The Interior Life of Sydney Vernon

Sydney Vernon: Interior Lives is currently on view  at Phillips@THEARC. The Phillips Collection Fellow Arianna Adade met with the artist to talk about her practice.

Sydney Vernon at her exhibition opening, Photo: AK Blythe

Hailing from the arts-driven Prince George’s Country, Maryland, Sydney Vernon can trace her connection to art back to her childhood. Coming from a family of diverse artists, Vernon’s path to artistry is not unexpected. From the age of four, Vernon attended Thomas G. Pullen Creative and Performing Arts School and later Suitland High School, enriching herself in an array of fine and performing arts. Vernon’s artistic talent grew with the influence of art styles such as Les Nabis and Pierre Bonnard, but her beginnings in art begin with her mother, a fashion designer.  Vernon first learned to draw through fashion illustration, tracing over her mother’s drawings and designing clothing for dolls to wear.

Sydney Vernon’s mother, Photo courtesy of Sydney Vernon

Sydney Vernon, Hide and Seek, 2024

Vernon relocated to New York at the age of 21 to pursue her bachelor’s degree at The Cooper Union. Being far from home, she used the distance as a way to explore ways to connect her artistry to her family. Over the last five years, Vernon has crafted layers to her family’s mementos, piecing together oral histories of her lineage.

Items from Sydney Vernon’s person archives, on view in the exhibition, Photo: AK Blythe

What started from a place of homesickness quickly blossomed into an intimate familial research practice. As Vernon discovered more about her family’s history and collected scans of family photos, she also reconnected with cousins, passing stories with one another.

Lugarry Vernon and Doreen Marrow, Photo Courtesy of Sydney Vernon

Visitors looking at Sydney Vernon’s The Real Thing Strange, 2023, at the exhibition opening. Photo: AK Blythe

Vernon’s work is distinguished by her unique approach to reinterpreting the positions and postures of the people seen in her archival family photographs. Through her creative lens, she beautifully combines personal recollections and accounts with broader historical and cultural perspectives, such as the Black femme experience. Vernon’s works show that she is not only a visual artist but also a collector of memories that span time, encouraging viewers to consider the connection between individual memory and ancestral heritage.

The Misunderstood Genius of Vincent Van Gogh

Marketing and Communication Detail Summer Roshni Bhullar reflects on her favorite artist in the collection.

I would like us to take a walk in Vincent van Gogh’s shoes and try to see the world through his eyes for a few brief moments. Imagine you are Van Gogh—the artist, son, brother, lover, genius, and so much more. Now picture being in a mental asylum, thought of by everybody—including yourself—as being mentally unstable. How would it make you feel?

Yellow is the most visible color of the spectrum. It is cheerful, alive, vibrant—it depicts light and, most importantly, our sun. The love of sunflowers is a desire to capture the warmth and light of the sun. As artist Wassily Kandinsky said, “Color is a power which directly influences the soul.” Yellow wakes up the brain and is associated with feelings deeper than happiness. So why would someone be obsessed with sunflowers? Yes, they are bright and beautiful, but there seems to be something deeper than the aesthetics of this flower that drew Van Gogh to paint them repeatedly.

Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1949.

Vincent van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Acquired 1949.

Before he was born, his parents had a stillborn who was to be named Vincent. Hence, he started his journey feeling like a replacement, like a shadow of the eldest child that could have been. Before he became an artist, Van Gogh lived in many different cities and did many jobs. He decided to become an artist in the last decade of his life and his nomadic lifestyle continued. He had a Christian upbringing and also tried to become a preacher. His beliefs evolved throughout his life.

He was on a constant quest for something, in search of answers to his questions. He tried to answer his questions through religion, through his travels, through relationships, and through his art. But he always came up short. He left religion, relationships never worked, and art never gave him success. The one person he had the strongest and the closest bond with was his brother, Theo. Even though his brother loved him and was his biggest supporter and confidant, Vincent was still left wanting for more in life. Maybe his “more” was his unanswered questions, a cure for his loneliness, or success in his art. Or maybe his “more” was a desire to be understood.

Vincent Van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889, Oil on canvas, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

When we look at his artistic career and all the art he has created, we can see his genius reflected in it. He wrote hundreds of letters during his life and was also good with words. Yet he felt something was missing. Throughout history many famous people have been posthumously understood and given recognition. What about those moments of painting and creativity, which they spend alone? What must go on in their heart and mind? Isn’t it human nature to want to share? Isn’t it human nature to want to be understood?

As the body needs food, the genius needs and wants to be understood. Throughout his life, we see a constant search for it and a constant lack of being fulfilled. Because of this—because his mind was not nourished with understanding—he started to doubt himself, to question his own sanity. Imagine someone born with a special genius ability trying to articulate their world. The first step would be acceptance of the genius from the person themselves and then others. As an artist who tries to articulate with words and colors, I feel that Vincent Van Gogh was a misunderstood genius labeled as mentally ill. His circumstances led him to break down.

His love for sunflowers showed his search for light within and without. He could not find what he was searching for, and eventually gave up his quest for light.

Dissecting the “A” in DEAI

DEAI Intern Anissa Santos on the need for resources for museum guests on the autism spectrum or guests that have sensory sensitivities.

Family visiting The Phillips Collection

As the principles of Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion are becoming more commonplace and promoted within museum spaces and other institutions, The Phillips Collection has been committed to actively pursuing and implementing these principles into its institution and galleries. As the Spring 2024 DEAI intern, I have gravitated toward projects that are focused on the accessibility aspect of DEAI.

When most institutions think of accessibility, they usually accommodate for physical disabilities, particularly visible disabilities. While ADA compliance is often associated with accessible buildings, screen captioning, and general accommodations, what about comfortability? For many visitors on the autism spectrum and have sensory sensitivities, their needs tend to be overlooked because there is nothing inherently prohibiting them from entering museums and adjusting their experience for themselves.

In actuality, there are many reasons why those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and sensory sensitivities, along with their families, choose not to visit museums. Crowds, lighting, sound, overstimulation, lack of tactile experiences, and lack of awareness among staff are all potential barriers to this demographic of visitors. In fact, a 2016 study showcased that “parents of children on the autism spectrum reported experiencing three times the amount of negative emotions associated with museums compared to parents with non‐autistic children.”[1]

Families with autistic members in both the US and UK have been vocal about their needs, and as a result, we are seeing an increase in resources in Western museums. Some of these resources and changes include the creation of social stories, sensory maps, tactile backpacks, private early morning hours, staff training, and tailored programming. While not all museums may have the capacity to provide all these resources, the Phillips’s DEAI team and I are hoping to pilot a few resources this spring.

Some of the projects I have been working on with the amazing help and assistance of the DEAI, Education, and Security departments include the development of sensory maps, tactile experiences, and a sensory bag resource. It has been amazing to hear a plethora of ideas from all departments and their personal experiences and connections to these communities.

Some may ask why pilot these new initiatives if no one has “complained” about their absence. Others may argue that these resources are not a necessity for this community. Research proves otherwise. In 2020, among 8-year-olds in the United States, 1 in 36 have autism and there has also reportedly been a rise in the rate of autism cases within Black and Hispanic communities.[2] In DC, 16% of kids ages 3-21 were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act during the 2021-22 school year.[3]

Individuals with autism and other disabilities deserve to have museum experiences. If the Phillips makes an active and genuine effort to provide this community with the necessary support to thrive in our galleries, who knows how many more people and families will feel welcome enough to decide to visit? It truly takes a village to make positive change happen, and I am optimistic about the future of these projects. DEAI is not about waiting for someone to request a change but rather constantly advocating for change on behalf of these communities.




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