Queer Atlanta artist Riley Mayhem creates her own niche

Riley Mayhem developed her own method of creating paper portraits when she was in high school, then made the leap to become a working artist about a decade later.

In the two short years since then, she started doing commissions and has been included in art shows around Atlanta. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms even chose Mayhem as one of the 20 artists featured in an LGBTQ-themed exhibition at City Hall last summer.

The queer and pansexual Indianapolis, Ind., native chatted with Q on what brought her to Atlanta, her secrets to being a successful artist and sharing her queer identity in her work. 

What were you like growing up?

I was a very free-spirited kid and was always challenging myself and the world around me. There were never enough answers to all of my questions, so I taught myself how to find the answers I was searching for instead of waiting on others to provide them for me. 

What brought you to Atlanta? 

I moved here when I was 19, just about a decade ago. My partner at the time and I wanted to get out of Indy and thought Atlanta fit the bill for a variety of reasons. I’m so glad we did. Atlanta has been a really amazing home base for me. No matter how often I leave or how long I stay away, I know I always have somewhere to come back to.

What drew you to paper portraits over other mediums?

At some point around the beginning of high school I made the connection of combining Photoshop work with cutting out paper, and my technique just naturally evolved from there. I don’t recall having a particular artist influence or anything like that, it just sort of... happened. Thankfully, it’s been interesting and unique enough of a medium to hold my interest and make cool gifts for others, and I still do it a dozen years later.

What lessons would you share about being a working artist?

Less about being an artist and more about how to market, advertise, network and schmooze. I once heard, "The thing about being a professional artist is that you’re only really doing art about a third of the time,” and it absolutely rings true. You really need to be dedicated to making it work to become self-sustaining.

I’ve also learned that being an artist is less about how good you are, or how many ideas you have, and more about the fact that you are sticking with it and continuing to make art. The ideas naturally come, and you will only get better and better the more you do. You do not need all the answers or a perfect game plan in the beginning. 

I promise it will happen organically and you will find your way!

Does your queer identity factor into your work? 

Absolutely. I like doing portraits of a lot of women, of people fucking, being kinky, of triads, or lesbians kissing. It also means I get to show at more fun and interesting events like Pride, Frolicon or even the mayoral LGBTQ+ exhibit, where my more interesting or queer pieces were able to be displayed and celebrated. There’s nothing like being able to do more risqué work and have people be able to appreciate it, truly, on the level I intended.

What's next for you?

This last year was a lot of work and I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by it all. So I'm allowing myself to slow my roll a bit, take on commissions as they come, and just enjoy the ride. I'm the finance manager at Eco Friendly Maid Service for my "big boy" job, and I just love it so much that I don't feel any pressing need to make my art career be the only thing I do. I'm just here to enjoy the journey and see where it takes me.

Which three people, living or dead, would you want to have dinner and a conversation with, and why?

I want to have dinner with anyone and everyone! I thrive on getting to know people. Tell me all your deepest secrets, and I will do so in turn. Let me roll around inside of you a bit; let me figure out what makes you tick. 

Sure, Socrates or MLK would be insanely amazing to meet and converse with, but I promise I will glean insights, knowledge and wisdom from you and your life experiences too. Let’s go have dinner at Intermezzo and meander in Piedmont Park anytime and I will love the world inside of you.

Find Riley Mayhem and her work on Instagram and at mayhempaperportraits.com. Photo by Russ Bowen-Youngblood for Q.

This interview originally appeared in Q magazine. Read all of our Q Community Q&As here, and read the full issue online here: 

Pick up each new edition of Q magazine at LGBTQ and queer-friendly venues around Atlanta.