Sydney Nicole Kay

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

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.  

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Nick Lee

The turning point that led Nick Lee to become a painter was a trip to experience modern art in New York City in 2019. At the time, the Kent State University junior was majoring in art education.

But in New York, he saw a show by Amy Sherald soon after she debuted her National Portrait Gallery painting of Michelle Obama. 

“Seeing her work was really life changing, and it allowed me to think of who can do what,” Lee says. “I kind of changed my path in a way.”

He listened to Sherald, known for depicting African American experiences through intimate painted portraits, discuss how she wanted to reflect Black people so they feel represented within art history.

“When you have a reflection, you know you’re not a monster,” Lee explains. “… I think of, what could I add to art history as well? And when I was looking at the portraits, there was a lack of representation for Asian people. It just clicked that that’s something I could do to add to art history.” 

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Julia Milbrandt

For Julia Milbrandt, inspiration may come from something so minute you may overlook it. But if you do notice it – perhaps a balloon floating through the sky, a box of confetti or a pop music lyric – it might bring a tinge of happiness. 

“I get my inspiration from my everyday life,” she says. “I’m really interested in small moments of like wonder and joy and awe that kind of take us out of our everyday mundane experiences.”

She’ll snap a photo to document the moment and make a note in her phone, eventually to become art.

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Meagan Smith

Meagan Smith has spent the better part of the last few years learning about the infinite possibilities of digital weaving. Since the medium is not widely accessible – digital looms are costly and can be difficult to access – her mission to make brightly colored, often wavy and complex patterned weaves took her to Norway this year.

Back from three summer residencies in Norway, where digital weaving was founded, she’s working on new weaving projects that explore themes like fragmentation.   

Smith, who has a background in painting, drawing and ceramics, is drawn to bold colors, specifically shades like “puke green” and “electric yellow” – “colors that just make you vibrate inside,” she says. A former collegiate swimmer, she also draws inspiration from movements bodies make in the water, like splashes, ripples and reflections.  

She notes one digital weaving can take from 60 to 80 hours. 

“It can be overwhelming knowing how many possibilities there are,” she says of the practice, showing many vibrant pieces in her new Cleveland Asiatown art studio, which includes a floor loom and computer to build digital projects. “It’s like a beautifully painful thing.”

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Derek Walker

Derek Walker’s ability to challenge himself with new painting styles – despite the success of his past works, and still being a college student – has him moving toward a promising future.

The Cleveland Institute of Art senior and Maple Heights native was a finalist for a leading U.S. student art competition in 2021, saw his first solo show this year and received several other recent accolades for his paintings. 

He pushes himself toward new genres, now experimenting with pieces where the end result is not as planned as his previous work.  

“For these types of paintings,” he says, pointing to a couple of portraits from 2021, in his art studio at CIA, “I got too comfortable with it after about three years of just doing these styles, where I knew what I was going to paint from the very beginning.”

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