Detroit artist adds softer, spiritual touch to multi-story mural off Prior and University in St. Paul

15 July 2023

Just north of University and Prior avenues in St. Paul, visual artist Sydney James put the finishing touches Thursday on a mural roughly 20 feet tall covering the entire exterior side wall of the Northern Salt Incorporated building, an unlikely canvas for a spiritual meditation on youth, death, water and grieving.

Previously banal, the wall — which faces the parking lot of the Menards home improvement store — now forms a warmer, softer gateway to the neighborhood’s industrial district.

Detroit-based artist Sydney James, left, with the help of Twin Cities artist Sharon Liu, works on her ‘”Sometimes Water Keeps You Grounded” mural at the Northern Salt Incorporated building in St. Paul on Thursday, July 13, 2023.  (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

“Sometimes Water Keeps You Grounded” depicts a young girl — James said she drew on the composite “essence” of a Dakota girl, though her own identity as a Black woman pokes through — against the backdrop of Lake Superior, rendered abstractly.

James, of Detroit, spent the week rendering “Sometimes Water Keeps You Grounded” as part of the Chroma Zone Mural and Art Festival, which officially returns to St. Paul’s Creative Enterprise Zone on Sept. 14 to Sept. 16. Several muralists have already begun or even completed their works in advance of the festival, which draws both local and national talent to the streets near Raymond and University avenues to decorate commercial buildings with multi-story murals.

Upwards of 44 murals now decorate the “CEZ” district, much of them within the industrial area north of University Avenue.

The multi-color lake in the girl’s shadow was painted by Twin Cities artist Sharon Liu in homage to “Lake Superior Landscape,” a famed painting by Ojibwe artist George Morrison, a Minnesota painter and sculptor who died in 2000.

While James is an experienced muralist, Liu said this was her first time assisting with a mural project, and she initially expected to help out here and there as needed, only to be happily taken aback after James encouraged her to board a lift reaching some 15 feet in the air and channel the essence of Lake Superior.

Liu, originally from Shanghai, said Thursday that she plans to open her own art studio — “Artlet 26” — at 2327 Wycliff St. in early September, during the Chroma Zone Festival. She’ll focus on art classes for young people ages 6 to 16, as well as hosting art happenings for special events such as birthdays.

James said the whimsical, almost cartoonish t-shirt worn by the girl in her mural is homage to the Mississippi-bred street artist known as Birdcap, whose mother hailed from St. Paul. After her death, Birdcap swam in bayous “as a release, the grieving process,” which in part forms inspiration for the mural’s title.

More information about the Chroma Zone Festival is online at

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