Sydney Nicole Kay at her “Reaching Paradise” show at the Cleveland Print Room. Photo / McKinley Wiley

Age: 23 • Lives and creates: Cleveland • Learned: BFA in photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art

By Amanda Koehn

Mixed-media artist and photographer Sydney Nicole Kay’s work often builds from vivid images of people to explore ideas surrounding consumerism and race.

Incorporating bold, contrasting colors and intricate cutouts, she tries to let her work come naturally and allows those around her to inspire it.  

“I kind of like sitting on things and just letting them marinate, and just kind of doing a lot of passion projects,” Kay says.

For the 2021 Cleveland Institute of Art graduate, those “passion projects” have led her into shows that would be pursued by artists much farther in their careers.  

On the cover “How do you dip it?” (2021) by Sydney Nicole Kay. Digital inkjet print, 16 x 20 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Kay grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she has childhood memories of wanting to be an artist. While she always liked drawing, her mother was “like the queen of taking pictures everywhere,” which led Kay to do so, too, she says.

“I kind of knew I wanted to do art, but I didn’t know exactly what,” she says. “I think most people, when you think of artists, you just think of the typical fine artist and not really all the other spaces you can branch out to.” 

In high school, she was motivated by her art teacher to pursue a career in the field. When it came time to choose a college, she says she first learned about CIA when a representative visited her relatively small high school to share information about its programs. She liked it, as did her parents, and she initially started at CIA as an animation major. 

Kay switched to photography, but she says, ironically, now she does more animation at her full-time job as a content production assistant at Marcus Thomas, a locally headquartered advertising agency.

A 16 x 20 inch digital inkjet print that was part of Sydney Nicole Kay’s BFA project in 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For her Bachelor of Fine Arts project, she incorporated screen printing and video into her photography work. The project, in part, analyzed the dynamic between advertisers and consumers, and the consumers’ role in determining what ultimately gets marketed. 

“(It showed) what our role as the consumer is in figuring out what the advertisers market,” she says. “… If we want more representation, then we must demand that because I feel like the consumer doesn’t really act like we have as much power as we really do in trying to ask for what we want.”

For the project, she cut out human models from her photos. They leave the viewer to consider who might fit into the spaces based on the outfits and hair left in the image, she explains, and people may have different ideas based on their own backgrounds. Playing with “what I can take out,” of photos has also been a consistent theme in her work – filling spaces which seem random, but aren’t, with something completely different.

After graduating in 2021, she began her job at Marcus Thomas. Doing her own artwork on nights and weekends primarily since, she’s stayed busy and has gotten attention for it. 

In 2021, she was part of “Cross Generations; bridging the gap of artists,” a show at the Morgan Conservatory in collaboration with the Museum of Creative Human Art. Less than a month after she graduated, the show aimed to amplify local artists of color across ages and disciplines.

Kay says that show helped lead to another project she did this year at the Cleveland Print Room. She was an inaugural recipient of the Stephen Bivens Fellowship/Residency there, creating and showing her exhibition, “Reaching Paradise,” on view this past August and September. 

An 8 x 10 inch digital inkjet print that was part of Sydney Nicole Kay’s 2021 BFA project. Outfit designed by Cierra Boyd. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Her project at the Print Room covered different generations and their relationships to success and adversity, she explains. Focusing on people of color – from Baby Boomers to Generation Z – she explored how areas of success like power, wealth, knowledge and happiness are defined and achieved differently across generations, and each generation’s unique issues faced.  

She paired that idea with photographic mediums – an iPhone, digital camera and large format camera – to depict and represent the generations with which they best align. Paralleling the exhibit’s exploration of generational challenges, different challenges come with each photographic medium, which she sought to understand. The large-format photos were a challenge in their own sense as she’s allergic to photo chemicals, she notes. 

Her own family also served as inspiration for that project, specifically her great-aunt turning 100 years old, she says. And in her idiosyncratic style, she cut out spaces in the images and filled them with other items, like newspaper print, that also reflect different generations.

“It’s more like kind of comparing the (generational) issues and how (they build) on each other,” she says, adding that the show aimed to address if society could get to a place where there are no major issues affecting people because of their race. “… I’d like to get to a place where racism isn’t a factor, but we still aren’t there.”   

The kind of person who always does things “110%,” Kay explains she’s struggled with overworking herself and getting burned out. She’s trying to work in moderation in that sense, joking that she gets maybe an overly strong work ethic from her parents. To keep things manageable, her goal is to be in one art show each year. She’s still considering where that might be in 2023.

“I kind of am also a workaholic … to be honest with myself,” she says. “I don’t really like to sit still.”

“(Kay’s) insight for things is always a new perspective. Especially in this most recent show at the Print Room, when she was talking about generational wealth and how that translated to the mediums she was using, and also the mixed-media collage-type stuff she was doing, I had never thought about any of that stuff that way. … I think (her work is) very striking. Usually, she uses a lot of really bold, contrasting colors. So even if you’re not totally understanding the full picture of the concept, it’s just awesome to look at.”

Kaliban Zehe, teaching artist and dark room technician, Cleveland Print Room, and photographer/performer