Part “The Moth,” part art and music exhibition, Artist Talk Pittsburgh provides a space for creatives to showcase their artistry and discuss the unique mental health challenges they face, in a supportive, uplifting environment.
“Let’s talk about it,” says series founder and East Liberty native, Sydney Davis. “I think that conversation is the only way we’re going to overcome this, to have artists come up and tell other people the struggles they’re going through, so maybe they can have that moment of, “Oh, ok, so other people are going through that. It’s ok that I’m feeling this way today.”
Davis is also the founder of Niplids, a line of nipple-printed hats, 20% of the proceeds from which benefit The Young Women’s Breast Cancer Awareness Foundation. The project started as a way for Davis to support her godmother, who lost her hair during chemotherapy for breast cancer. (She has since recovered.)
This month’s Artist Talk lineup includes a live painting demonstration, live music, and creator-led discussions centered around mental health. Steel Smiling and Hope For The Day will be on hand to provide access to information for mental health treatment options. Her goal is to have Artist Talk grow into a full-fledged, SXSW-style festival devoted to mental health. For now, she’s focused on inspiring courage in others.
“It takes a tremendous amount of strength to wake up and pursue your dreams and consistently be like, I’m still going to try to do this, even when things get hard,” says Davis. “I have so much admiration for people that do that, and I just wanted to put everybody in a room where we feel safe to have that conversation.”
The Independent caught up with Sydney in advance of the event.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
PGH Independent: You worked in finance for a minute before you turned to art full-time. Can you tell me about that? What inspired you to say “forget it,” and just go all in with your passion.
Sydney Davis: I worked at First National Bank for a while, then I went to Citizens and did personal loans and mortgage loans. Wealth management. I accomplished all these things, and I was like, this isn’t what I want to do at all!
Niplids is what threw me into the art world and put me on a level where I was like, ok, let me pursue entrepreneurship in some sense. I’ve always painted, my artwork has mostly just been for me most of my life. And then I started doing Niplids, and that started to take off, and a lot of people started to support the brand.
I think it’s that confidence of seeing Niplids take off is what pushed me into entrepreneurship, because I was like, oh, I don’t have to work a 9 to 5 job my whole life! I could do something I actually like to do and I could be artistic and creative. So I think I really just fell in love with that side, and that really built my confidence up to where about two years ago decided to leave the company that I was at, and I pursued Niplids full-time and moved to California.
SD: It was very impulsive.
PI: Wait, so how old are you? I feel like a lot of people, it takes them until their forties or fifties to realize, oh, I don’t like my career in finance. I should pursue my passion. This happened to you…
SD: I’m 28
PI: So you were like, 26, when, I wouldn’t call it a midlife crisis, but you made that switch.
SD: Yeah. I was like, ok, that’s enough of this. In Cali, I was blessed enough to not have to work other places and just pursue Niplids. I pretty much did pop-ups every weekend, Friday-Saturday-Sunday, and just grinded whenever there were opportunities to sell my stuff. It was a great opportunity for me to move at that time.
PI: What’s the initial reaction people have? I mean, this is like, your nipple, right? So how do people react when they first find that out, and tell me how that evolves once they find out what’s going on with the brand.
SD: I was literally just talking to my friend about this. First off, when people come and they look at my hat, nobody knows what it is unless I tell them. So I like to play the game of like, what do you think it is? It’s open to interpretation. People will tell me all types of stuff: Oh, is it a flower? Is it a rose? I see a ghost. Everybody sees something different.
And so I always like to pick people’s brains and then I’ll tell them what it is. And honestly, it’s a spectrum of reactions. Some people are like, oh, boobs! And then some people are like, oh, that’s very empowering. And when I tell them what it is, people are so vulnerable with me. I’ll just be on the side of the road selling hats, and then in 2 seconds somebody is telling me, you know, about their mom who passed away from breast cancer, and we’re both sobbing and having a moment, and I didn’t even know who this person was 2 seconds ago! Yeah. So it’s really beautiful when it’s that experience, to be honest.
PI: Tell me how Artist Talk got started during Covid.
SD: I was coming back and forth between Pittsburgh and Cali and I was talking to a lot of my friends that I met through the artist community here, people I have been friends with for quite some time, and everybody was saying the same thing: thinking they were the only person going through it. Everybody was like, hey, I feel so isolated and I feel depression and anxiety. I’ve been in the house for a week. Just hearing all these different concerns, all these stresses.
A lot of my friends depended on their artwork to survive. People are losing their jobs and they don’t have money to pour into the arts or maybe to support their friends. And so a lot of my friends were like losing houses or not knowing how they were going to pay their bills next month. That takes a toll on your mental health when you’re constantly under this extreme stress. And I think I realized in that moment, talking to a lot of my friends that the only way to crack that is to have a conversation and take away the stigma of us talking about our mental health.