National Center of Afro-American Artists

Lawrence Sykes Collection

Who are we?
Detail from: Who are we?
As a teenager in Baltimore, Lawrence Sykes discovered his love of photography, which initially he combined with sports, his other passion. Mr. Sykes, who became an accomplished athlete before choosing photography, art, and teaching as his life’s path.

“The amazing Larry Sykes, a professor to many and a mentor to most, crosses the intellectual landscape through powerful images, haunting experiences and an ironclad sense for historic perspective,” Angelo Marinosci Jr., an art critic and photographer. Though Mr. Sykes had started out shooting more traditional photographs, he began taking the medium into different realms. He merged images from more than one negative into a single finished photo years before digital photography and software such as Adobe Photoshop made doing so much easier. Eventually, he began incorporating painting and drawing into composite pieces of art he called “conjurgraphs.” Program notes for Mr. Sykes’s 2009 exhibition at Gallery Z in Providence, RI, described his work as including “multi-layered photographic constructions that engage us with their different textures, variations in scale and blend of landscape and symbolism.“

Mr. Sykes described his approach to creating assemblages by explaining that “our odysseys on spaceship earth carry us to far places — by foot, flight, float, or thought. ” His description refers “to how we as individuals take inventory of our personal journeys, one heartbeat at a time; how the evidence of our routes can be found in the clues and marks we leave behind,” according to the exhibit’s program notes. “It is through this deeply introspective journey that Sykes is able to present us with such compelling visual narratives that at once place him in the role of photographer, archaeologist, and material culturalist,” said Gallery Z Owner, Berge Ara Zobian.

The third of four siblings, Lawrence Francis Sykes was born in Decatur, Ala., on Sept. 10, 1931. His mother, Alice West, had been a schoolteacher before marrying and becoming a homemaker. His father, Dr. Frank J. Sykes, had been a successful pitcher in the Negro Leagues — nicknamed Doc because of his degree in dentistry, which he later practiced after moving his family to Baltimore. He initially played basketball in Baltimore for what was then Morgan State College, a historically Black college, before transferring to Long Island University. While doing so, he married Barbara Joanne Swann in 1954, who he met as Long Island University while he completed his undergraduate degree and a master’s at Pratt Institute in New York City. Professor Sykes taught in New York City Schools and at Morgan State College before joining the Rhode Island College faculty in 1967, where he developed the school’s photography concentration prior to retiring in 1995 and moving to Boston.

His curiosity prompted him “to travel the world, and particularly the African diaspora — to explore places where Black people live and how they lived, and wanting to experience how they lived,” she said. “When other people might want to go to hotels and five-star restaurants, he would want to be eating outside from the street vendors, observing the lives the residents lived,” according to his sister Alice Sykes.

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