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Busts of Rev. Dr. Donald W. Thompson and choir director Euna M. Thompson, By Lois Ramey Busts of Rev. Dr. Donald W. Thompson and choir director Euna M. Thompson, By Lois Ramey
Past, Present, and Future: A students work on one of the bulletin boards Past, Present, and Future: A students work on one of the bulletin boards

Nudging everybody skyward

By Jane Black

If I’ve heard him say it once, I’ve heard him say it a hundred times – “I walk on the shoulders of my ancestors.” Willis “Bing” Davis never forgets that he is not in this alone. And in my opinion, his greatest skill of all is helping others see that they are not alone, either. Bing remembers that he didn’t get here without a lot of help, and he knows his real job is not art or teaching, but helping others move forward along their paths, as he walks his own. Everyone I know admires this larger-than-life guy, who seems to be and do it all. He spans an amazing range, and not just because he’s so darn tall. Sitting in a meeting with him the other day, he casually mentioned something he has quietly pulled off – something that is difficult and remarkable. And he has made look so easy. I know it’s not.

Past, Present, and Future: A students work on one of the bulletin boards

It has to do with the Dayton Public School’s Boys Preparatory Academy at Roosevelt Commons. Back when the whole community was still arguing about whether it was better to hang on to beautiful old Roosevelt High, or if we should create something new, Bing was busy with an idea that would feed the need for the new while honoring the past. He was deep into creating the “Dayton Skyscrapers” project.

Like a lot of things, this art initiative grew out of a one-off in 2006, when 17 regional African-American artists observed the 100th anniversary of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s death by creating artworks inspired by his poems. If we can commemorate one great Daytonian, thought Bing, why not others? So he presented the concept to his colleagues, asking each to pick an important local figure, past or present, research his or her accomplishments, and create a work of art about this “Skyscraper.”

This led to three years of public exhibitions at Bing’s gallery, EbonNia, in the Schuster Center Wintergarden and at the corporate headquarters of Dayton Power & Light. And then again, the project morphed into something even better. With a new school in the works, Bing shepherded through the presentation and sale of the pieces to DPS, ensuring a permanent public display of this living art history lesson in the beautiful new building designed by Lorenz + Williams, Inc. (now known as LWC, Inc.). I missed the open house on Dec. 5, but I stopped in the other day to see the outcome and it is something.

More than 60 original artworks by 16 artists (Curtis Barnes Sr., Abner Cope, Dwayne Daniel, Clifford Darrett, ‘Bing’ Davis, Jerome Ingram, Lois Fortson, Robert Parkey III, James Pate, Thelma Patterson, William Pettiford III, Paula Ramey, Lauren Scott, Francis Turner, Reginald Weaver and Ronnie Williams) are prominently displayed in the public elementary school. These two- and three-dimensional pieces are not relegated to a single room, but are interwoven with bulletin boards, drinking fountains and lockers. They are beautiful faces watching over these young boys, encouraging responsibility and achievement.

Busts of Rev. Dr. Donald W. Thompson and choir director Euna M. Thompson, By Lois Ramey

Clearly it’s a project that has benefited a number of artists and will go on to influence, enlighten and strengthen a lot of kids for a lot of years. And when Bing talks about the project, what he comes back to again and again is that it’s replicable, a model for something that could happen in cities all over the country.

And now, it’s time for “Sky-4,” as the reminder tacked up on the wall in Bing’s studio abbreviated it. The next exhibit commemorating Dayton’s leaders is on view at EbonNia Gallery at 1135 W. Third St., through Jan. 28. It will be seen at the Schuster Center Feb. 1-28 and at DP&L headquarters March 1-28. But don’t miss “Sky 1, 2 and 3,” gracing the walls at the new school at 2014 W. Third St., which also includes repurposed architectural features from the original high school. You won’t find a more inspiring place to look at art.

Jane A. Black is a fiber artist and the executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. Visit the gallery at 118 N. Jefferson St. or visit their website at www.daytonvisualarts.org. Follow her on Twitter @lookingabout. She can be reached at contactus@daytoncitypaper.com.

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