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Maltby Sykes: A Witness to His Time

Born in Aberdeen, Mississippi, artist Maltby Sykes (American, 1911–1992) grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. While he always considered the South his home, Sykes travelled extensively to places such as Europe, Japan, and Mexico and these trips influenced his work greatly. Sykes’ formative experiences of working as an assistant to Diego Rivera on a mural for the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City in 1936, and interacting with printmaker George C. Miller in New York, provoked a shift in his style from realism to semi-abstraction and abstraction, and in technique, from painting to printmaking.

In fact, printmaking, and specifically lithography, became a lifelong passion for the artist, and one that he would share with many others. After returning to his teaching appointment at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) following his stint as an Air Force combat artist in WWII, Sykes began a printmaking program at the school. This program allowed Sykes to experiment with different printmaking technologies including adapting commercial lithographic processes for art making. This type of creative thinking and use of alternative approaches is also inherent in Sykes’ approach to his art.

In 1983 the artist donated a large number of works of art to the MMFA. A selection of works from this collection illustrates the arc of Sykes’ career in printmaking. From realism to abstraction, Sykes’s imagery follows a trajectory, illustrating was happening in art and in the world around him. Sykes not only embodies what it means to be a modernist, but also his art reflects the changes that occur over a lifetime, proving that he was indeed a witness to his time.

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