By Franklin Abbott
September Gray Fine Art Gallery is hosting the exhibition “The Nature of Art” featuring works by landscape painter Richard Mayhew and abstractionist Freddie Styles through Dec. 31.
Although occupying different locations on the spectrum from figurative to abstract, when juxtaposed together the commonalities between the works of Mayhew and Styles take center stage. The gallery, which focuses on the work of African American and African diasporic artists, is located at 75 Bennett Street, Suite O-2.
Mayhew attributes his energy at 92 to remaining active and optimistic. “I still think I’m 45,” he quips. Mayhew is a celebrated painter who had his first solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1955. He sketches and draws almost daily. He says it is his form of meditation which he calls “creative consciousness.” His work is collected by The Metropolitan Museum, The Whitney Museum, The Art Institute of Chicago and The Smithsonian. He was a member of Spiral, a Black painters group in the 1960s in New York that included Romare Bearden and Hale Woodruff.
Mayhew was a jazz singer before he was a painter. He retains his sense of improvisation but left behind his singing career because of the rejection he experienced as an African American and as a jazz singer. He says he enjoyed singing, but did not like the life he led working in segregated clubs and in a music genre that did not receive its due respect. He found respect early in his career as a painter.
European studies and time in art colonies gave Mayhew both inspiration and encouragement to grow in his art. But a deeper form of inspiration came from his dual heritage which is both Native American and African American. Mayhew was unaware of his Native American roots until later in life. It informs his theories of “Creative Survival” Mayhew taught at a number of colleges and universities retiring as a full professor at Penn State. He says he never quite fit in to the academic mold because he taught creativity in all it permutations, not just in the arts. He feels that his sensitivity to the creative continuity of nature is primary to his teaching and painting. He sees nature as constantly renewing and recycling and this is part of the consciousness of both Native Americans and African Americans, “they can’t take it out of you, they can’t take away that continuous survival.”
Mayhew’s paintings come out of both nature and spirit. He says that they are more “mindscapes” than landscapes. His paintings may allude to fields, hills and trees but vibrate with emotion. He allows the painting to paint itself as the spirit of what he is recognizing is expressed. The painting continues to unfold in the experience of the observers. To see Mayhew’s paintings is to be invited to cross a portal into a world of feeling suffused by color.
Freddie Styles, an Atlanta based artist, is also represented in the exhibition. Styles is an abstract artist although he occasionally will take detours into figurative work. A Georgia native, Styles spent the first eight years of his life in Madison, GA before moving with his family to Atlanta. He attended Morris Brown College and has been an artist-in-residence at Spelman College, Clayton State University and Clark Atlanta University.
“Making do,” a tradition he learned growing up in the African American community, is an integral part of how Styles creates art. An avid gardener, Styles did a series of paintings using azalea roots as brushes. He exhibited his paintings in a show called “Working Roots” at the Nexus Contemporary Art Center. Styles said not only was he literally painting with azalea roots but he was making reference to the root workers who made charms and spells in his grandmother’s world who could make you “green as a frog and bark like a dog.” Styles now works with pine needles for brushes and embellishes his work with drawings he makes with the wooden toothpicks that embellish martinis. He says in appropriating things from his surroundings he is “making do.”
Styles has also developed a style of painting using coated fax paper. He crumples the paper which is coated by kaolin on one side and presses it into a painted canvas while the paint is still drying. The pressure both releases the kaolin into the paint and creates a texture in the painting. Styles has used different colors to create different series of painting. He currently works with black, white and silver but has worked with red, yellow, green and blue. He says he is always painting. Sometimes he revisits an older themes and feels that over time his visual personality has formed.
Once he begins a painting Styles believes the painting takes on a life of its own. He rarely names his paintings saying that, “visual art comes from a feeling place where feelings not words rule.” He leaves whatever words that come to describe his paintings to his observers although his paintings may evoke feelings more strongly than words. Styles work is widely collected and six new pieces have been acquired by the Georgia Museum. Styles will be part of an exhibition there that opens in January.
Franklin Abbott is a psychotherapist and writer.