Hutchins Professor Janet Hess Releases Two Books

May 24, 2015
janet hess with her two new books

Though the topics and approach are vastly different, Sonoma State University professor Janet Hess finds similarities in the sense of place and culture in the two books she released this year.

Hess, who counts a Ph.D. from Harvard amongst her numerous degrees, is a professor of art history and African studies in the Hutchins School of Liberal Studies. Her new books, "The Art of Richard Mayhew," and "Osage and Settler: Reconstructing Shared History Through an Oklahoma Family Archive," weave touches of personal narrative with historical perspective.

In "Osage," Hess includes interviews with her family, who moved to Oklahoma when it was still considered "Indian Territory" in the late 19th century. "It's a discussion of the intersection of narrative and landscape revealed in my family archives, the archives of the Osage, and accounts of African Americans in Oklahoma," she says. "Standard histories dwell on the dichotomy between oppressor and oppressed; I seek to find moments of mutual identity and exchange."

One of the last standing gathering spaces of the Osage people, a round barn, still sits walking distance from the house her family grew up in at "The Place," a ranch now owned by a different family. "I went back, and it's been a spiritual journey for me," says Hess. "When one goes back to the place one's ancestors lived, one finds oneself much more grounded. You know who you are."

In that sense, she says, "The book wrote itself, really."

Richard Mayhew is one of the most important landscape artists of the 20th century. He started painting abstract landscapes in the 1950s in New York, founding the Spiral group with Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis and other artists in 1963 to promote civil rights and racial equality through art.

The former Sonoma State professor participated in the Civil Rights Movement's March on Washington, and now lives in Santa Cruz. His work has been shown at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in many other exhibitions. Hess' new book is full of interviews she conducted with the artist and colorful photos of his works.

Hess became friends with Mayhew through a series of interviews from 2003 to 2012 after discovering that no books existed describing the artist or his contributions to the civil rights movement. "Despite these historical associations, and the brilliance of his art, his contribution is largely overlooked in art historical and critical analysis," writes Hess in her new book.

"Mayhew stands alone as a pivotal figure in the history of American, African American, and Native American art," she writes.