Timothy David Mayhew digs deep to produce old-master style wildlife works
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the March 2013 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Order the Southwest Art March 2013 print issue, or get the Southwest Art March 2013 digital download now…Or better yet, just subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss a story!
THE FIRST thing to know about New Mexico-based painter Timothy David Mayhew is that he is an intrepid adventurer—think of him as an Indiana Jones of the art world. Consider the story of how he unraveled an art-history mystery: In 1993 Mayhew becomes so intrigued with the origins of the naturally occurring chalks used for drawing by Renaissance artists, such as Da Vinci and Michelangelo, that he travels to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and pores over dozens of boxes of unframed, old-master drawings held in the museum’s archives.
Fascinated by the luminous qualities of the centuries-old chalks, he discovers that the materials are no longer available to modern artists. He then sets out to discover the types of terrain in Germany, Italy, and France where the material was quarried between the 15th and 18th centuries until it was depleted. After he determines the exact locations and geological conditions where the chalks were quarried, he is still not satisfied. His intellectual curiosity leads him to further analysis of where similar geological conditions might exist in the United States and yield the treasured material today.
THE ANSWER: the Southwest.
When he returns home to New Mexico, Mayhew devotes his spare time outside his studio to hunting for deposits of the naturally occurring chalks. He packs his picks and shovels and drives to the canyons and arroyos of the hematite-rich, volcanic deserts of northern Arizona. He covers some of the terrain in a four-wheel-drive Jeep, proceeding in a methodical, gridlike fashion—and when there are no roads, he explores on foot. Finally, after about five years of searching, Mayhew finds a small deposit of red chalk, which he digs out with an ax and hauls back to his studio. Today, he is still using the dwindling remnants of his 1999 discovery in his drawings.
By all accounts Mayhew may be the only living artist working in this traditional old-master drawing medium. Mayhew admits he is a bit obsessive about his passion for the chalk. But for the purist in him, the quality of the naturally occurring chalk far exceeds that of the commercial, synthetic chalks available to artists today. “The natural red chalk is more luminous with the light shining through its particles. It doesn’t smear and offers great precision, beauty, and versatility,” Mayhew says. “The artificial chalk is not very translucent, and it has a dull, opaque quality.”
TODAY Mayhew is considered an expert on the subject and receives frequent invitations to lecture on old-master drawing materials and techniques to curators and conservators at distinguished institutions, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC; and the Fogg Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. The drawings he has created using the naturally occurring chalks are now held in the collections of those same museums. His research has been included in scholarly books and publications such as the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation.
But beyond this recognition in academic and museum circles, Mayhew is also known as a gifted wildlife painter with a special focus, these days, on depicting shorebirds. He participates in prestigious museum and gallery shows across the country, including Western Visions at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY; Birds in Art at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI; and the American Art Invitational at Saks Galleries in Denver, CO.
AN OBSERVER of Mayhew’s career trajectory might say he has come a long way from his first art sale. Growing up in the small riverside town of St. Clair, MI, the young Mayhew, like many other artists, displayed an early talent for drawing. But when it came time for college, he enrolled in the University of Michigan and majored in general studies. Although he continued to paint and draw in his spare time, he didn’t consider art a viable way to make a living. But it did help him finance his education. While an undergraduate, for example, he was hired by the owner of a popular campus pizza parlor to paint a mural on a wall that students insisted on blanketing with paper flyers. Mayhew painted an 18-foot-tall depiction of Beethoven’s head, and the mural soon became a campus landmark noted by students and local newspapers. “For payment, I got free meals at Pizza Bob’s for a year,” Mayhew says.
He noted that many wildlife works only spotlighted the animals, and he wanted to incorporate surrounding environments.
Eventually he grew more serious about art as a career and moved to Detroit to pursue a doctoral degree in art at Wayne State University. The nearby Detroit Institute of Arts quickly became a favorite haunt. Every Sunday the museum displayed a rotating exhibit of old-master drawings. Mayhew regularly stopped in to study the works and then painstakingly reproduced the drawings, stroke by stroke, in his sketchbook. Such intense exercises formed the foundation of his art education, he says, and also planted the seeds that would later blossom into his magnificent obsession with the old-master drawing materials. “Back then I tried but couldn’t duplicate the beautiful glowing of the natural red chalk with the modern materials,” Mayhew says.
MEANWHILE he had begun traveling to the West to places such as Colorado. “I learned that there were states that had sunshine in the winter,” he jokes. After earning his doctorate in 1978, he bade his native Michigan—and its dark winters—goodbye and headed to sunny Arizona. Initially he drew and painted portraits and western-themed subjects such as rodeos. But during the ’80s his focus began to shift to wildlife. He noted that many wildlife works only spotlighted the animals, and he wanted to incorporate surrounding environments. To further his art education, he enrolled in workshops with landscape painters Clyde Aspevig and Matt Smith.
Mayhew then sought out and studied with prominent wildlife artist Bob Kuhn, working side by side with Kuhn in his studio as well as on location at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where they painted and drew animals. Today, Mayhew considers the experience life-changing. “He taught me the value of being in nature and studying animal behavior firsthand,” Mayhew says.
Kuhn often brought creatures like owls into his Tucson studio, made special arrangements with local animal handlers to observe llamas and hybrid wolves, and invited Mayhew to draw with him. Taking Kuhn’s advice to observe animals firsthand, Mayhew also began backpacking for days at a time in places such as Denali National Park in Alaska—valuable hours spent living in the wilderness with the animals.
On extended stays in locations such as the Grand Tetons, he learned little things about big creatures—that, for example, moose in the wild move very slowly and stay in one place for a long time, allowing him to sketch with the natural red, white, yellow, and black chalks he carries with him. Because they don’t smear, the chalks are suited to the rough backcountry treatment. (In his research into chalks, Mayhew had been in contact with a European expert in antique pigments. The German scientist sent him samples of naturally occurring white, yellow, and black chalks.)
Like the new birds he discovered, Mayhew leaves no stone unturned.
It was Kuhn who also recommended Mayhew see an important exhibition of works by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko—a show which has influenced his use of paint and colors today. In similar fashion to Rothko, Mayhew now incorporates layers of paint in his works instead of just mixing the paint. For him, the layering technique creates greater depth and complexity of color. Mayhew notes that the most cherished honor he has received for his works to date came several years after Kuhn died in 2007. “I was nearly brought to tears when I won the 2010 Robert Kuhn Award at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, based on my drawing of a wolf done in natural red chalk,” he says.
OVER THE last several years Mayhew has gradually narrowed his wildlife focus, training his creative eye most often on shorebirds. His interest stems, he thinks, from growing up near a large freshwater lake. “I now live in a desert area, but since I came from a wet area, it seems like I’m always seeking out water when I travel. It takes me back to my roots in Michigan,” he says.
As this story was going to press, Mayhew had just returned from a foray to San Diego, where he had hoped to see long-billed curlews nesting along the coastline. His trip may have been scheduled too early, he says, because his search was in vain. But he was excited about the discovery of a bird that was unfamiliar to him, the black turnstone. No surprise Mayhew spent many hours studying the birds’ behaviors and sketching them. “They are so named because the birds are constantly turning over stones and seaweed to find tasty tidbits,” he says. “It was fascinating to watch them. It was a very good and productive trip.”
On cold, wet days in San Diego, the wildlife artist moved indoors to the San Diego Natural History Museum, where he studied the anatomical specimens of the black turnstones. Like the new birds he discovered, Mayhew leaves no stone unturned.
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