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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Color Fields: Richard Mayhew at his Soquel home

Land Beyond

The transcendent landscapes of Santa Cruz newcomer and nationally recognized artist Richard Mayhew

By Maureen Davidson

WIND carries a fog of red dust over a path in a large meadow, smudging the soft green of the grassy horizon; late-day shadows of violet and crimson glisten under shallow waters; a solitary tree is immolated in sunset light. The paintings of Richard Mayhew are not plein-air portraits of places in nature, but a summoning of its mystery. Electric, haunting, they've been called transcendental landscapes, and Mayhew for decades has been recognized as one of the greatest living landscape painters.

"I paint more from the inside out," he tells me in an interview at the Museum of Art and History, where his works are on display through Nov. 22 in an exhibit titled "After the Rain." "Sensitivity to nature while living the experience of the painting. I have no intention, no plan."

Mayhew does not sketch or photograph scenery. His paintings could just as well spring from a theme from classical music and a curious pattern on the concrete floor. "Shapes and patterns create the illusion of time, space," he says. "Optic phenomenon predicts how the mind engages with what the light shows. Reds advance; cool colors recede: there's much to play with in that mesmerizing illusion, along with mood, life experience and a deep feeling for nature and mystery."

His Elkhorn Slough brings the viewer into the painting from a foreground of emergent crimson and violet, melding into a quieter center where vivid ponds of light-reflecting blue float out of a voluminous field of mossy green edged with cadmium. Above, the eye is drawn deep into a periwinkle haze disappearing into foggy blue. The contrast of softness and reflectivity, the watery haze, the life-filled quietness of the place feel like Elkhorn Slough, yet there is no place like this.

Though admirers often insist they recognize the places he paints, the oil-on-canvas "improvisations" are located only within the painter's mind. Inspired by jazz and the color theories of the Fauves and the impressionists, the energy of abstract expressionism and the reverence for nature of the Hudson River School, each Mayhew painting is unmistakably his own and abstract in its origins. Somewhat ironically, he is considered one of the most prominent "landscape" artists working today.

"After the Rain" is one of three concurrent Bay Area exhibitions that serve as a retrospective: at the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) in San Francisco, at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University and at MAH, his most recent work.

Just hours before our meeting, Mayhew received notice of his election to the National Academy of Arts & Letters, considered the highest artistic recognition in the United States, an honor held by 250 living artists, architects, writers and composers.

"All the honors are very humbling. From painting, my art form, my selfish indulgent joy, I have had to ask what contribution I make."

Born in 1924 in Amityville on Long Island, Mayhew grew up with a deep sensitivity to nature. "My mother's family is Cherokee and African American, father was Shinnecock and African American," he explains. In those days, Native American culture was "so ostracized and oppressed" that Mayhew found it easier to identify with his African American heritage, "an accepted identity." Only later did he fully embrace his Native American heritage.

He knew as a boy he would be an artist. At 23 he worked as portrait painter and medical illustrator in New York, studying in museums by day, singing in jazz clubs by night. He sings a few bars of a ballad in a voice still resonant and tuneful. "As a singer, you're a puppet; as painter you have complete control ... you get the applause later or never at all."

New York in the 1950s was a hotbed of abstract expressionism; Mayhew stayed on the fringes. In 1958 he received a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony, followed by fellowships to study in Italy and later throughout Europe. He returned in 1962 to a United States embroiled in the civil rights struggle, and in 1963 co-founded with Romare Bearden the Spiral group of prominent African American artists who wanted to contribute to civil rights.

Increasingly recognized, exhibited and collected, Mayhew began to teach, first at the Brooklyn Museum, then the Art Students League and then in the 1970s at San Jose State, Sonoma State, Hayward and UC-Santa Cruz. He created an interdisciplinary program at Penn State, teaching the creative process itself. He involved engineers and scientists as well as dancers, musicians and visual artists. He smiles at the thought of musicians playing a geodesic dome as if it were a horn, much to the amusement of Buckminster Fuller. Such encouragement of creative thinking affected students of many disciplines.

From 1976 to 1978 he worked to establish the Center for Experimental Arts and Sciences as an international center for innovative and creative thinking at Fort Baker in the Marin Headlands. The effort failed but no doubt helped clear a way for later development of the Headlands Art Center.

Even now, at 85, Mayhew is always creating. "Nature changes moods, constantly refreshes itself. The light moves every 20 minutes, a different cycle." He cups his hand into a tight arrow pointing toward his face, then opens it away from himself, fingers spreading into a flat fan, "in the morning a leaf is like this, then all day it works its way toward that. The story's all there--nature's cycle of growth and development." It emanates from his paintings.

RICHARD MAYHEW: AFTER THE RAIN continues through Nov. 22 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. This Friday, Nov. 13, at 7pm, professor Bridget R. Cooks talks about Mayhew's work at MAH. Call for reservation: 831.428.1964.

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