Mr. Sykes, who became an accomplished athlete before choosing photography, art, and teaching as his life’s path, died Sept. 22 in his Jamaica Plain home of complications from dementia. He had turned 89 earlier in the month.
“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, wrote about Mr. Sykes in notes used for a 2009 show at Gallery Z in Providence titled “Ancient Timeless Shores: Photo Constructives by Lawrence Sykes.”
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.
A 1977 exhibition of his work at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists in Boston was called “Conjurgraphs, Conjuforms, and Images.”
“His work was so delicate, a lot of montage, assemblage art,” said Berge Ara Zobian, a photographer who had been a Rhode Island College student of Mr. Sykes and in recent years exhibited his mentor’s work at Gallery Z in Providence.
“He always had a new dimension, a new way, a cutting edge,” Zobian added. “It was always, to say the least, creative.”
Program notes for Mr. Sykes’s 2009 exhibition at the gallery 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.”
Using hyphens to add emphasis to Mr. Sykes’s descriptive word for his artworks, Marinosci wrote that “with the wisdom of a cunning shaman, the artist will take you through a personalized journey with his constructions and con-jur-graphs.”
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.
Lawrence Sykes was descended from slaves and slave owners. His great-grandfather, Dr. Frank W. Sykes, received as a wedding present a young Black slave named Laura upon marrying the daughter of a wealthy slave owner.
Frank W. Sykes and his white wife, Elizabeth, had five children, and he and Laura had six children, according to research by the Sykes family. Among Laura’s children was Solomon Sykes — one of Lawrence’s grandfathers.
That meant Lawrence’s great-grandfather Frank had owned his grandfather Solomon, who was born into slavery.
When Lawrence Sykes was a boy, his parents moved to Baltimore, where he grew to 6 foot 8 and became a standout basketball player. He graduated from Dunbar High School, which was named for the Black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and in those years was a segregated school for Black students.
He initially played basketball in Baltimore for what was then Morgan State College, a historically Black college, before transferring to Long Island University, where he was a reserve center.
When injuries prompted him to reconsider a future in basketball, he returned to Morgan State to finish a bachelor’s degree in art education.
While doing so, he married Barbara Joanne Swann in 1954. They had met as Long Island University students and she was a teacher while he completed his undergraduate degree and a master’s at Pratt Institute in New York City.
Mr. Sykes taught in New York City schools and at Morgan State before joining the Rhode Island College faculty in 1967, according to the profile in The Review. He developed the school’s photography concentration and retired in 1995.
Also a painter, he worked in a style “best described by a canvas that hangs in his living room,” the profile noted. “It is an enormous rectangle of turbulent color. Greens, blues, purples, and shades between blend to portray the violence of nature in an impressionistic style.”
His journeys seeking photography subjects took him around the world, including to Haiti and Africa.
“His travels fed his imagination and changed what he did,” said his son, Kirk Sykes of Jamaica Plain.
In his creative life, Mr. Sykes had “a fascination with things that were a part of our heritage from Africa,” said his sister, Alice Sykes of Hyattsville, Md.
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.”
In addition to his wife, son, and sister, Mr. Sykes leaves a brother, Charles Sykes of Reston, Va., and five grandchildren.
His immediate family held an online gathering to celebrate his life, and an exhibition of Mr. Sykes’s work, with photographs and artwork from his 70-year career, will be announced.
Though he had struggled with dementia, he rallied when his family brought him home from a memory care facility at the beginning of the pandemic.
“For the first month or so he started sketching again and it was really amazing,” Kirk said. “While he wasn’t traveling the world, he was still thinking about the world and still living his global memories, which was kind of reassuring in some ways. You don’t lose everything. You just go deeper into your memories.”
Kirk said the memorial retrospective the family plans to exhibit, once pandemic restrictions on the size of gatherings are loosened, will draw from his father’s many journeys, including to Eritrea, in northeast Africa, to Ghana, where he had also taught in the 1970s.
In all those photos, Mr. Sykes’s presence remains strong.
“It’s like he’s still with us in the work,” Kirk said.
Bryan Marquard can be reached at [email protected]