Sydnie Jimenez is a ceramic artist who draws inspiration from both ancient texts and her experience growing up in America with mixed race heritage.
She was born to a Dominican father and White mother, and raised in Orlando, Florida and rural North Georgia. Raised by her single mother, she primarily grew up around the white, American side of her family. Sydnie’s figure work appears to highlight black and brown youth, though she characterizes the figures as being racially ambiguous.
What drew me to her work is that it was reminiscent of works from ancient civilizations, but with a contemporary twist. Each one of her figures is uniquely styled. From the smaller figures she makes to the life-size ones, they all convey different personalities. Some are tricky, some are mischievous, and some just convey a sense of youthful joy. Together, all of the figures feel to be a part of a tight knit family.
In Popol Vuh—an ancient Mayan text that inspired her thesis—Sydnie learned that Mayan culture celebrates the ideals of being clever and mischievous. “They are actually seen as good qualities, because it's winning or beating someone with your intellect instead of brawn and strength.” Sydnie’s work aims to flip certain stereotypes that black and brown people face on their head, reimagining strength and power.
I recently had the chance to chat with Sydnie about her heritage and its influence on her work, the community she’s found since moving to Chicago, and what she believes an artist’s role is during such unprecedented times.
You recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What made you want to take this route?
I wanted to go to college because I wanted to get out of where I was living. I had just recently reconnected with some of my Dominican family, who happened to be living down the street from us in Georgia. It was the craziest thing. Literally 15 minutes from where we lived, was my dad's family. My dad is an absent figure in my life, but his family tried to keep in touch with us a little bit. In middle school we started reconnecting with that side of our family. That was something really important that happened in our adolescence, because it made us feel like, "Oh, we're not just like these weird anomalies.” My mom is a white woman, so she didn't really understand the intricacies of race and ethnicity, especially being Dominican. We were like, "We're Black, right?" She's like, "No, you're not Black. You’re Dominican.” Then we learned that Dominicans are black, but there are also white Dominicans. I'm glad that we had that moment. That was life for me in Georgia. There wasn’t a ton there for my interests. Me and my twin sister decided together that we’d go to the same college, because it would be cheaper, and then we could be each other's roommate. We then decided that we didn’t want to stay in state for school. Then we decided to go to art school, because we were super interested in art in high school, and our high school didn't have hardly an arts program. So we looked at Pratt in New York, and we looked at SCAD in Georgia. We also applied to the University of Georgia, but they didn't really have that great of an art program. We decided to go to SAIC because they gave us the most money.
What was your experience like at SAIC?
It was pretty overwhelming, because we'd never been to the big city. We lived in north Georgia, which is two hours from Atlanta, so we never really hung out in Atlanta. I’m really glad I chose SAIC, because it's a conceptual art school instead of technical once. My friend transferred from Kansas City Art Institute, and they told me they had to do all these intro classes where it's like fundamentals in drawing and painting and all this stuff. For me, that seems like it's based in the Eurocentric art canon, and I'm totally not interested in that at all. I thought I was going to go for painting, because I feel like everyone starts off doing painting or something, and then I was signing up for classes, and one of my counselors told me to sign up for something you haven't done before. Then I took a sculpture class, which is different from ceramics, and I was like, "Damn, this stuff is really expensive," because I wanted to make large-scale stuff. Then one of my TAs said, "You should work in the ceramics department, because the material is free," from a donor or something. Most of my time in college I was very tight on money, because the school's really expensive, and all the fees that come with it, and then having an apartment and stuff—it adds up. I was like, "Okay, I'll do ceramics," but I feel like it was perfect for what I wanted to do.
For your senior thesis you created two life-size figures inspired by a Mayan text. Does your work tend to have that underlying history embedded?
Once I started learning more about the history of ceramics and how deep it goes with so many cultures, because it's found everywhere in the ground, I was really interested in the historical aspect of it and also how that relates to my identity. Because I feel like with figurative work in general, as a person of color, the history will be seen within the work, so I think history will always be there. I wanted to be a little bit more intentional with what people can associate with my work. I also wanted to make that historical connection, because the natives of the Dominican Republic, the Taíno people, came from Mesomerica.
"Once I started learning more about the history of ceramics and how deep it goes with so many cultures, because it's found everywhere in the ground, I was really interested in the historical aspect of it and also how that relates to my identity."
I was working with this low-fire clay. The Art Institute has a large selection of Mesoamerican ceramics in the ethnic section, and every time we had to go to the museum to do something, I would head straight there, because I thought that was the most interesting stuff in there. A lot of that stuff is like that red ceramic, with that really smooth finish. There were head jugs and little figurines, and I thought, "Oh, that's the kind of stuff that I made. That's really cool that this is right here.”
I had just taken a class called “Mayan Inca Aztec,” and it was about some of the ways of living and the religion of these regions. I read this Mayan text called the Popol Vuh. It has multiple stories in it, but the first half of the book follows these brothers—I think they're twins because they were born at the same time. As I was doing research, they called them the hero twins, and I was like, "Oh, my God, that's so cool. I love that." These kids were also demi-gods. They kind of seem chaotic a little bit, because they're mischievous and kind of sneaky. Their actions always gave justice, somehow. Often the gods will tell them, “This guy’s doing fuck-shit, so you should go over there and fix that." So, they'll do something really sneaky and tricky. These words, sneaky, tricky, mischievous, are actually not bad things. In Popol Vuh and in Mayan culture those things are actually seen as good qualities, because it's winning or beating someone with your intellect instead of brawn and strength. I feel like a lot of other stories we hear, it's always been the big and strong people who are the heroes, and so I thought that was cool. Young black and brown kids are usually the ones who get accused of crimes just because of how we look. This made me want to make these figures to show that connection. I always make my figures girls, but because I'm a girl and my sister's a girl, and we're twins, it all just made the most sense. I wanted to make them life-size or almost life-size to really show their presence. Because I could have just made them these little figures, but this is a really important subject to me. I want people to not empathize, but see themselves in the work and put whatever they're thinking into it. I want it to be kind of accessible. I just really wanted that story element in it.
Your work tends to highlight black and brown youth. Why the concerted effort to do that?
I'm really inspired by my friend group. I kind of have a big friend group in Chicago and in Georgia. My friend group in Georgia are mostly men. Often when I'm walking around with them, especially when they come to visit in Chicago, we will get stopped by police because there's a group of black people. That just really fucks me up every time. I always get so bent out of shape about it, and they're just like, "Sydnie, it happens. We're black men. It's going to happen." I'm just like, “No."
I also feel like everyone in America and all over the world, I guess, because of colonization, kind of gets these societal beauty standards that are rooted in white supremacy. Things like straight hair. I feel like especially in this area we grew up in, if you're not white and if your nose isn't skinny, then you weren’t accepted. Our lips were too big and our skin was too dark, even though I'm light-skinned. I just feel like all these instances, and growing up as a super insecure child, "Oh, the world doesn't know who I am," going through my emo phase. I used to say things like, "I want to be really pale and I'm going to straighten my hair.” And I’ve always had body issues because I'm a little thick. So I wanted to make work that is sort of representative, but it's more than that. I'm not just like, "Oh, I want to make black and brown youth, because I don't see that often.” It’s not just that. It’s more.
"I wanted to make them life-size or almost life-size to really show their presence. Because I could have just made them these little figures, but this is a really important subject to me. I want people to not empathize, but see themselves in the work and put whatever they're thinking into it."
The figures that you make typically have a rebellious nature to them. What are you trying to convey with this?
I just feel like I've been really angry. I feel like a lot of black and brown kids are really angry just because of different societal shit that's been grafted onto you. I feel like a lot of people can relate to these sentiments that I feel, but also with the figures I want to show that it’s not just anger. There's also frustration and sadness or joy. I feel like when we do see a work about black joy or brown joy, that's radical in a sense. I do kind of want to show this radical joy but also still keep this anger and frustration, because I want to make white people feel uncomfortable sometimes. A lot of times, people will see my work and be like, "Oh, my god, that's so cute.” It is cute, I do get that, but it's also subversive in a way, because that's how I can get people to stomach the work, but then we can start talking about the true meaning of the work. Some people don't get that right off the bat. I feel like it really depends on your background. SAIC's a really international school, so there's a lot of international students, and one of my friends from China once said, "Oh, yeah, Sydnie, I just thought you just liked to make cute things."
Your figures have a very distinctive and contemporary style of dress. How do you land on what a specific figure is wearing? Are these inspired looks?
A lot of it is inspired by me and my sister at first. I don't like looking at reference pictures or anything. It's just kind of like what I've seen. I have a lot of fun with the outfits. The style is a really important aspect in my work, because it's about self-expression, what you present to the world. I feel like pop culture fashion is rooted in Black culture, especially American Black culture, and a lot of popular trends are. That’s why I feel like fashion styles are an important factor in my work. People wear what they want because of self-expression and I feel like in some ways that is kind of like a protest. Maybe this is a stretch, but I went to a Catholic school when I was younger, and we had to wear our uniforms, and that was not it. That kind of thing makes you conform, you know? I felt really trapped in that.
Could you walk me through the process of making one of your large scale figures? How long does one take to complete?
One will take half a month, because I made those two for my BFA show in a month or maybe a little over a month. I start from the feet up. I need around one hundred pounds of clay for each sculpture. I hand-build them. I just continue to build up. Then I use tools to smooth it out. Then once I have the form, that's when I can start to build the two legs and then I connect it. Then I can start doing the surface and rest of the body. It takes so long, because you have to pay close attention to the drying time of the clay, because if you build too much at once and the clay is too wet, it will just collapse.
"At some point, a work can make someone uncomfortable, but it also makes someone else feel seen and heard, and I feel like that's a big thing that art should be doing."
How many of these figures have broken?
I feel like every time I make something large-scale, something happens. I started making large-scale ceramics my sophomore year, and I was making these seated figures. As I was making one, the foot fell off. The head fell off because I didn't have the drying time down. Something would always happen. Then once I had the drying time down, I put it in the kiln. It would break in the kiln. When you have something in clay, you fire it to bisque, which is like a low fire. Then you can glaze it. Then you can fire it to Cone 6, which is kind of like the standard right now, but with my large-scale stuff, I just keep it at 04 bisque, because it's less likely to shrink and break. But I didn't know this. So with one of my figures I decided I wanted to fire it to Cone 6 because I wanted to get that nice brown and shiny look, but I was on a deadline for a class assignment. One of my friends then said, “You could just throw it in the fire once. Just skip the bisque and just go as low fire from raw clay to this Cone 6. This is going to take a little bit, but it will work. You don't have to do that other thing." Bad idea. It was this seated girl. She was sitting with her legs crossed, leaning forward a little bit. She just melted forward. There were big cracks everywhere. Then I thought maybe I should make standing figures instead. Maybe that will be less likely to break in weird ways. I also feel like a standing figure has more agency than a seated figure. Then I made one. I was super excited about it. Then I was going to go set it up for a show, and then I accidentally knocked her over and she shattered. But then I figured out how to make those, because that one took two months, just that one, because I was still figuring it out.
In such unprecedented times, where do you see the role of artists in fighting for a better future?
Artists aren't frontline workers. But the least we can do is bring conversation around issues, and bring stuff to light that people don't want to talk about or make people uncomfortable. At some point, a work can make someone uncomfortable, but it also makes someone else feel seen and heard, and I feel like that's a big thing that art should be doing. There were the police killings of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, and the list goes on. People were out in the streets protesting super hard. Then there's some people who were like, "Oh, my god, they're rioters." I feel like the least artists can do is talk about that stuff. Over quarantine I was making some figures that were for a show that I was in at Lucy Lacoste Gallery in Boston in September this past year, and the figures looked pretty uncomfortable and kind of frustrated. They were in a group. These specifically had that anger and frustration because of police brutality basically. I wanted to talk about that, so I made sure to mention it in my artist statement. I wanted to turn that into a conversation.