In March 2019, Dr. Bridget Cooks and I had the pleasure of conducting a series of oral history interviews with artist and educator Richard Mayhew for the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative. Mayhew’s most recognizable work includes paintings of abstract and brightly-colored landscapes—what he calls mindscapes.
Richard Mayhew is a painter, as well as a retired professor of art. He was born on Long Island, New York, and displayed an early interest in art. He studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, the Art Students League of New York, the Pratt Institute, and Columbia University. Mayhew received a John Hay Whitney Fellowship in 1958 to live and study in Europe in the early 1960s. He joined Spiral in 1963 and was a member of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC). Mayhew has taught at many universities and art institutions, including Hunter College, Pennsylvania State University, San José State University, Sonoma State University, and University of California Santa Cruz.
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Mayhew’s interview detailed his incredible life and inventive work, as well as his deep connections to communities of artists across the country, and indeed across generations. For instance, Mayhew was a member of a group of Black artists called Spiral, which met to discuss both their work and their connection to the Civil Rights Movement. Spiral started in 1963 at the urging of A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters to “form a contingent of artists for the March on Washington” that same year.
Mayhew recalls that “the original group of elders” in Spiral included Charles Alson, Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, Felrath Hines, and Hale Woodruff. But this soon became an intergenerational group. In speaking about the formation of Spiral, Mayhew also remembers its network of visual and performing artists across the country:
“But also, [A.] Philip Randolph wanted not just the visual artists, he wanted all African American artists that wouldn’t be in the New York area. So we called the artists in Missouri and Chicago and also Los Angeles about this idea that Philip Randolph wanted a contingent of artists. So they made contact with them over there. We didn’t have all the people together, so Ralph Ellison came there and he was talking about—I don’t remember all the names now of the composers, and also directors of the theaters in New York which were Afro-American. That was part of the idea, the contingent not just be the visual artists, but all the areas of arts in that area.”
Another unique aspect of this interview was Mayhew’s reflection on his African American and Indigenous backgrounds, and how they influenced his relationship to art and nature. In thinking about how his identity connected to his artistic vision, Mayhew explained,
“Mine was more out of the African American and Native American heritage, in terms of the love of nature and also the respect for nature, because nature’s involved in reinventing itself. That was what’s going on, in terms of African American and Native American sensibility. They constant[ly] reinvented themsel[ves] and constantly grew and matured and survived. That was my connection to nature and the fascination, almost until today. I’m still trying to paint that feeling.”
To learn more about Richard Mayhew’s life and work, read his oral history transcript here. Find this interview and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.