How to understand Black art across the diaspora

 A Conversation with: Sydney Vernon

The ISE-DA team spoke with artist Sydney Vernon about her process, inspirations and how her time at The Cooper Union has informed her work. Our conversation continued to develop into macro issues within the art world and her hopes for its future and hers.

Vernon is working towards her BFA at The Cooper Union in New York City. She is an artist who has produced a body of work focused on family history intertwined with her personal cultural narratives. Though currently on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her phenomenal first solo exhibition at the Thierry Goldberg Gallery, “When We See Us”, can be viewed here.

*note, this interview is a combination of two conversations with Sydney.

Part I

How are you?

I’m okay, I feel like I have made some improvements since [the last time we talked]. I am trying to move my room around so I can optimize my studio space. I’m trying to get settled into doing something, maybe make some collages. I have been thinking of The Black Romantic a lot. The only examples I can think of right now is Kerry James Marshall, he did this vignette series and a while back, The Studio Museum released a catalogue for an exhibit they had called The Black Romantic. There’s not that much writing on it that I’ve encountered, but I think it is a way of getting specific about Black art that I can get behind.

How would you describe your work and process?

My process is pretty mixed media. I do a lot of drawing but I have paint that I use sometimes, whether its oil paints, acrylic or gouache. Last year I picked up screen printing, so that has been something in the work that has been really important as a visual interest. I am still interested in making beautiful pictures and I think that the quality that screen printing has been able to give me really adds to the work.

Why did you decide to focus on your subject matter?

Cooper Union didn’t really have that many classes about teaching Black art history and my sophomore year, a really amazing professor taught a class called “What is Post-Black?” At the time, I was really trying to figure out what my work was going to look like and how I was going to use my love of drawing to say something a bit more with my work and imbue it with meaning. It was my second year away from home and that homesickness, in addition to the new material I was learning at school, kind of gelled together in a great way and I stuck with it.

How has your time at Cooper Union informed your art work?

My whole idea of what art can be just expanded so much at Cooper, even though I learned about so many different art movements. I learned a little bit about sculpture and I learned a little bit about performance art. I think I knew and had a sense of what I wanted to do when I came to the school, and that was more drawing and painting-based, so I just tried to use all of those other experiences to build into what I knew I came there to do.

Some of my work came out of homesickness. Not being from New York, I was in a new, high-pressure environment and going through a lot of questionable encounters freshman year at Cooper Union. Blackness was being tiptoed around and a lot of assignments for art history were narrow and skipped over histories. I took the class called “What is Post-Black?" with Nana Adusei-Poku. She was able to breakdown a comprehensive history of Black art. I didn’t want to perpetuate this essentialist history within Black art. I used family photos as a personal connection and a drive to make the work. I weaved other narratives into [my work] with collage, printmaking [and more]. What you get is the mixing of the universal and the personal. I still go back to that syllabus as a reference. A lot of people have their references, most of them are white. I try to shake up the pool of what people are pulling from. I don’t think a lot of people are interested in diversifying their knowledge unless there is pressure to.

The Warmth of Other Suns, 2019

Who are your inspirations?

I am an autodidact when it comes to teaching myself about Black art history. But, if I did not go to Cooper, I would not know who Louise Bourjois was. I feel like having all these influences now, in addition to my favorite artist Kerry James Marshall, and being able to take from the entire history of art has been really rewarding. I think that the academic resources are really different to what I am actually interested in and to the research I do on my own. But I love listening to podcasts that I’ve found on my own and I love a good Foucault quote. I can take all of these ideas and can take from Betye Saar’s works. Everyone is important to me so maybe those people: Betye Saar, Kerry James Marshall, Louise Bourjois and definitely Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

Njideka Akunyili Crosby is another. Not only is she a very great artist but she has a good work life balance. I look at the way she goes about producing art and every time, it is about the quality and she doesn’t have to be in this race with everyone else. The meticulousness of her work, the attention to detail and the fact that she is not in a state of hyperproduction. She has developed this language for herself that is so beautiful, and everybody can tell and is enamored with it. I think it is amazing that she can work at that quality consistently and maintain having a family and being a sweet person. It makes me consider my value systems and think about where you put your energy.

We spoke about you coming from a family that creates art. How does that inform your work, allow you to evaluate your art and push yourself forward?

With my parents being from New York and my mom having gone to an arts-focused high school in New York, when my sister and I were born she always found educational models for us that focused on art. Some kids learn how to play a sport, others an instrument. My sister and I were geared towards a life in the arts and understanding the value of art. I think that arts education is definitely a really interesting path to take because this level of intimacy we get to develop with making art and appreciating art is definitely a blessing.

I am exposed to different ways of making art. For example, my sister makes installation art and photography and while its abstract, it’s still figurative. In art, there has always been this tension between abstraction and figuration. I don’t know why people focus on Black artists portraying the figure or why there is a tension between the two. We have to think about why that is, why there has been a binary of what Black people can create and why we are pigeonholed into doing one thing. I mean, look at Jack Whitten and Norman Lewis.

People are looking around and seeing where they find value and the community is something that people are deciding to focus on. We’ve always been trying to uplift each other and show ourselves in spaces where we haven’t been seen before. Representation is really important but at the same time, each artist and work have different individual painterly qualities that can teach us what mastery looks like in our opinion. They are each specific about how they want to paint.

Former Men, 2019

April 3, 2020