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.
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.
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.
In April 2019, Dr. Bridget Cooks and I had the privilege of conducting a series of oral history interviews with artist and educator David C. Driskell for the Getty Research Institute’s African American Art History Initiative. David and his wife, Thelma, welcomed us into their home, where we spent hours speaking with David about his singular life and extraordinary contributions to art and African American art history. It was a surreal experience to sit behind the camera and look around at beautiful works of art while David skillfully engaged us with stories from his life and work. In recounting his past, David employed accents and well-timed jokes that had us in stitches. It was a pleasure to watch a gifted storyteller at work.
One year later, I learned from Bridget that this kind, funny, and smart man had passed away from complications due to the coronavirus on April 1, 2020. In a year filled with so much loss and change, David’s passing still hit hard. With David’s passing, the world lost not only a bright personality, but also a brilliant mind who championed the field of African American art history. And despite the uncertainty of these early days of the pandemic, I am happy to say that the Oral History Center was able to expedite the finalization of David’s oral history transcript, which is now available to the public.
Now another April has arrived. At the Oral History Center our work remains remote, but people across the country have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, and there is hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight. It is past time to take stock and reflect on those we have lost and the stories that remain with us. For me, David Driskell’s interview is one such story with staying power.
David C. Driskell was an artist and professor of art. He was born in Georgia in 1931, but mainly grew up in North Carolina. Driskell graduated from Howard University with a degree in painting and art history in 1955, attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1953, and earned an MFA from Catholic University in 1962, as well as a study certificate in art history from Rijksbureau voor Kunsthistorische Documentatie in 1964. Beginning in 1955, he taught at several colleges, including Talladega College; Howard University; Fisk University; and the University of Maryland, College Park. His influential artwork includes Young Pines Growing, Behold Thy Son, Of Thee I Weep, and Ghetto Wall #2. Driskell has curated important shows highlighting African American art history, including Two Centuries of Black American Art and Hidden Heritage: Afro-American Art, 1800-1950. He also helped establish The David C. Driskell Center for the Study of Visual Arts and Culture of African Americans and the African Diaspora at the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2001. 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.
Throughout his many years making art, David experimented with different media and subjects, often with the recurring theme of pine trees. Yet one of his most memorable pieces is Behold Thy Son from 1956, which is now at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. David painted this pietà – a subject in Christian art depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the dead body of Jesus – in response to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till. For many observers, this image captured the zeitgeist of the early Civil Rights movement.
Listen as David speaks about making this important piece:
When Bridget asked how David felt about Behold Thy Son over sixty years after painting it, he replied, “I think it is dated and tied to a time and period, but the fight goes on. It’s also showing you that time hasn’t changed that much. [Eric Garner and] ‘I can’t breathe.’ ” Indeed, the subject of violence against Black bodies remains tragically evergreen.
And yet, in part because of this turmoil for African Americans at midcentury, David found renewed artistic inspiration in the serenity of nature – especially pine trees. Listen as he explains this shift in his work:
David was indeed a talented artist and important educator, as Bridget eulogized so well in her obituary on ArtForum last year. But our oral history interviews with him also highlighted the fact that he was a deeply religious man, one who connected his spirituality and creativity with his passion for gardening. During an interview session after church on Palm Sunday, David said of these links between nature and religion, “From dust and dirt thou came, and so dust to dirt thou goest. I’ve got to be part of that process.”
He further explained:
“So gardening is to me like painting, in a way. It’s a part of the process of this creative spirit that I feel so close to. Can’t wait to get [to the house in Maine] and I often go to the garden before I go to the studio…Gardening is a part of my life. It’s a part of that kind of spiritual regeneration that comes with the natural process. It isn’t for me so much the biblical reference.”
As a further measure of the man, when we were wrapping up our final interview session, we asked David for his concluding thoughts, and he said, “Well, maybe the final say is none of this I could be doing without family.” He went on to praise his wife, Thelma, in particular for supporting his art career when it was just a dream.
To learn more about David C. Driskell’s extraordinary life and work, read his oral history transcript and watch his interview in full here, here, and 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.
In partnership with the Getty Trust, we are pleased to release a new oral history with the famed artist Ed Ruscha. Ruscha is an American artist who has specialized in painting, drawing, photography, and books. Born in 1937, Ruscha moved to Los Angeles to attend school at Chouinard Art Institute in 1956. In the early 1960s, he contributed to the birth of “pop art” and his work was featured in the famed 1962 exhibition “New Painting of Common Objects.” In the 1960s, he painted canvases that have since become iconic, including Large Trademark with Eight Spotlights (1961), Standard Station (1963), and Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Fire (1965?68). A signature of his work has been the use of words and phrases, such as in the paintings Optics (1967), Brave Men Run In My Family (1988), and many more. Ruscha also produced an influential series of books based on his photography of the built landscape of Los Angeles, and his continues to document vernacular Los Angeles through photography to this day. He was represented by the Leo Castelli Gallery beginning in the 1970s and then moved to the Gagosian Gallery, which continues to show the artist today. In this interview, Ruscha discusses his art education and influences and his introduction to the burgeoning art world of 1960s Los Angeles. He reflects on the transformation of art after the 1960s with the rise of conceptual and political art and his continuing interest in painting during that era. Finally, Ruscha discusses changes in the art world in the 1980s and 1990s, retrospective exhibitions of his art, the transformation of Los Angeles, and how artists might think about their legacy.