Sydney Harrington sits alone, tucked away into a corner at Ross House Coffee. On the wall is her shadow, a dark outline void of all color, a shape that she says holds in all her pain and rarely sees the light. It lurks behind her but is always there. It’s where her art lies.
“You have to do something with the negative emotions that you feel,” said Harrington, the 21-year-old Auburn senior in Art. “You can’t just bottle it up, and I don’t like talking about it, so I like to paint, but I love color, too. There’s an irony in the painting. It’s dark, but it’s also bright and beautiful.”
In August, Harrington brought darkness and beauty together in her first mural. On a brick wall in Birmingham, Alabama, prominently placed for all to see, she painted a vibrant tribute to her late soccer coach, Ken Headley, who passed away in early 2019 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
A clash of blues, reds and yellows come together to form a stage that reveals what her coach did best: inspire youth on the soccer field. There, on the painted luscious green pitch, ripping out of the colored backdrop is coach Headley with a smile on his face surrounded by young players. In the bottom left corner, the quote, “Coach me and I will learn. Challenge me, and I will grow. Believe in me, and I will win,” proudly shines in white, encapsulating everything Headley did in his 15 years with the soccer club.
Headley was Harrington’s first club soccer coach when she was 14. She recalled being “overwhelmed with gratitude” when she was contacted to do the mural. Immediately all her feelings toward Headley rushed back to her.
“He was such a great man,” Harrington said. “Every day he’d come to practice with a smile on his face. If it was a tough day, he’d explain how it wouldn’t ruin his day.”
Here, encompassing half of a brick wall in her hometown, her art was able to memorialize a man that made an impact on her life. It is an expression of grief that is entirely her own but for everyone to share.
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This is how Harrington got into painting in the first place.
BIn between sips of black coffee, Harrington recounted her time as a high school freshman who used art as an outlet for the new tumultuous feelings that began to weigh on her. Shadows riddled her works as she explored the depths of darkness to find beauty.
“She didn’t tiptoe around delivering her message,” said Nicole Mckinney, Harrington’s freshman art teacher at Oak Mountain High School.
Harrington, who isn’t the type of person to talk openly about all of her emotions, uses her painting as a self-exploration. Every stroke is a plunge deep into her self-conscious, leaving the canvas as a visual representation of her feelings.
So when a high school classmate of hers tragically died in a car crash, she did what she always did; she painted and explored the depths of her emotions.
Once she finished, she left the painting on the grieving parents’ doorstep, and she witnessed how much comfort her art could bring.
“It’s a way to build a relationship with people that are hurting,” Harrington said. “Instead of holding them and asking if they’re “OK,” it’s like I’m going to make this for the person you love.”
Three years later, tribute paintings have become Harrington’s calling card. She said people felt how emotional her works were and began commissioning her to memorialize their loved ones.
In September, Auburn University fraternity Sigma Chi called on her to paint a mural of Rod and Paula Bramblett, who died earlier this year in a car accident.
Rod Bramblett was the announcer for the Auburn Tigers and over the years became a pillar of the community.
Students and residents alike mourned his death.
Harrington was able to channel this city-wide grief into her painting and came away with what she saw as a fitting tribute. The work, which features the faces of both the Bramblett’s surrounded by Rod’s most famous calls, was prominently displayed in between the pillars of the Sigma Chi house.
Every tribute is “special,” said the up-and-coming painter. She has spent hours alone in the studio trying to get all the details perfect for paying her respects properly.
Sometimes, she’d wonder if those that she painted looked down on her, assessing the choices she’s made.
“When you paint a face, you have a connection to that face that no one else has because you’re seeing every outline, where their bone meets, everything,” Harrington said. “You’re studying it intensely for hours, so you feel this bond with that person.”
No matter the piece, Harrington has always thrown herself into the painting. That’s what Mckinney saw in her even when she first started painting. She was always ready to complete the task in front of her and ready to completely buy-in.
Harrington’s hazel eyes sparkled when she talked about her process of getting lost in paintings, describing the feeling as “like a trance.”
Regularly, she’d be in the studio working on three paintings at a time, letting her feelings dictate what to touch up next. There’s no thought involved, just her exploring every emotion.
When continually dealing with death though, that emotion is often grief.
Sometimes that means lighting up the omnipresent shadow of grief with color and letting the viewer see the subject as happy as ever, as she did with her tribute to Headley.
Other times it’s keeping the tone dark and finding beauty in the resolution of life. According to Harrington, channeling the pain she feels makes it easier to paint, but each time it takes a toll. That struggle is always present in her works.
“She sees a lot of pain in the world. She’s able to illustrate it in a really beautiful way,” said Julie Anne Doris, a close friend of Harrington’s. “A lot of times it can alleviate the pain when you can see the darkness in such a cool way that she paints.”
Pain is always lurking around Harrington. She carries it with her every day and everywhere she goes.
It follows her always. As she sits in the coffee shop, her shadow flickering on the wall to the right, the tattoo on her left wrist is visible, an unfinished circle. It’s a reminder that everything around her is unfinished, including the people.
Her art and feelings are ever-evolving. This is what she wants to give to the world.
“I’m just figuring myself out like everyone else is,” Harrington said. “These are some of the things I feel. I want people to look at it, and maybe they don’t know exactly what it’s about, but they feel it in their own way.”
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