, and other sites both nationally and internationally.
When she was a senior at Cass Technical High School in 1997, Sydney won first place in the Detroit Branch NAACP’s ACT-SO (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics) Competition for her artistic submission. Nearly three decades later, Ilitch Companies tapped her to create a piece of lasting history for the NAACP that’d be meaningful to the organization and its constituents.