I bought my first piece of fine art when I was a sophomore in college. It was a framed pastel print of two young girls sitting together on a sidewalk, on what seemed to be, judging from their floral sun dresses and bare feet, and the hazy purpling background, a warm summer evening. I’ve long forgotten the artist’s name, but I do recall that the print’s title was “Sisters,” and that it captured a moment of intimacy not too unlike those my sister and I had often shared. The print cost $125–a fortune to a struggling college kid like me–and I think the gallery owner let me pay in installments, which I paid off in just enough time to wrap, haul back to Los Angeles, and give to my mother as a Christmas gift. I was extremely proud of that purchase, and my mother must have understood that because while many far more valuable pieces hang on the walls at her house, the sisters print still hangs above her desk, in the room that used to be my bedroom, which is now her home office.
The funny thing is, I don’t like that print any more. In fact, on the rare occasions when I go home, I can barely look at it. It’s too sentimental, too literal–which is my complaint about most of the pieces I bought in the early years of my budding career as a collector. Take the first William Tolliver painting I bought. I was in New Orleans, and passed by Bob Crutchfield’s Gallerie Royale on Royal Street in the French Quarter. My dad and I were walking back to our hotel after dinner and just happened to stroll past the gallery window. It was late, and the gallery was closed, but William Tolliver’s painting of a group of jazz musicians stopped me in my tracks. The canvas was easily four feet square, with the silhouettes of tall, slender, Giacometti-like figures grouped together around a piano. The palette was a cool–various shades of blue from cornflower to ultramarine–with a dab of yellow and a flick of red that added heat and light. It was a stunning painting and I had to have it. The next day, I went back to the gallery and bought it. I think it cost $1200 dollars but honestly, I can’t remember. For years, that painting hung in our home; first, on the wall in our downtown condo, then in the living room of our first Pasadena bungalow, then above the mantel in our ranch-turned-Spanish-style house in Palos Verdes. I loved that painting. But by the time we moved to San Francisco I’d grown tired of it. My complaint was the same: it was too sentimental; too literal; too representational. The whole story was right there on the canvas; there was little if any room left for my imagination.
I guess it’s no surprise that over the years my taste in art has evolved. I’m not the same person I was when I made those early purchases, so how could it not? Life’s challenges, its thrills and its sorrows, have tempered and tested me. Where I once preferred figurative pieces, my eye is now soothed by abstraction. My mind craves peace and quiet. I feel more confident letting my imagination fill the blank spaces in the narrative. I’m more comfortable with complication and complexity.
Which explains why I love Richard Mayhew’s work; why I have since the first time I saw one of his paintings, a small landscape, hanging on the wall in a friend’s studio. “Looking at a painting by Richard Mayhew,” Mary Schmidt Campbell writes in the introduction to the Studio Museum in Harlem’s catalog of his work, “is like listening to a poem for the first time. The complete meaning is not immediately apparent but as the images flash and linger, as the rhythms run their course, a mood vibrates and a precise impression stays behind. A precise impression–that is the nature of the poetry of Mayhew’s abstractions.”
So true. . .
Last year, just about this time, one of Richard Mayhew’s paintings was included in the Kinsey Collection exhibit at the Museum of the African Diaspora here in San Francisco. MoAD had already featured Mayhew in a solo retrospective, but I missed it, so I was glad to finally have a chance to see one of his paintings in person. Better still, the day my friend, Claire, and I went to the museum to hear a lecture about the collection, Richard Mayhew was there! He sstood in the gallery a few feet from his painting, surrounded by a small group of admirers. We waited until they finished talking then approached, and asked if he’d sign a copy of his book. He did, and when I told him how much I loved his work, he invited us to visit his studio, then wrote his phone number on the paper bag that contained my newly signed book. When I got home, I tore off the section of paper and tacked it on my bulletin board. I’ve been staring at it for almost a year. Then last week, something made me pick up the phone and dial.
It took about an hour and a half to drive from San Francisco down to Soquel, the town near Santa Cruz where Mayhew lives. By the time I pulled into his driveway and parked, he’d come outside to greet me. For the next hour, we sat on his back deck overlooking the valley and the rolling hills on the other side. My vocabulary is limited when it comes to art. Aside from the one art history class I took in college, I’ve never studied painting or color theory. Still, I wanted to understand how his mind worked, what he saw and what inspired him. I was curious to know what he felt while he painted. Mayhew talked about shape, color, and form. How the trees that grew along the opposite ridge looked blue at a certain time of day. He talked about time, space, and illusion, and how it takes time for the mind to catch up with what the eye sees. He did a quick gesture with his hand to demonstrate. He explained that even though there seem to be objects in his paintings, trees or rivers, his paintings are really about feeling and mood, then he pointed to the Japanese plum whose uppermost branches stretched above his roof and said that the tree’s deep purple leaves gave him a certain feeling. He said that every artists, whether a painter or a writer or a musician, experiences what he described as “internal creativity,” a creativity that is spiritual. That’s why he paints landscapes, he said. Because they are based on a spiritual sensitivity. And you now what? I understood exactly what he was talking about.
Richard Mayhew is actually two-thirds Native American only one-third African-American. In fact, the correct Native American spelling of his name is “Mayhue.” But growing up, he felt that there was more of an African-American cultural presence so he identified as such. “Native Americans are invisible in this culture,” he said. But he still feels strongly connected to his Native American heritage, which is why he wears the necklace you see in the picture below. And his work, his interest in the harmony between nature and man, is a constant theme in his work. Even now, it’s hard for me to articulate all the ideas we talked about. The best way to describe our conversation is to say that it had a lot to do with what you can’t say, what you can only sense or feel in your gut. I invite you to watch this video, which does a much better job of exploring Mayhew’s work than I can.
Do you notice, in the video, that there’s a moment (at 6:22) when Richard Mayhew points to a place on the canvas and sings a few bars of jazz improvisation as he describes his work? He did that as he showed me a painting he was currently working on, and just like everything else we talked about, it made complete sense. Because it’s not just about painting; it’s about how painting is like music and writing, and what occurs when all those things intersect; what Mayhew described as “The Great Happening.”
There are so many reasons why I love Mayhew’s work. I love the colors and the shapes and the way my mind feels like it’s expanding as my eye travels across the canvas. I love the openness, the depth, and the stillness, and the sensation of falling into his mysterious landscapes the way I fall into beloved books. I love that his heritage informs his work, but that his paintings aren’t limited by race. But as I said, my vocabulary is limited. I barely have the words. I do know this: I will never get tired of looking at Mayhew’s paintings. Each time I look, I’ll know I’ll see and feel something familiar–and that’s a great comfort–but I’ll also see and feel differently. Because I’ll be different. Older, wiser, and hopefully, richer in spirit. Ever changing, always evolving, more connected.
To strive, to see, to find, and not to yield.