Building History

A Decade of Artists featuring African-American Trailblazers known as Dayton Skyscrapers

Cover

Photo:’Bokai Twe Scrapes the Sky’ by Kevin Harris

By Brittany Erwin

Dayton is a city proud of its heroes. Its most commonly cited—the Wright Brothers and Paul Laurence Dunbar—have inspired and served as role models while also raising Dayton’s national profile. Yet, Dayton is a trove of unsung heroes. Engaged in the important work of resurrecting these lesser known figures from our past and highlighting those that walk among us is Willis “Bing” Davis, prominent Dayton artist, educator, and activist. Focused on depicting high-achieving African-American figures past and present, Davis and other local African-American artists created the Dayton Skyscrapers Project, which is part of Victoria Theatre’s annual Visual Voices series. This year marks the 10th anniversary since the first Dayton Skyscrapers project was erected. Dayton, Power, & Light Co. has sponsored the project since its inception to help make this anniversary possible.

You may be wondering about the moniker “Dayton Skyscrapers.” After all, Dayton is not known for its sweeping skyline. “Skyscrapers,” in this case, has multiple meanings, as noted in the catalog Dayton Boys Preparatory Academy at Roosevelt Commons: A Home for the Dayton Skyscrapers Art Project: “Dayton Skyscrapers is an African American visual artists’ tribute to African American heroes of Dayton, Ohio and the Miami Valley region. Dayton Skyscrapers is a metaphor for giants who stand tall in our hearts and memories for their achievements and their ‘giving back.’” In other words, these African-American artists and the African-American figures depicted in their works are towering, renowned innovators inspiring their community to achieve similar heights.

All 60 works from the first three Dayton Skyscrapers exhibits were purchased by the academy, where they are displayed throughout the building and integrated into the curriculum. When the school opened in 2010, per the catalog, “It was the only public school in America with a contemporary African-American art collection as an integral part of its learning experience.” Because the Skyscrapers featured within the works represent prominent local African-Americans who thrived in all manner of professional and public life, Davis hopes these everyday visual encounters motivate students.

“By identifying African-American high achievers, this broadens the pool of potential role models for urban youth—and not only that, but by coming from the local area, these [models are] individuals who have excelled in spite of racism, in spite of adversity and still became high achievers.” These figures, and the artists creating works celebrating them, stand tall, beckoning African-American youths to rise and achieve.

Willis “Bing” Davis, a prominent Daytonian and founder of the Dayton Skyscrapers project, was himself depicted as a Skyscraper in the inaugural show. A lifelong educator, artist, and community advocate, Davis began his career teaching art to high school students in 1959. A graduate of Dayton Public Schools, Davis earned his first degree at DePauw and then a graduate degree at Miami University. Following that, Davis taught art at both DePauw* and at Miami, where he also served as assistant dean of the gradate school before teaching and serving as chair of the Art Department at Central State University until retirement in 1998. Though, Davis remains more active than ever in the area.

In addition to the Dayton Skyscrapers Project, Davis still creates his own art, runs his EboNia Studio on West Third Street, and travels to promote art advocacy and education. Above all, Davis wants to highlight art in service to his community.

“As a former artist-educator, I moved my studio out of my home and into the community to better serve the community,” he explains. “It’s my work, my wife’s work, and my son, who is also moving into the art.” Beyond displaying his own creations and hosting workshops at EboNia, Davis exhibits local African-American artists’ work there as often as he can. On his storied career, he reflects, “It’s been a labor of love, and it’s always been connected with art and community. Art is a wonderful vehicle for developing people and the community.” The Dayton Skyscrapers Project is, in many ways, the apex of his passions.

While one of the goals of Dayton Skyscrapers is to inspire urban youth, Davis notes the endeavor has other aims. “It provides an opportunity for African-American early and mid-level artists to have a place to show their works,” he emphasizes, and “gives the broader community a better awareness of outstanding contributions by the African-American community to the city of Dayton.” Artist Yvette Louise Walker-Dalton, who is contributing work this year focused on Ted Ross Roberts, an accomplished actor who won a Tony Award for his Broadway portrayal of the lion in The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz” echoes Davis, “I find it an honor to be chosen to use my art ability to uplift and promote what some would call an ‘unsung’ hero. The Skyscrapers … are African-Americans whose work, compassion, and/or lives have influenced many in the Dayton area and the world. This show and the ones previously are especially good for children and young adults as they prepare for their future.”

Since the project’s inception in 2007, artists have chosen their own Skyscrapers to honor in the medium of their choice, and this year is no different. The only qualifier is that “they [the Skyscrapers] excelled in some field,” according to Davis. For example, in this year’s show, Andrea Cummings will highlight Charles Spencer—a former vocal and choir instructor from Roosevelt High from 1964 until it closed in 1975—with a combined-technique textile piece.

“I hope viewers will come to know and better appreciate the values and contributions of individuals whose roots are of the Dayton community, whether or not those individuals are/were well-known for their accomplishments,” she expresses. Thus, among the Skyscrapers represented, youth will look up to African-American artists, educators, police officers, community activists, athletes, business owners, public servants, and religious officials, among others.

Each Dayton Skyscrapers exhibit has a companion catalog. In it, next to each image, there is a companion biography, written by the artist about the subject. This format is replicated for the shows themselves, ensuring viewers can enjoy the artwork while learning about the individual depicted within. For Craig Screven, who will be showing a digital art on canvas piece this year honoring Roy Meriwether, the celebration of “Dayton history and knowledge of art” is the essence of the Skyscrapers project.

Paging through past shows catalogs, one is arrested by the beauty and variety of the art, certainly, but even more so by the accomplishments of the works’ subjects. In year one’s catalog, we learn about Mr. Lorenzo Harris, in “Heaven Provides,” which depicts Mr. Harris in rich red hues symbolizing royalty and opportunity to the young boy in the lower, green-tinged portion of the painting. Harris owned Ren’s supermarkets and mentored the youth who worked in his stores. The artist, Dwanye Daniel, was one of those mentees and is now an art professor at Central State University. We also meet Louise Troy, the only Black teacher in the public school system after Dayton schools were integrated. She is brought to life via artist Francis Turner, who created beautiful doll-size clothing, true to the time period, draped over a black, faceless figure. This catalog also features a beautifully colored oil painting rich in geometric detail by Curtis Barnes, Sr. honoring Davis, a living Skyscraper.

In catalogs of year two and three, there are two different works featured by artist James Pate representing Edwin C. Moses, Olympic gold-medalist, who gave away 10,000 track-meet tickets to low-income families in Los Angeles and worked with the Special Olympics. Both pieces depict him jumping a hurdle. “Edwin C. Moses in Techno-Cubism” features muted, serious tones with the focus on Moses’ intent face. In “Edwin C. Moses: Stride” we see his graceful form in bright, striking acrylic. Another image from the 2007-2008 catalogue, “Lloyd Scotty Hathcock, Jr.” depicts the origami and digital photography work of artist Paula Ramey. She relays the story of Hathcock, one of three Skyscrapers who served as a Tuskegee Airman, the first African-American U.S. Military aviators. Arresting images of airplanes and the American flag circle the face of a young Hathcock.

In 2014, the Dayton Skyscrapers theme focused on “Visions of Dayton Funk.” Many of the works in this catalog are more abstract in nature, inspired by such funk luminaries as The Ohio Players, Lakeside, and Heat Wave. Two particularly striking works are those of Francine Bankston-Cummings. Her acrylic abstracts, “Playin’ With Fire” and “The Funky Bass,” pulse with color, energy, freedom.

In 2015’s catalog, more powerful stories and art abound. An intimate, graphite and white charcoal by Yvette Louise Walker-Dalton highlights a refined woman who looms larger-than-life over two younger women reading together. As we read the story of “Mattie Ingram Lyle: A Woman of Influence,” we learn the woman mentored the artist, tutoring her at home when she had tuberculosis to ensure she passed second grade. She also encouraged Walker-Dalton’s parents to secure art lessons for her. We learn, too, about Dottie Peoples, an award-winning gospel artist, via a Prismacolor pencil work of Erin Smith-Glenn called “Testify: Dottie Peoples.”

For the 10th anniversary show, artist Kevin Harris shares, “I am working on a piece honoring Dr. Boikai Twe and recognizing his role as a community leader and outstanding educator. Dr. Twe is a professor at Sinclair Community College and chair of both the Psychology Department and Africana Studies Department. My work is a digital photomontage of Dr. Twe, visualizing him as a giant in the community.” Harris commuted from Cincinnati to Dayton throughout the Skyscraper process, which includes collaboration between the group of artists, which Davis likens to a family.

In addition to towering figures like Dr. Twe, one of 12 Skyscrapers for 2017, Davis also hopes to honor the previous 92 Skyscrapers and list them all at the 2017 show.

Morris Howard, one of this year’s artists, reflects on his involvement in the project: “Being a Dayton Skyscraper artist gives me the opportunity to present through art someone from the Dayton community who has made a difference. I’m honored to be one of the selected artists.” He is creating a portrait of activist and political commentator Joe Madison, a Sirius XM radio personality.

While the focus is on African-American high achievers, Davis emphasizes the Dayton Skyscrapers should move all Daytonians. “We are tapping our own well to find these great individuals,” he says, “who will inspire not only the African-American community but the broader community as well.” To that end, catalogs from previous shows have been donated to local high schools, including Oakwood, Kettering, Trotwood, and Bellbrook, among others. Davis has also given presentations at several regional and national conferences, discussing ways other cities might replicate the project. For his part, Davis is excited about the possibilities: “We hope to find other ways to share this. We would love to explore ways to get other images in other schools and find some other ways for the community and teachers to utilize these high-achievers in learning environments.”

Clifford Darrett, who will exhibit an oil painting of George Clinton Cooper, one of the first 13 Black Naval Officers, has high hopes for the future of the project: “I am hoping that paintings, photographs, and sculptures of the Skyscrapers that we have produced over the years will find their home in a permanent place, where the public will have an ongoing chance to view and learn about these outstanding contributors to Dayton and the world.”

 The catalogues from 10 years of Visual Voices: Dayton Skyscrapers are available at Willis Bing Davis Art Studio & EboNia Gallery, 1135 W. Third St. in the Wright Dunbar Business Village. Catalogues have also been donated to local high schools including Oakwood, Kettering, Trotwood, and Bellbrook. This year’s Dayton Skyscrapers exhibit will open Feb. 6 and run through March 31 at the Schuster, 1 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton. For more information, please visit BingDavis.Tripod.com or call 937.223.2290.

*Erratum: In the original version of this story, DePauw University was printed as DePaul University. The original version of this story also stated that Willis “Bing” Davis served as assistant dean of the Art Department, not graduate school, at Miami University.

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Brittany Erwin
Reach DCP freelance writer Brittany Erwin at BrittanyErwin@DaytonCityPaper.om

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