On Portraying Black Femme Identity

The Phillips Collection Fellow Arianna Adade talks to Sydney Vernon about how she depicts Black womanhood. Sydney Vernon: Interior Lives is on view at Phillips@THEARC through June 6.

Sydney Vernon, Coastal Ride, 2023, Charcoal on paper, Courtesy of the artist and Kapp Kapp

How do the stories and traditions passed down in your family inspire the narratives you weave into your artwork, particularly those centered around black femme identity?

The women in my immediate family are all very different. This show was just a slice, particularly my mom’s life. It doesn’t aim to show the range; it’s more about color and form. In my paintings, I isolate between joy and trauma, and this exhibition is more on the “joy” side. I do like to represent that happy space, which is seen in a couple of my artworks. This is not a “Black girl joy” narrative in its entirety, though. I try to balance moments of benevolence and the realities of what is often expected of a specific archetype of woman.

How do you balance the intimate, personal aspects of your family and community experiences with the broader, societal conversations you aim to engage with through your art?

Three or four years ago, one of my professors asked: “If you ran out of family photos, what would you do?” This made me question if family photos are also necessary, which is when I started to move to abstraction. Barbara Chase-Riboud is one of my favorite abstract artists., but there are few Black women in the art world highlighted in abstraction. Seeing the lack of diversity in the art world, I think of art as a microcosm for showcasing Black femme identities. I want to be a bit more of a rebel and take more risks in broadening what Black women are supposed to look like.

Sydney Vernon, Untitled, 2024, Pastel and silkscreen on paper, Courtesy of the artist and Kapp Kapp

What themes or symbols do you intentionally incorporate to convey the interconnectedness of family and community in your paintings?

A new symbol I have enjoyed returning to is this head in this afro-comb as architecture. In my studio, I was thinking about what this could mean: Black women as landscape, Black women as time, etc. Through-line and blood-line are important, too. I like depth in images and backgrounds, and being able to dissect faces in artwork.

Through your archival process in your artwork, how has your mother’s role in your life impacted the way you illustrate her and perceive the Black femme identity?

My mom is from the projects in New York. Her life’s mission is to find beauty in life and make life beautiful. I want to put her in art that shows her beauty and adds a specialness. I worked directly with the photos to retain the likeness of my mom. She has become a character, in a sense, in this world, and she loves it. It is more about humanity and sometimes showing vulnerability. It’s not all about strength and carrying the world on your shoulders. Just being in a space that feels safe and having a good time. It’s more of a respect thing, an exchange of caretaking through artwork and creating my mom in a world where they are immortalized.

From the personal collection of Sydney Vernon

Dupont Nature Walk with Pierre Bonnard and Carrie Vaughn

Programs Assistant Erich Brubaker on Pierre Bonnard’s connection to nature and the upcoming nature walk with Carrie Vaughn, Farm Director of THEARC Building Bridges Across the River.

“He admires the eternal beauty and the astonishing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained in the tumult of human liberty. He gazes at the landscapes of the great city, landscapes of stone, now swathed in the mist, now struck in full face by the sun.” Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863)

In 1918, Pierre Bonnard paints the work The Terrace, also known in French as “Le Jardin Sauvage” (the Savage Garden).

Pierre Bonnard, The Terrace, 1918, Oil on canvas, 62 3/4 x 98 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection Acquired 1935; © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

In 2024, Carrie Vaughn watches a bug crawl across her desk.

The common thread: an appreciation for the unadulterated and commonplace beauty of the world around us, especially the allure of untamed nature in all its forms.

“The natural world is everywhere—it’s in us and all around us. Sometimes experiencing nature can be as simple as watching an insect walk across your desk or taking a deep breath after a rainstorm to smell the new perfume in the air,” says Vaughn. She currently serves as the Farm Director of THEARC Building Bridges Across the River, which began in 2010 to increase healthy food access, educational resources, and workforce development opportunities to residents of East of the Anacostia River, and now features 22 raised beds, an 18-tree orchard, a season-extending hoop house, three community compost bins, four in-ground rows, medicinal and culinary herb gardens, and a bee hive.

Carrie Vaughn planting garlic at THEARC Farm (Courtesy of Carrie Vaughn)

Like Carrie Vaughn, Pierre Bonnard spent much of his time outdoors, and wrote in his journal in 1932: “Show nature when it’s beautiful. Everything has its moment of beauty.” He was known to take long walks in nature, absorbing the scenery, pondering his paintings, and making brief sketches before going home to dream up his compositions from memory.

“I love the way Bonnard’s paintings capture the movement, the wild colors, the contrasts that connect outdoors with indoors,” continues Vaughn. “He is not admiring the manicured garden—he salutes the explosion of blooms, the arc of a branch, the patterns, folds and shadows. Every moment in the garden gives me a new experience—a new insect humming or a leaf to taste or even the shock of defeat when plants die or pests invade. It’s primal and beautiful, and it’s everywhere.” This explosion of nature is evident again and again in Bonnard’s Worlds and in our own city.

THEARC Farm

In celebration of Vaughn and Bonnard’s shared love for the savage beauty of nature, the Bonnard Salon will be conducting a Nature Walk of Dupont Circle on Friday, May 24 from 12-1 pm. This special program will have us step out from the gardens painted by Pierre Bonnard and into the neighborhood around the museum, admiring the gardens planted by our neighbors. Together we will channel Bonnard’s eye for color and wild beauty as we learn to spot the joy of unmanicured gardens. Learn more and register (very few spots remaining!) at https://www.phillipscollection.org/event/2024-05-24-bonnard-salon.

In addition to showing just how impactful Pierre Bonnard has been to generations of artists and nature lovers, this program also highlights some of the exciting fruits of The Phillips Collection’s partnership with Building Bridges Across the River, the founding organization of THEARC, where the Phillips has a satellite campus. To learn more about THEARC Farm, visit their website, and check out their calendar of events for opportunities to garden and grow East of the River.

The Art of the Journal: Pierre Bonnard and Jenni Bick

Public Programming Intern Erich Brubaker on Bonnard Salon workshop host Jenni Bick and Bonnard’s relationship with journaling.

Local business owner Jenni Bick definitely has one thing in common with French painter Pierre Bonnard: they both love a good journal.

“I am captivated by notebooks of all kinds,” Jenni says. “To me they are a blank slate for us to record and reflect on ourselves and our experiences. The blank pages of a notebook are there to gather and contain our inner world – the ideas, images, data points, and notes that make up the story of our lives.” Jenni started making custom journals in 1991, and has been running her own store, Jenni Bick Journals, just down Connecticut Avenue from the Phillips, since 2017. In her store, you will find every journal and notebook is carefully chosen and crafted to help you fulfill your potential. While she imports gorgeous books from places like Japan and Italy, she also crafts journals entirely by hand, sewing and binding books together from start to finish.

Left to right: Founder Jenni Bick and her husband, Robby. Sewing pages of a handmade journal. Photos courtesy of jennibick.com

It is easy to imagine that Pierre Bonnard might have loved Jenni’s shop and agreed with her views of notebooks. In his lifetime, he filled various journals, sketchbooks, and diaries with the story of his life and his creative process, documenting daily weather conditions, musings about art, and sketches of people and things he encountered in his frequent walks: the inner and outer world that Jenni is also interested in, and the theme of the exhibition Bonnard’s Worlds.

Entries from Pierre Bonnard’s Journals, 1931. From an exhibition catalog for The Phillips Collection and Dallas Museum of Art, published by Thames and Hudson in 1984

Inspired by Bonnard’s intensive note-taking practice, Jenni Bick led a workshop on April 26 in the Phillips’s Art Workshop for a hands-on introduction to basic bookbinding techniques. Participants made their own small blank book for notetaking or sketching to take out into the world to write their own story and capture the world around them.

Jenni Bick leading the Bonnard’s Journals Workshop in the Phillips’s Art Workshop

This inspiring workshop was a part of the Bonnard Salon, a space that details Bonnard’s history with the Phillips and also hosts weekly talks and workshops for participants to engage with the themes of Bonnard’s Worlds. Join us for the May 24 Bonnard Salon workshop that entails a nature walk around the Dupont neighborhood with Carrie Vaughn, and the May 31 workshop about wildflower arrangement with Karen Massalley.

And, learn more about Jenni Bick Journals at https://www.jennibick.com/pages/about-us. Be sure to visit her just down the street from the Phillips on Connecticut Avenue NW, and pick up your next beautiful journal to capture your untapped potential.