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Richard Mayhew was born in Amityville, New York, to Alvin Mayhew, of African and Shinnecock tribe descent, and his mother, Lillian Goldman Mayhew, was of African and Cherokee-Lumbee descent. His mother would take him to New York City to see paintings, and he was inspired by George Inness's paintings. As a teenager, he studied with medical illustrator James Willson. During World War II, he was in the military with the Montford Point Marines, rising to the rank of first sergeant.
Mayhew studied at the Art Students League of New York and later attended Brooklyn Museum Art School from 1948 to 1959. He also took some courses at Columbia University in the late 1940s in New York, where he met his first wife, Dorothy Zuccarini. He sang in the 1950s, performing in small New York City and upstate clubs. In 1955 he had his first solo exhibition in Brooklyn, and he ended his singing work. In 1958, he won the John Hay Whitney Fellowship and took his family to Europe. In the 1960s, Mayhew illustrated children's books.
He was a founding member of Spiral, a black painters' group in the 1960s in New York that included Romare Bearden, Charles Alston, Charles White, Felrath Hines, Norman Lewis, Emma Amos, Reginald Gammon, and Hale Woodruff as members. The Spiral collective was formed in 1963, after the March on Washington, as a way for artists to discuss their experiences in the American Civil Rights movement. He was also a member of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. He taught at Penn State University from 1977 and retired in 1991. He taught art and interdisciplinary thinking at other schools around the United States.
He was introduced to interdisciplinary learning during his time teaching at Pratt, which offered different disciplines alongside the art studio. He worked alongside other instructors such as Eleanor Holmes Norton (teaching sociology), Jacob Lawrence, and William A.J. Payne (teaching anthropology). Students of Mayhew include Beverly McIver, and Rodney Allen Trice, among others. Mayhew's work is featured in various permanent collections, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), De Young (museum), Metropolitan Museum of Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian Institution, among others.
He was married to artist Dorothy Zuccarini, and they had two children, Ina Mayhew and Scott Mayhew. His second marriage was to Rosemary Gibbons. His experiences inform his abstract, brightly colored landscapes as an African American/Native American and his interest in Jazz and the performing arts. Since 2000, he lives and works in Soquel and Santa Cruz, California.