Collective vision

Willis “Bing” Davis, the EboNia Gallery, and Shango

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Artist Willis “Bing” Davis works on a project in his studio

Reach high and reach back.

That advice from Willis “Bing” Davis’s mother has kept him reaching for the stars and reaching back to help his Daytonian brothers for the last 55 years.

“She wanted us to go as far as we can go, but remember where we came from,” Davis said.

Davis’s mother also taught her children to “walk with dust on your shoes.” He admitted it took him a while to learn what she meant, but now he understands she was telling her kids to not let pride creep in to their hearts.

“She said, ‘I don’t care if you travel the world, if you rule as kings and queens, keep your feet on the ground and stay humble,’” Davis said. “I always remember that I stand on others’ shoulders.”

Davis grew up on the east side of Dayton, graduated from Wilbur Wright High School and became a world-renowned artist and teacher. He has traveled to Africa and studied his own heritage, and in 2004 he transformed a building in the Wright-Dunbar business district into an art studio, gallery, library and teaching center – all with the help of his family and the supporters he said God has put in his path.

Davis got a basketball and track scholarship to DePauw University in Greenville, Indiana, in 1955. Two months after his college graduation, he was teaching art. Davis worked as a professional artist and teacher from 1960 until 1998, working with Colonel White High School, Dayton’s Living Arts Center, Miami University, DePauw, and redesigning and then chairing the art program at Central State University.

During that period, he traveled to Africa several times to study the culture and develop African art classes. Through the assistance of many arts and humanities grants, Davis has traveled with his colleagues to Ghana, Senegal, The Gambia, Nigeria, Mauritania and Gabon. His art space is now scattered with photographs and authentic art from his travels.

Davis’s own artwork often reflects this passion and history. He said his art is how he sees the world, and he shows that through media such as sculpture, paint and photography. Davis’s artwork has been showcased throughout the United States and other countries including Bermuda, Japan, Canada, France, Germany, West Africa, South America, England, Russia and Italy.

“I’ve never had a job; it’s always been art,” he said. “This is not work!”

After retirement, in the early 2000s, Davis and his wife Audrey purchased a building on West Third Street in Dayton. The building was a shell when they got it. No flooring, unfinished walls and piles of discarded material. But Davis had a vision (Audrey took a little convincing), and someone else caught it.

“Like a blank canvas, I saw the potential,” Davis said. “The building had five times more space than I needed. And I realized I was meant to share it.”

The original plan was for Davis to sell a piece of art, buy some wood, do some work and continue on until the building was fixed up and ready for artists to work in it. But that got put on warp speed when a young woman showed up representing a foundation through a Dayton family.

“She took a look, left, came back to me and said ‘my boss likes what you’re doing – write a proposal and we’ll look at it,’” Davis recalled.

Her boss’s motto was “Dream no small dreams, for they don’t have the power to move men’s souls.” According to Davis, the young woman saw that his passion matched that motto. After her boss reviewed his proposal, between his family’s help and two grants from the City of Dayton’s West Dayton Development Trust Fund, Davis opened the space in 2004 with no mortgage.

“They were such an inspiration to me,” he said of the family and their foundation.

The building now holds the Willis Bing Davis Art Studio, EboNia Gallery (named for the Davis’s children Derrick Ebon and Nia Denise), and the nonprofit organization Shango: Center for the Study of African-American Art and Culture. EboNia means “Black Purpose.” Shango is an African god of thunder and lightning, seen as the ancestor to the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Through these places, Davis and his team are continually working on and sponsoring projects to move a city and change a world. Here is a glimpse of some of what they do.

Dayton Skyscrapers and the Dayton Boys Preparatory Academy

The Visual Voices exhibit is a collaboration between the Victoria Theatre Association, Shango Center and EboNia Gallery, celebrating African-American achievements through the ingenuity of local artists. 2014 marked its tenth year of existence; that year local visual artists each created a piece while listening to a certain funk music song. Davis’s piece was a sculpture to the 1975 tune “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players. His son Derrick, who ran from art before finally embracing it, drew a vibrant picture with prismacolor pencils to “Computer Love” recorded by Roger Troutman in 1984. Eleven other artists produced 16 pieces to other monumental funk songs.

In 2009, though, a three-year Visual Voices exhibit was going to find a permanent home in a local public school. Davis decided to make the theme for the 2006 Visual Voices “Dayton Skyscrapers” – and no, he wasn’t thinking of a building in downtown Dayton.

“One of the artists told me ‘our sky ain’t that tough,’” Davis recalled. “I said, ‘no, it’s a metaphor.’ Each artist selects their own heroes.”

The “skyscrapers” refer to African Americans who had left a legacy and were either from Dayton and the Miami Valley or who had made a direct contribution to this area. Each piece of art was accompanied by the story of the person who inspired it. The Visual Voices artists chose African Americans who had won Olympic medals, performed on Broadway, painted vibrant art, worked with Ohio prisoners, fought in wars, served as political trailblazers and public officials, just to name a few of their accomplishments. After three years of the skyscraper theme, more than 60 images and pieces had been created in honor of these heroes.

But where to house these monumental works? When Davis heard about the former Roosevelt High School being converted into the Dayton Boys Preparatory Academy, he had an idea.

“I got on a suit and tie, I washed my face and I had a meeting with the interim superintendent,” Davis said.

He explained his vision of surrounding those students with the skyscraper images – both to be used as inspiration for the students and curriculum starters for the teachers. The interim superintendent, Dr. Kurt Stanic, and the president of the Dayton School Board Jeffrey Mims “embraced and accepted” the project, he said. When the school opened in 2010, it was the only public school in America with a contemporary African-American art collection as an integral part of its learning environment.

“When you go onto the playgrounds and ask those boys what they wanted to be, it was in one of three things – NBA, NFL or hip-hop,” Davis said. “This broadens their pool of heroes. Now no matter where a kid goes [in the school], he’s going to see a positive image of someone who looks like him.”

Kin Killin’ Kin

Shango and EboNia also serve as a springboard for other artists who share its mission. One of those artists is James Pate from West Dayton. In 2011, the center and gallery provided the first place for the KKK – “Kin Killin’ Kin” series. According to the Bureau of Justice, from 1976 to 2000, 94 percent of black homicide victims in America were killed by black shooters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites homicide as the leading cause of death for black males between the ages of 15 and 34.

Pate created a series of charcoal sketches combining images of thugs with pistols and black historical references, enshrouding the killers in the white KKK hoods. The visualization of a black man in a white Ku Klux Klan hood with scenes of passion and rage punch the viewer right in the gut. In his artist statement, Pate described his drawings as a personal protest, “comparing Black on Black terrorism to Ku Klux Klan terrorism … it is often said that we [African-Americans] are doing the business of the KKK with our Black-on-Black violence.”

The exhibit in the EboNia gallery was displayed with a “wall of shame” – a collection of news articles on gun violence in the Dayton community. The exhibit brought into the gallery 91 different groups of youth, from students to ministries to grief support groups. Each group of young men and women viewed the exhibit and then took part in a “healing circle,” where they discussed the problem and what they could do to be a part of a solution. In one of these conversations, a young man pointed out that a museum was an unlikely place to affect those who needed to hear.

“He said ‘how you gonna reach us, Mr. Davis?’” Davis said. “‘Museums don’t make us feel welcome.’”

So Davis and Pate and their crew reached outside the gallery. Kin Killin’ Kin was set up as a traveling exhibit with two options – one, the original works for a conventional art setting. The second option is photos of the images on plexiglass panels designed to be showcased in a school, community center, church or synagogue at half the price.

Since 2011, the exhibit has been seen in Illinois, Georgia, California, Indiana and is currently in Florida. College professor Karen D. Brame El-Amin, whose brother Dayton Police Officer Kevin Brame’s murder Is still unsolved, developed a curriculum to go with the exhibit. The curriculum includes an artist biography, lesson plans, bibliography and educational standards. She said her desire is for “this curriculum to enlighten and encourage observers to become involved in the healing of their community.”

“I’m just so pleased she cared enough to [create the curriculum],” Davis said.

Summer art camp

For two weeks in the summer, the building on West Third is filled with teenagers exploring their artistic side. They work with professional artists and have their art seen in a special exhibit at the camp’s conclusion. The campers’ art includes everything from pencil sketches to glass glazes (with chemical combinations for those math-and-science types). Their workshops never have more than 12 kids in a class. And although it’s called a camp, Davis points out its intense art training.

“We found the kids want structure,” Davis said. “They want to work hard, and when someone cares, they respond in kind.”

This camp is offered for only $50 per person, made possible by Dayton Power and Light and other grants.

These are just a sampling of the projects that Davis and his team are a part of. They are creating urban peace quilts in several public schools, as near as West Dayton and as far as Northmont in Englewood; designing a bridge with local artists in Minneapolis, Minnesota (look up the “John Biggers Seed Project” for more information); bringing in interns from colleges across the state; and continuing to partner with Realizing Ethnic Awareness and Cultural Heritage (R.E.A.C.H.) Across Dayton. R.E.A.C.H. is an effort to promote cross-cultural understanding and education between the African-American, Appalachian, Latino, Native American and other ethnic communities in the Miami Valley area.

“There’s such fertile ground, such creativity here (in Dayton),” Davis said. “It’s like fruit falling from a tree. People say they don’t know what to do in Dayton? I tell them, ‘you’re kidding, give me some of your time!’”

The Willis “Bing” Davis Art Studio and EboNia Gallery is located at 1135 W. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Dayton – right beside Davis’s star in the Dayton Region’s “Walk of Fame.” To contact Davis or for more information, call 937.223.2290, email bing@wbadavisart.com or visit bingdavis.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at Joyell Nevins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Joyell Nevins
Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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