Art remembered

Local artist Willis “Bing” Davis presents Dayton Skyscraper 5

By Emily Kaiser
Photo: “Urban Griot” by Willis “Bing” Davis; Photo collage of Daniel Beaty   

When my Editor asked me to cover the Dayton Skyscraper 5 African American Artist Exhibition, it was a no-brainer for me. I love art and I especially love and appreciate art in my hometown. What I didn’t know, however, was the story of the person I was about to interview.

Willis “Bing” Davis is truly an original. Born in Greer, S. C., Davis grew up in Dayton. He has devoted his life to not only art, but the art of helping people as well. He studied art at DePauw University and graduated in 1959. He also attended the School of the Dayton Art Institute and received his Master of Education from Miami University. Davis then went on to graduate studies at Indiana State University.

After all the studying, it was then his time to teach. Davis taught at Dayton Public Schools and DePauw, Miami and Central State Universities. He now holds summer camps for children. It is clear that Davis is incredibly passionate about both art and education.

“Someone had to help me, it’s about passing it on,” said Davis.

I met him at the Willis “Bing” Art Studio and EboNnia Gallery, which he and his wife own. One side is clearly a working studio. There is art everywhere you look, from jewelry, to paintings and photographs. It was a lot to take in, but my eyes gleamed with pleasure.

The other side is the actual Gallery where I got to see Dayton Skyscraper 5. I kind of expected to see pictures of buildings, perhaps famous ones throughout Dayton’s history, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Bing uses the term “skyscraper” as a metaphor for people, particularly African Americans in this case, who stand tall in the Dayton Community.

Davis asked artists he has grown to know to contribute to this project, which is its fifth one. Each artist picked someone they thought was a “skyscraper” in the Dayton Community and did a work of art of that person. They then wrote a biography of their subject, which is next to each piece.

I asked Davis why he does this project and its importance.

“To enhance and revitalize the community–that’s how I’ve always viewed art,” he said. “I’ve always viewed art as more than just paintings and things you put on pedestals.”

Walking through the exhibit, it was impossible to pick a favorite. I loved the way each artist’s style showed through each piece. It felt natural and organic.

Artist Dwayne Daniel created an oil-on-canvas piece of Marshall “Rock” Jones titled, “Ground to the Sound.” In the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s Marshall provided the bottom to the Ohio Players’ classics.  Jones’ unique sound was because he decided to make his bass fretless. This led the musician to slide from note to note, creating a clean, smooth sound, which is what Jones became known for.

Gregg DeGroat provides a watercolor and pencil piece of Ronald Harper. Harper is one of the best basketball players to come from Dayton. His career lasted 15 seasons, from 1986-2011. He retired from the Los Angeles Lakers after earning his fifth NBA title ring. He started his basketball career at Belmont, but transferred to Kiser High School after, shockingly getting cut from the team. After graduating high school, he went to Miami University in Oxford and became a two-time MAN Player of the Year. He was then chosen as the eighth overall pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 1986 NBA draft. Many Daytonians may not know this, but within his career he won three rings with the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen-led Bulls. He then played for the Lakers and won two more rings with Kobe Brant and Shaquille O’Neal.

Artist James Pate created an acrylic piece on Shirley Murdock called “Eye on the Savior.” Murdock was born in Toledo but moved to Dayton in the mid-1980s after being recognized by musical genius Roger Troutman. Troutman hired her as a backup singer for his family’s group, Zapp. This relationship led Murdock to land a recording contract as a solo artist with Elektra Records. She then became a well-known R&B artist with tracks like “As We Lay,” “Husband,” “In Your Eyes” and “Go on Without You.”

These are just three examples of what to expect at the exhibit and each one is just as interesting and inspiring as the next.

“I have always viewed art as an initial part in any healthy community and I’ve viewed art as a vehicle or tool for human development,” said Davis. “My training is humanity oriented so the relationship of the art reflects spiritual and cultural values. It’s always been more than just paintings.”

After visiting the exhibit, you will better understand the relationship between community and art, and how each person in the works of art needs to be remembered and celebrated.

The Dayton Skyscraper 5 exhibit will be at EbonNia gallery through Jan. 26, the Schuster Center from Feb. 1 through March 29 and then at the DP&L Headquarters on Feb. 3.  For more information, contact Rosalyn Green at 937.223.2290.

Reach DCP freelance writer Emily Kaiser at

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