Sydney Vernon Movingly Reimagines Personal Family Photographs

Sydney Vernon exudes an artistic maturity far beyond her years. While still completing her BFA at the Cooper Union, Vernon has fallen into stride with work. Based on personal photographs — some from when she was a child and some more recent — Vernon recreates the people most meaningful in her life. Her work contains a raw sense of honesty and compassion, with so much heart one can’t help but be attracted to the scenes before them.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from originally and when did art first enter your life?

I spent my early childhood and teen years in Prince Georges County Maryland. My mom and dad are from New York, so I like to think that I’m a suburban girl with traces of city sensibilities. My mom had benefitted from a specialized high school arts education, having graduated from the High School of Art and Design(Manhattan) in 1974. When our family migrated to Maryland she sought out educational models that focused on artistic development for my sister and I. There was one public school for creative and performing arts in the area, so when I was old enough to start kindergarten at 4 years old, I went. Even before kindergarten, I remember my mother drawing with me, giving me lots of books with illustrations, and showing me how to trace over images that I liked and color them in with her prismacolor markers.

From where do you draw inspiration for your works?

Most of the inspiration for my works comes from looking at photographs of my immediate family that span over 40 years. I’m really interested in sharing histories through a personal lens rather than reinforcing “textbook histories” that generalize and skip over the specifics of everyday life. I often sift through my family photos, and consider the larger climate of the world in those moments. The photos have the ability to directly capture a specific moment as it relates to my family and indirectly reference the a world condition that surrounded it’s making. I’ll draw inspiration from reflecting on stories I’ve heard directly from the mouths of my mom, dad and sister, and sometimes these stories will merge with a text I’ve recently read, a song I’m thinking about, or another piece of artwork that has had an impact on me.

Are the figures in your works based on real people?

The figures in my work are based on real people. They are all drawn from photographic representations of mostly my mother, father, and sister. There are some people I have used as subjects of work that don’t directly fit into my family bloodline, but have spent a lot of time with and around my family as a unit.

What’s a day in the studio like for you?

There isn’t really a typical day in the studio for me. Most days I’ll head to the studio after class. A lot of my classes end at 10pm so I find myself working at night until the building closes at 2am. Time is kind of precious so I’ll usually pull up my reference image and get straight to work on drawing. Sometimes I’ll be really invested in drawing for several hours or however long it takes to get a face rendered just right. Sometimes the urge to screen-print strikes me very intensely and I’ll run to the print shop across the street to ink up my screen and collage elements of print in work. Sometimes I’ll invite peers and professors in and have discussions about what works and what doesn’t. I also use studio time to listen to a lot of artist talks (I’m currently obsessed with Ja’Tovia Gary and Arthur Jafa in conversation at SAAM in Washington D.C) I guess one thing is always certain, somehow there will be charcoal and pastel dust on my hands, face and clothes before I leave.

What other artists working today most inspire you?

In no particular order: Kevin Beasley, Daniel Diasgranados, Gerald Lovell, Jennie C. Jones, Ja’Tovia Gary, Kenturah Davis, Caityln Cherry, Kerry James Marshall, Tschabalala Self, Sam Vernon, Jeff Sonhouse, Arthur Jafa, Leslie Hewitt, Will Villalongo, Jennifer Packer, Jordan Casteel, Greg Brada, Lynette Yaidom Boakye, Njedeka Akunyili Crosby, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Deana Lawson, Lorna Simpson, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, Genevieve Gaignard, Robert Pruitt, Meleko Mokgosi, Henry Taylor, Eric N. Mack, Adrian Piper, Kara Walker, Titus Kaphar, Amy Sherald, Liz Johnson Artur, Tajh Rust, Nathaniel Mary Quinn, Yinka Shonibare. I’m sure I’m missing dozens more.

When we met, we discussed how I came across your work on Instagram. How do you feel about Instagram’s current role in the art world?

I think Instagram is deeply tethered to the art world right now and it gives me mixed feelings. It feels like there has been a much-needed democratization of accessibility. The possibility of encountering new work and artists feels endless, and just as easily as the artwork is seen it can be shared. However, I’m skeptical about this ease of access and the effects of Instagram on collective mental health, which doesn’t have much to do with the art world directly but feels kind of linked. Additionally, the art world notoriously has many gatekeepers and I think Instagram can be a space where those privileged positions can be publicly challenged. Ultimately, Instagram has the potential to a good tool for artists and the art world but there are problems of the larger internet culture and larger art-world culture that need to be address first before I can maintain a position of their connection.

What’s next for you?

In 2021 I’m scheduled to graduate (maybe I’ll feel motivated to change my Instagram name) and I’ll have my BFA from the Cooper Union. It’s going to be really nice to not have to go to class 4 days out of the week. In the nearer future though I’ll be curating an exhibition and showing work in February 2020 at Cooper Union in the annual Black Student Union exhibition, which is also super exciting. The opportunity to travel has also come up because I’ve been nominated to study abroad for the Spring 2020 semester. So yea, just general movement forward and making a lot of art.

At the end of every interview, we like to ask the artist to recommend a friend whose work you love for us to interview next. Who would you suggest?

Appropriately enough Eden Seifu (@edenbseifu) is an artist I encountered on Instagram. I think her work is elegant and imaginative and rich with historical metaphor. I would love to hear her talk more about the work and process.