A Talk with Willis “Bing” Davis
By Jud Yalkut
Willis “Bing” Davis is a living legend in the visual art history of Dayton who has mobilized the African American community of artists as no one ever imagined, bringing these traditions into the mainstream while preserving their innate cultural integrity. Now Dayton is afforded the magical opportunity to re-appreciate the scope of Davis’ art in his exhibitions jointly at the Dayton Art Institute through January 30, in conjunction with the Arthur Primas collection of African American art, and the newly opened component of his work at spaces and galleries at the University of Dayton through January 28.
Dayton City Paper: This is your first major showing at DAI since your show there in 1981. How have things progressed since that last show?
Davis: What I noticed in my visits back and sitting with the work, reflecting back on the ‘81 show, is that I see more confidence; a more aggressive approach to the material gained over time because I was really trying to blend my academic training with my interest in the African culture; blending the decorative textile forms with the organic presence of improvisational approach.
DCP: And you’ve had several trips to Africa since that early show.
Davis: A total of 10 trips, but also two trips to China and South America, and one to Russia. I was amazed when I went to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, spending several days there and probably only on one floor, and I had a chance to see a lot of the early art forms that came out of Africa, with the use of the triangle and chevron forms which related to work from Korea, the American Indians and the Inuit – all of which gave me confidence that I’m on the right track.
DCP: Perhaps these motifs are universal, following migration patterns around the globe.
Davis: I think of all the migrational trails of the African diaspora. A book by a professor at Rutgers called “Africa and America Before the Mayflower” cited the Olmec heads of Mexico and how these gigantic sculptures had the curly hair, wide nose and full lips, and how Africans could have come down to Mexico from the North when navigational pathways were easier.
DCP: You have African music playing in the DAI gallery. How does that music motivate your visual output?
Davis: I think about that often, and music is the most constant aspect of artistic expression that I’m aware of. I’ve come to realize that these rhythmic kinds of pulsation are the most constant things in the universe, with our blood flow kept on a rhythm, the gait we walk on a rhythm, and speaking in a rhythmic form. Musical elements became a dictionary for me to understand what was happening on the surface in the play of the paper and the canvas, a blank sheet, which I was transforming, learning to listen to the strokes to help make artistic expression that has feeling and life.
Davis’ mentoring sensibility brought together Dayton African American artists to collaborate the 2006 centennial of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s birth with new pieces inspired by Dunbar’s poems. The momentum of this project was spurred by Davis into three years of “Dayton Skyscrapers,” in which the African American artists celebrated the achievements of African American leaders from our region, exhibited each year at Bing’s EbonNia Gallery, downtown’s Schuster Performing Arts Center, and Dayton Power & Light headquarters. Now it has reached another wonderful plateau.
Davis: Last May I read that Dayton Public Schools was building a new Dayton Boys Academy on the site of the old Roosevelt High School. I wrote to the superintendent and met with the heads of the Board of Education, presenting the idea of these young boys coming to school every day, being surrounded by positive images of individuals who looked like them. They loved the idea and somehow money was found from outside to purchase these pieces, helping the artists and generating a permanent collection for the academy. It was dedicated on Sunday, Dec. 6 and is open to the public. This will be the only public school in America with a contemporary African American art collection as an integral part of its learning experience.
The Dayton Art Institute is located at 456 Belmont Park North, featuring “A Conversation with Willis “Bing” Davis” in the Renaissance Auditorium at 2 p.m. on Jan. 23, (937) 223-5277. The University of Dayton has Davis’ photographs at Studio D of the ArtStreet complex in the 1st floor gallery of the Roesch Library, (937) 229-3261, and his ceramics and sculptures at the Rike Gallery, (937) 229-3261. A reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Jan. 20 at the Rike Center Gallery, and an artist’s talk will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 26 in Sears Recital Hall in the Jesse Philips Humanities Center.