An Interview with Artist Rae Mahaffey

March, 2007


Rae Mahaffey has exhibited her work since 1977, including in 18 solo exhibitions and over 60 group exhibitions. Mahaffey’s commissions in both painting and glass appear in a number of public venues, and her work is held in numerous private, corporate, and public collections, including: the Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; the New York Public Library Print Collection, New York, NY; and the Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA. Mahaffey has spent her professional career on the West Coast, working in and advocating for the arts in Bellingham and Seattle, WA; Portland, OR; and Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, CA. She has been co-director of Mahaffey Fine Art, a collaborative print workshop in Portland, OR where she has lived since 1992.

Julie Karabenick: Over the years, pattern has played an important role in your work.

Overlay, oil on wood panel, 76 x 76 cm (30 x 30 in), 2003

Rae Mahaffey: Yes, it’s about the systems and cycles that are fundamental to our lives. I find that we tend to organize our ideas and behaviors into systems that I interpret as patterns. I explore these systems visually by working out patterns meant to reflect them, though I don’t attempt to illustrate these ideas or create a narrative around them. The patterns I use in my art reflect my perceptions of the course of my own life as well as universals of human behavior.

Track, oil on wood panel, 51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2000

JK: And these patterns often are based upon simple geometric forms and structures.

Concentric III
Concentric III, oil on wood panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2005

RM: Circles, like stripes and grids, are so basic, they are like articles in language—always in use. They frequently show up in my artwork. I use them to create rhythm—it’s the play between rhythm and ideas that interests me. By employing these basic elements, I am able to set up a language that builds a framework for my ideas.

I was an art student when the grid dominated contemporary ideas about composition. I’m still engaged with it—to me, it is essential, whether obvious in the work or not.

Substratum III
Substratum III, oil on wood panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2006

JK: Looking back, your paintings from the 90s were rich in layer upon layer of diverse patterns.

Two x Two
Two x Two, acrylic on wood panel, 76 x 102 cm (30 x 40 in), 1999

RM: Previously, I used all kinds of source material, including a wide variety of patterns inspired by global references. I never oriented these paintings to a particular geographic region—I just used forms that engaged me. Acquiring a new source—a book, magazine, or exhibition catalogue—might influence the direction of a painting.

JK: And over the years, the way you have employed patterns has evolved considerably.

Town, oil on wood panel, 61 x 122 cm (24 x 48 in), 2006

RM: Much of my earlier all-over patterning has turned into the texture of my forms. I now approach pattern almost like I approach color—I search for the right match to the form. I still think of myself as a pattern artist, but I am less concerned with all-over patterning now and more concerned with the rhythm of the painting’s surface.

Cubic Content
Cubic Content, oil on wood panel, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2003

JK: When did you first develop an interest in art?

RM: I’ve been artistically inclined since my earliest memories. I was a kid who always liked making things. My mother, a writer, was eager to find me instruction and supplied me with materials, and throughout my childhood I was encouraged in art. My older brother was influential regarding my interest in minimal geometric forms. His early interest in modern design and architecture affected me. The simplicity and sophistication of its clean lines and basic forms helped establish my personal aesthetic.

JK: What mediums did you focus on during your college years?

RM: I entered an alternative college—Fairhaven—part of Western Washington University. At that time, printmaking was the exciting department, and I got caught up in the fervor. Major print workshops—Gemini G.E.L. and Tamarind in Los Angeles, Tyler Graphics and Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in New York—were influential in endorsing the idea of artistic collaboration, and the artists I found exciting were making innovative work in prints. Their influence created a printmaking renaissance. At the same time, people were fond of saying, “Painting is dead,” so I didn’t spend much time on it. Instead, my focus was on printmaking and 3-D work.

JK: This early experience with printmaking would have lasting effects on both your own artwork and your business career in the arts.

RM: While some printmakers describe their prints as painterly, I have described my paintings as printerly. The thought processes and techniques used in printmaking have influenced my painting process. Printmaking encouraged the layering of colors and patterns in isolated stages and seeing each layer as a single element. Additiionally, working as a printmaker introduced me to the concept of collaboration. Little did I know that I was preparing myself for a future of living within a print workshop and working as a collaborator.

JK: Following college, you worked in the art world in a variety of settings.

RM: In 1981, I was making wearable sculpture from surprising and unusual materials, including candy, small toys, airplane parts and hardware. I secured a job with the Seattle Art Museum, and subsequently worked for an ambitious young Seattle art dealer. We exhibited prints by blue-chip artists, and I found myself again involved in the print world. However, after years of immersion in Seattle’s art scene, by 1987 I sought new sources of stimulation and a change of environment.

I lived in Southern California between 1988 and 1992. There, I worked in galleries and eventually at the renowned print workshop, Gemini G.E.L, where I had the opportunity to meet some of the artists currently working there and handle the work of some of my heroes—Rauschenberg, Stella, Motherwell, Rothenberg, Lichtenstein, Johns and others.

It was at Gemini that I met my future husband, master printer Mark Mahaffey. In the early 90s, we went on to establish our own print workshop. However, we found that Los Angeles was not that conducive to our lifestyle. In Portland, we found a burgeoning art community and a welcoming curator at the art museum that made it advantageous for us to move there. Today, we run a print studio out of one of Portland’s historic Victorian houses where over 200 regional, national and international artists have come to work. (see Mahaffey Fine Art at

Rae and Mark proofing session
Rae and Mark Mahaffey during a print proofing session, 2006

I also have my own painting and glass studios there. I think of myself as lucky not to have to deal with the isolation so many artists feel—there are artists, curators and dealers coming and going in our studios all the time. Most of the time, I feel it is advantageous to my work to have all that exposure to a variety of creative approaches, and only occasionally do I find it disruptive and distracting.

JK: Turning to your paintings from the early 90s, we can clearly see your interest in pattern and the repetition of forms.

Oriental Motif II
Oriental Motif II, acrylic on canvas,
76 x 61 cm (30 x 24 in), 1993

RM: In Oriental Motif , I was exploring very formal patterns and using many layers of paint and medium, and my palette at that time was intentionally limited. These works were rather gothic and gloomy, and I was engaged by their suggestion of a shallow depth.

Preclusive, acrylic on canvas, 61 x 91 cm (24 x 36 in), 1993

Preclusive was a more spontaneous work—if multitudes of layers can be considered spontaneous. It was far more intuitive and the process more gestural. Preclusive dealt with all-over patterning and an interest in the unbounded edge. It was made at a transitional time and concluded my work in somber colors.

JK: Your paintings became more vibrant and richly patterned.

RM: I became involved with all-over patterning and an intensity of saturated color. The depth of space was shallow, and I was interested in how the imagery flowed off the edges.

I was painting from a printmaker’s perspective—using layers of repeating patterns, each painted in a single color. Using many hand-cut stencils, I’d paint an all-over pattern in one color and sandwich it between layers of clear medium, sometimes using 50-70 individual layers. I liked how light refracted off the more opaque layers and bounced back through the translucent layers.

Untitled 1997
Untitled, acrylic on wood panel, 61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 1997

I’ve always been interested in a visual denseness and in representing time through layering. The practice of creating so many layers is also about my relationship to the process—the ritual of making the various stages—as well as the visual results.

Triad, acrylic on 3 wood panels, 127 x 51 cm (50 x 20 in), 1998

In Triad, I was using some Italian architectural references while working with a pattern that had a positive and negative form that reversed. In Ultramarine there are references to Japanese graphic design. These compositions became something like flower bouquets for me—their beauty derived from the arrangements.

JK: The overlapping patterns produce a complex interplay of revealing and concealing.

RM: Yes, this is a recurring theme. I’ve even given some of my shows titles such as See Through. To me, it‘s like painting the landscape—what is seen and what is concealed defines the space. In these earlier acrylics, the elements were closely grouped and more opaque, hiding much of what they overlapped.

Ultramarine, acrylic on canvas, 76 x 102 cm (30 x 40 in), 1998

JK: Your work from this period has sometimes been referred to as kaleidoscopic.

Rest, acrylic on wood panel, 20 x 16 in, 1999

RM: During this period, my pieces were becoming more Op-like. I enjoy a sort of visual vibration. My focus was on color, repetition and form. I wanted density with complexity and intricacy. In Rest, the darker circles are portholes to what lies below.

JK: Your process began to change as you switched from acrylics to oils.

RM: I was beginning to work in glass at this time, and its transparency and luminosity were affecting my painting. I enjoyed the transparency of oils, and I found the colors more beautiful. The transparency of the paint allowed me to achieve the effects I wanted with only a few layers. I began cutting fewer stencils and started to enjoy the physical aspects of pushing the paint around. I find all kinds of tools to push or drag through the paint, creating new patterns by making trowels with unique edges. Though I think of myself as a painter–which I would ordinarily define as someone who applies pigment with a brush—I find myself more of a manipulator of paints.

JK: In Iron-Wood, the many patterns establish a complex interaction of visual rhythms.

Iron-Wood, oil on wood panel, 51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2000

RM: While working on Iron-Wood, I was involved in a collaborative project with a curator and poet regarding poetic forms, so I was interested in the rhythms and patterns found in poetry. I was investigating ways of visualizing the randomness of free verse, the forms of couplets, villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets. I began to incorporate some of these rhythms in my paintings. In Iron-Wood, the circular patterns contend with the grid of light yellow dots that stabilize things, but only momentarily. Many things compete for attention here—there’s a lot to delve into.

JK: The opacity of the topmost gridded circles seems to counter the sense of depth the more transparent layers create.

RM: I do tend to build toward opacity. I like to build depth and then twist this perception with flatness. The incongruity appeals to me. I like to play with the disparity between flatness and suggested space.

JK: In Tripartite, we see the interlocking circle pattern that you often use, and, once again, an interesting interplay of rhythms.

Tripartite, oil on wood panel, 61 x 38 cm (24 x 15 in), 2000

RM: The interlocking circles come from a traditional American quilting pattern—the double wedding ring pattern. The waves create a barrier between the atom-like shapes and the circles. I was exploring levels of translucency here, and was involved with the interaction of translucent, transparent, and opaque paint.

JK: Layered Recollections is also a work of many contrasts—quite a balancing act!

Layered Recollections
Layered Recollections, oil on wood panel, 61 x 66 cm ( 24 x 36 in), 2001

RM: In Layered Recollections, the overall patterning of smaller designs contrasts with the large central X. At the time, I was working with textile patterns from the 1950s and 60s, hence the triangulated loops. The wood grain pattern appears frequently in my work, and acknowledges my sense of place–living in the Northwest where wood and the lumber industry are crucial to our economy, environment, and culture. And the pattern of interlocking circles is an even more personal statement, relating to family.

JK: At this time, you were also beginning to work in glass.

RM: For years, I have been moving among painting, printmaking and glass. Glass work and printmaking are more confining than painting as the materials dictate much of what can be done. Time is also a factor—nothing is done immediately, spontaneity is limited. And with glass, gestural expression is very limited.

Though such limitations make me more aware of the freedom of painting, sometimes it is the limitations of materials that challenge me. For example, with glass, the difficulties in working with anything but straight lines and circles have reinforced my appreciation of how significant simple forms can be.

JK: In 2001, you did a large installation that combined prints and glass panels.

Proofing Sessions
Proofing Sessions installation at Bullseye Connection Gallery, 2001

RM: Twenty-five fused and etched glass panels were suspended from the ceiling in five rows at varying heights. Some of the etched panels were inked and used to make twenty-five prints or vitreographs that were hung behind the glass and echoed their patterns. Viewers were encouraged to walk through the installation and view the prints through the glass.

JK: You’ve worked in glass for a number of public installations.

RM: Yes. At first, I was totally seduced by glass, but now I use it primarily for my public commissions. A few years ago, I completed an installation of glass panels for a newly built fire station outside Denver, Colorado. Twenty-two panels were suspended in the station’s large, curved front windows that face a busy intersection. The community the fire station serves is culturally diverse. By designing colorful, patterned panels inspired by folk patterns from around the world, my aim was to create a congenial atmosphere for all. I enjoy the collaboration with architects and fabricators and am stimulated by the process of discovering the architectural and civic intentions of a site.

Fire Station Installation
Installation for a fire station in Denver, CO, 2003

JK: While you often use fairly simple and symmetrical patterns when working in glass, you generally avoid such simplicity and regularity in your paintings.

RM: I like a sense of the unexpected, so if I think something is too predictable, I try to balance it with something that isn’t.

JK: For example, in Circles and Stripes, the irregular arrangement of the circles provides a nice counterpoint to the underlying gridded structure.

Circles and Stripes
Circles and Stripes, oil on wood panel, 30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2001

RM: That is exactly what this painting is about—a simple overlaying of patterns, randomness and order.

JK: Yet, even where your use of symmetry is strong, the juxtaposition of different patterns adds complexity.

Circles, Stripe & Symmetry I, oil on wood panel,
30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2001
Circles, Stripe & Symmetry II, oil on wood panel,
30 x 30 cm (12 x 12 in), 2001

RM: Yes. Juxtaposition must be a basic character trait of mine as it turns up in other aspects of my life—my sense of humor, my career, my life choices. I enjoy seeing similarities and contrasts; it’s my own quiet and personal rebellion. I am attempting to transform the banal and give form to the unseeable. Symmetry seems so simple and predictable, but by applying irregular textures to symmetrical forms and by overlapping them with other patterns, I hope to bring to it new meanings.

JK: In Pendeloque, we see other ways in which you were simplifying your work.

Pendeloque, oil on wood panel,
61 x 30 cm (24 x 12 in), 2001

RM: Yes. Pendeloque is quite graphic and flat, with direct references to Charles and Ray Eames. I believe the simplification of my compositions is based on a modernist aesthetic. I am working with formal issues of color and composition, looking for purity and a generality. While the symbols I use may have highly personal significance, I intend to give the paintings a more universal resonance by embedding these symbols into works that have intense color and a straightforward structure.

JK: This more pared down aesthetic continues in your paintings commissioned for public spaces.

Oregon Convention Center II
Oregon Convention Center II, oil on wood panel,
61 x 61 cm (24 x 24 in), 2002

RM: In the Oregon Convention Center paintings, since the convention center where they are installed makes an architectural statement in our Portland skyline, I used the building as my inspiration, taking elements of it and using them as motifs and patterns in the paintings.

JK: Increasingly, you’re interjecting forms that suggest a deeper space.

Twins, oil on wood panel, 30 x 61 cm (12 x 24 in), 2002

RM: In Twins, the elliptical forms begin to suggest a deeper space, but at this point it’s just a shudder. This painting is a reaction to 911. The geometric forms of the twin towers haunted me, as did their disappearance from the New York skyline. Twins, along with the Oregon Convention Center pieces, mark the beginning of the architectural vernacular that I’ve been working with since. The shapes and the textures were beginning to allude to exterior structures, whereas the patterning I had been using earlier felt more interior, more domestic.

JK: The tension between frontal and receding forms creates an ambiguous space.

Passage I
Passage I, oil on wood panel, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2005

RM: The suggestion of space is becoming deeper; however, I’m deliberately challenging the viewer’s perceptions and the cues we use to suggest depth. I’m inviting you in and blocking the way at the same time.

I have an ongoing involvement with seeing my paintings as objects, which I had previously addressed by continuing the images beyond the surface’s edge. In Entrance, the idea of creating openings continues that notion, implying that the painting’s substrate is something of a porthole into the painting’s vision

Entrance, oil on wood panel, 91 x 102 cm (36 x 40 in), 2006

In Paths, I was interested in the idea of access and how to imply it. I was thinking of the panel itself as a structure, and suggesting passageways and egresses to and from the physical space it occupies.

Paths, oil on wood panel, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2006

JK: You use a broad range of color and opacity in these pieces.

RM: The unexpected visually excites me. I’ve always intentionally broken all the rules. I use unusual combinations of color, abutting transparent colors with opaques, and colors found in nature with synthetic or what I call “chemical” colors. I will have lively pastels adjacent to darker, more inert colors. I am juxtaposing colors and patterns, conscious of the randomness and inevitability that abounds in everyday life.

Selve, oil on wood panel, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2006

JK: You have another current series that’s concerned with pattern and the grid.

Concentric II
Concentric II, oil on wood panel, 46 x 91 cm (18 x 36 in), 2004

RM: The concentric circles paintings are very surface- and pattern-oriented, though I keep the composition restrained to the simplest elements. In this series, I’m returning to my interest in the process of painting, creating the work by again making the process a ritual-like progression.

JK: As you had in your earlier ritual of alternating layers of acrylic paint and medium.

RM: Here, each layer is made using a specific routine, such as evenly spaced, circular motions or measured pulls of a trowel over the surface. These repeated motions explore how the layering of painting gestures can represent the passing of time. I’m also exploring the depiction of endless beginnings and endings. The continuance of the pattern reflects endlessness and infinity, both in time and space.

Concentric IV
Concentric IV, oil on wood panel, 91 x 91 cm (36 x 36 in), 2006

JK: In a recent painting, you continue to examine new visual issues.

RM: Here, I’m exploring a different way of addressing transparency—something I’ve been dealing with for years—but the white outlined forms and what they suggest are new for me. By mimicking the solid cylinders with skeletal outlined forms, my intention was to emphasize the illusionary qualities that suggest dimensionality.

Untitled (Space)
Untitled (Space), oil on wood panel, 91 x 102 cm (36 x 40 in), 2006

JK: Many of the visual issues you’ve dealt with over the years appear in this painting.

RM: Yes, this piece sums up much of what my work has been about. I wanted to create a piece that was delicate, yet forceful, muscular, while still refined. The contradictory threads that run through it—for example, an implied depth in the angle of the underlying isometric grid juxtaposed with the flatness of the rectangular frames that run off the edge—attract me, as does the interplay among differing opacities and the ambiguity of the cylinders. In this painting I play with rhythm and use my standard elements: bold geometric forms, ambiguous space, transparency, light and, of course, color.

Rae Mahaffey portrait
Rae Mahaffey in her Portland studio, 2007

More information about Rae Mahaffey at


Interview images and text copyright©2007 Julie Karabenick and Rae Mahaffey. All Rights Reserved.

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All text and artwork reproduced by permission of the artists.

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