William Paul Maltby Sykes was born in Aberdeen, Mississippi on December 13, 1911, but was raised in Birmingham, Alabama. Sykes encountered his first professional artist, sculptor Gutzon Borglum, while visiting family friends in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Sykes was in his early teens and was very impressed by the respect that Borglum (who later designed Mount Rushmore) demanded. From this early age, Sykes decided to dedicate his life to becoming an artist.
After completing high school in Tuscaloosa, Sykes returned to Birmingham where he met Wayman Adams, the well-known portraitist. The following summer Sykes attended Adams’ art school in Elizabethtown, New York and worked as a clerk in exchange for instruction. The two men formed a strong student-teacher friendship, and Adams suggested that Sykes use the name Maltby, instead of William, because it was more unique. In Elizabethtown, Sykes also met printmaker George C. Miller. Sykes was immediately drawn to the process of lithography. Impressed with his young pupil, Miller offered Sykes a letter of introduction to Diego Rivera when he learned Sykes would be traveling with Adams to Mexico that winter. The following year Rivera invited Sykes to work as an assistant for the mural at the Hotel Reforma in Mexico City.
In 1937, Sykes returned to the Northeast and continued to study with Miller and Adams. He painted a mural for a hotel in New Jersey, exhibited paintings at the Ferargil Galleries, and studied with John Sloan at the Art Students League during this time. Sykes soon returned to the South and accepted a teaching position at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) in 1941. With the outbreak of WWII, Sykes halted his teaching and joined the Air Force. In 1945 Sykes was sent to the Pacific where he worked as a military artist recording scenes from the recently secured Mariana Islands. Sykes also produced three lithographs chronicling his basic training, including Chow (1944).
In the fall of 1945, Sykes resumed his teaching at Auburn. Through his friendship with Miller, he was able to secure rare printmaking supplies for his students and himself. After purchasing a printing press in 1950, Sykes introduced a printmaking class into the school’s art curriculum. In 1951, he traveled to Paris on the G.I. Bill and studied with Fernand Léger. Sykes also met with intaglio printmaker Stanley William Hayter on this trip, who taught that the direction of the composition should be dictated by the materials and the process of the printmaking, rather than the more traditional approach of manipulating the materials to create a desired image. This surrealist-inspired method and Léger’s geometric abstractions shaped the direction that Sykes would take in the coming years. Returning to Paris two years later, he studied with André Lhote, furthering his move towards nonrepresentation.
Sykes became Auburn’s first artist-in-residence in 1967. The following year, Sykes traveled with a group of students to Japan to study traditional Japanese printmaking. He spent summers with his wife in Booth Bay, Maine and produced abstractions based on forms from the environment there. In 1977, Sykes retired from the Auburn faculty and was named Professor Emeritus. He exhibited his work widely and notable institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art purchased his prints for their collections. He suffered a heart attack in 1979 that, unfortunately, brought his prolific career to an abrupt halt. Late in life, he credited the act of teaching with giving him the drive to investigate new and modern ideas. He said, “I feel I would have missed something if I had never started to approach art from a cerebral as well as a retinal concept. So the big influence, I think on my life was just getting into teaching.” Throughout the course of his career, Sykes helped turn printmaking into a legitimate art form of its own, not simply a method of copying. He died in 1992 when he was eighty years old.