Born in 1924 and raised in Amityville, New York, on Long Island’s south shore, Richard Mayhew’s passion for painting was sparked by watching the artists who summered in the environs of Amityville and painted its scenic shoreline. Inspired by these artists, young Mayhew used brushes and paints from his father’s sign painting business to copy what the artists were doing. When Richard Mayhew was 14 years old, one of the artists recognized the young man’s talent and taught him the fundamentals of drawing and painting. Throughout his teenage years, Richard Mayhew made several trips into New York City to study the works of the European and American masters on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. By age 17, he had made up his mind to become an artist.
For Richard Mayhew, the essence of reality is more important than its facts. His landscape paintings aren’t the facts of a landscape but the spirit of a landscape. That spirit shimmers through a haze saturated with color.
His emotional and spiritual connection to the natural world has its roots in his African American and Native American ancestry: his father was African American and Shinnecock; his mother, African American and Cherokee. During his boyhood, his paternal grandmother schooled Mayhew in the Native Americans’ kinship with the earth, their relationship to the earth’s spirits.
Richard Mayhew moved to New York in 1951, a crucial period in American art history. Abstract Expressionism, the first truly homegrown American art movement, was electrifying the public, igniting passionate discussions among the cognoscenti about what constitutes art in the first place and what is its purpose in the public realm. Richard Mayhew, now a student at the Brooklyn Museum’s school of art, with additional courses at Pratt Institute and Columbia, thrived in this fevered environment. The painterly freedom of the Abstract Expressionists had a profound influence on Richard Mayhew, opening his canvases to the wild essence of being that was in kinship with the spirituality of his heritage.
Critical notice came quickly. Mayhew had his first solo show in 1955 at the Brooklyn Museum. In 1959, he won the John Hay Whitney Fellowship, which funded a year of studies at the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Florence. A subsequent grant from the Ford Foundation allowed him to remain in Europe after his training. His exposure to the rich history of European art further expanded his vision. He was particularly excited by the French Impressionists, whose experiments with light and color would inform Richard Mayhew’s landscapes.
When Mayhew returned to New York in 1962, the city and much of America was in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement. Many artists, especially African American artists, involved themselves in the struggle. In 1963, he joined Spiral, a group formed by Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Norman Lewis and Hale Woodruff, to discuss the role of African American artists in the political and cultural landscape of America. Though Richard Mayhew was an active participant in Spiral and the Civil Rights struggle, his art, unlike that of his Spiral colleagues, was not grounded in African American themes. He remained true to his pursuit of transcendence through the spirituality of the landscapes he portrayed.
Richard Mayhew is equally respected as an educator. He has taught at the Brooklyn Museum, the Art Students League, Smith College, and Pennsylvania State University, where he retired as Professor Emeritus in 1991 after 14 years at the school. During his Penn State years, Mayhew travelled across America. He was deeply affected by the color, shapes, drama and spirituality of the American west. Upon his retirement from teaching, Richard Mayhew and his wife moved to Santa Cruz, California, where he continues to paint.
In addition to the Whitney and Ford grants, Richard Mayhew has been the recipient of several honors and awards including the Ingram Merrill Foundation Award, Tiffany Foundation Award, a National Institutes of Arts and Letters grant, the Childe Hassam Purchase Award, the National Academy of Design Merit Award and the Grumbacher Gold Medal. His work is represented in major collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Los Angeles County Museum, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among others.
References: The Art of Richard Mayhew. Museum of the Diaspora, San Francisco, CA, 2009.