Behind the Eyes of Dexter Davis
Dexter Davis stands watching, still as a statue, in the shadows of the doors leading to the Cleveland Museum of Art's contemporary gallery.
As he has every workday for nearly 20 years, he nods at the regulars — the elderly, the bored, the curious — who return to the same paintings, finding new meaning in a crossed arm, a stroke of paint. He sees the art student, cross-legged on the floor, head bobbing as he mimics the arc of a sculpture on a notepad. He listens as guests talk passionately — and oftentimes wrongly — about the paintings.
Davis, a security guard at the museum since 1992, has given thousands of people directions to the bathroom, asked hundreds of people to put away their cameras and once interrupted a New Age woman's make-out session with one of the museum's Buddha statues.
Visitors think of Davis — if they think of him at all — as a mere accessory to their personal art experience. What they don't know is that the guard with the short, curly white hair, cotton-ball beard and trumpetlike laugh is actually an artist on the brink of fame. His art is a kind of therapy, as he visits and revisits the deaths of his family members, his violent childhood in Hough and his struggles with depression. In the process of healing himself, Davis, 47, creates contemporary paintings that sell for thousands.
His last show, Monsters and Ghosts, sold out within weeks. Last year, his haunting collage of hands, eyes and teeth, Black Heads, was one of only 28 pieces purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Critics say his name will soon be known by art dealers throughout the country — yet Davis still has trouble paying his cell phone bill.
"That's the funny thing about artists," says Henry Adams, a Case Western Reserve University professor of American art who has studied Davis' work extensively. "On the one hand, they live this life in poverty. On the other hand, they're celebrities. ... I think Dexter epitomizes that paradox perfectly."
Scattered across the bottom of Black Heads' canvas is a ritualistic pasting of small black babies curled in the fetal position. They look cozy, warm and secure, except for one small thing. A large gun is inside each baby's head.
"Babies are symbolic of the moment when everything begins," Davis says. "At that moment of birth, they are untouched. They are still innocent. But in this image, it's as if they have been programmed to connect with violence. The gun is born inside the baby before the baby is born."
Living in Hough in the 1960s, Davis had a front-seat view to the city's racial tension. The second-youngest of nine children, Davis was a small, quiet child whose days were marked by the sounds of gunshots.
"At the apartment next door to our house, there was always an ambulance or a police car. People were always killing each other," he says matter-of-factly.
At night, Davis would huddle in one bed with his siblings as sirens rang out and police lights colored the walls. "[Dexter] was scared. We were all scared," says Davis' older sister, Sylvia Davis. "To this day, I still can't go to sleep without the light on."
One summer day when Davis was about 8, he was sitting on his front porch, escaping the heat in his house, when a black Cadillac rolled up. Two men got out, opened the trunk and threw a body in front of Davis' yard. "I screamed and screamed and screamed," he remembers.
To survive, Davis tucked this and other violent moments away in the recesses of his mind. Years later, when he heard war vets talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, he understood what they were feeling.
For protection, Davis took refuge in art. He would sketch anything: a flower, an animal, the images in his sister's dreams. "Dexter was always drawing," Sylvia says. "At church, at home, at school. He had this gift from God. Nothing could distract him."
Davis' parents supported his passion. His father, who worked at Republic Steel, came home with used art books. His mother, Davis' biggest cheerleader, was always telling him to keep drawing. She saw his art as his ticket to a better life, Sylvia says.
Even as a child, Davis was looking for the deeper meaning in a subject. "When I drew an apple, I would always include a shadow or ghost or reflection in the apple," he says.
At West Tech High School, Davis was not the best drawer or painter. But art teacher William Martin Jean saw rawness, emotion and promise in his student's work. Jean took Davis under his wing. He took him to see Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater and introduced him to Robert Bateman, a Canadian painter who specialized in wildlife scenes.
"William Jean," Davis says, blinking back tears, "became my mentor, my friend, my family." One of the best things Jean did was to help Davis secure a scholarship to the Cleveland Institute of Art, making him the first member of his family to attend college.
"My mother was so happy," says Davis. "I was grateful that I could do that for her."
At CIA, Davis became known for his animated, jumpy prints, which mimicked his newly confident, caffeinated personality. A typical Davis portrait wasn't limited by any one medium. It contained watercolor, charcoal, wood blocks and cutout words.
"I liked variety," Davis says. "I didn't want to stick to one material. It felt redundant."
By 1990, Davis was approaching graduation and looking toward his future. He planned to get his master's in fine art and teach part time. But as he was putting the finishing touches on his portfolio, Davis got a phone call. His mother had suffered a stroke. Davis rushed to the hospital to be with her.
She died two weeks later.
Davis was inconsolable. "I loved her so much," he says. "You don't even realize how much you love someone until they're no longer there. And then you can't do anything about it."
Davis collapsed into his grief. He abandoned his graduate school plans and went to live with his sister, Maxine, in Columbus. For a year, he didn't pick up his paintbrush.
The actions inside Black Heads appear to be happening in the mouth of a sharp-toothed monster. "I think of it like purgatory," says Davis. "It's like everything in the piece is basically doomed."
It is symbolic of a psychological experience, Davis says. "It's like when people get trapped in a situation and feel like they can't get out of it. There's so much anxiety. You feel like you're being swallowed by a beast."
Davis' studio is in a cramped first-floor apartment in Cleveland's Hough neighborhood. The floor is lined with cardboard, and oversized corkboards cover the wall where Davis has pinned rough charcoal-lined sketches of his next project, which involves full trees.
Framed on Davis' walls are a softly focused, pastel-colored Renaissance depiction of God, the Virgin Mary and Jesus by his friend Derrick Quarles and a contemporary print of a man running in his underwear by friend and co-worker Mervin Clary. Davis trades his work for other pieces he admires. "I can't put my own work up," he says. "That would be like putting up pictures of myself all over the walls. It would feel strange."
Davis' work is ultrapersonal. He refers to his sketch pads, which he takes with him everywhere, as "visual journals." The artist works out his feelings, emotions and thoughts on the canvas.
"Clearly, there's an internal need that his art is fulfilling, beyond just making a pretty design that you put on the wall," says CWRU's Adams.
When Davis stopped painting the year after his mother's death, it was almost as if he stopped living. After the funeral, Davis spent long hours in bed, not moving for days. Creating art at that point felt like a physical and mental burden. "I didn't see the point," he says.
A year after his mother's death, Davis forced himself to leave his self-imposed captivity. He moved back to Cleveland, setting up camp in a friend's home in Cleveland Heights. He began to paint in the living room. The first picture he created was of his mother.
The piece, titled The Dream, features a ghostlike face of a beautiful woman. In the upper corner of the canvas, curly black wisps of wind whip around the woman's face. She's holding an upside-down teddy bear. "It was my way of letting my mother go," he says.
The painting signified the beginning of Davis' healing. He re-connected with friends and began leading community art classes to pay his bills.
One morning, while teaching at the Cleveland Museum of Art, he learned about an opening for a security guard. On a whim, he applied — and got the position.
"I never meant to stay as a security guard," Davis says with a laugh. "It just sort of happened that way."
But the job provided many of the things the artist needed: stability, money and steady work. It also gave him an unexpected benefit: inspiration.
Every day, he walked the halls, staring at the Manets and Monets, watching sunlight tickle the pink faces of the painters' subjects. On breaks, he sat cross-legged in the Rodin gallery, sketching his thoughts on a small, pocket-sized notebook.
"The collections inspired me," he says. "The more time I spent looking at the masters, the better my own work got."
He also had a supportive group of cohorts. The museum has artists in every department — a dozen in the security division alone. "If you're an artist, you can't find a more ideal work situation," says security guard and painter James McNamara. "The museum is like a history book of the world of art."
As Davis' life became more stable, his work grew more prodigious. His abstract collages often featured faces and hands interspersed with swatches of wallpaper, carpet and torn photographs. The work displayed raw, rough emotion. In every piece Davis seemed to put himself through an X-ray machine.
Davis was pleased with his work, hanging it in Tremont coffee and music shops and anywhere else owners would let him.
In 1994, Davis learned that Spaces Gallery was putting on a show of the best artists in the city who were younger than 30. The gallery was "looking for the people who would be the voices of their generation," says William Busta, owner of William Busta Gallery and a curator of the exhibit.
Davis, along with hundreds of other artists, submitted his work. Though Busta found Davis' work grotesque and disjointed, Julie Fehrenbach, co-curator of the show, pushed hard for Davis.
She had bought a 5-by-7 collage of his after seeing it hanging in a Tremont shop. "I had a real emotional response to the piece," Fehrenbach recalls. "I saw it and said I had to have it."
Fehrenbach thought Davis was an artist on the rise, finding his portfolio "really dramatic and visually intriguing."
Eventually, she won Busta over. And by the time the show premiered, featuring artists such as Kevin Everson, who would later go on to show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and Derek Hess, whose concert fliers have been shown on MTV, Busta was himself a hardcore Davis fan.
"Works of art that are good always have a way of worming their way into your soul and intellect," Busta says.
In the next few years, Davis' work grew more eccentric and experimental. He became attached to the idea of using "found art" in his pieces. He would pluck aluminum foil, newsprint and carpet fragments from dumpsters, and grass, dirt and weeds from the ground. "I wanted the work to be elemental, made of used pieces that had their own stories already," he says.
Davis decided that the ultimate source material was a dead animal. He spent a day scouring the city in search of one to use. He returned home empty-handed. But a friend kept looking and surprised him with a shoebox wrapped in ribbon. Inside was the severed, cleaned head of a German shepherd.
"I was nauseous at first," Davis admits. But then he used the teeth in a series he was working on about rituals.
"I was thinking about Native Americans, how when they kill an animal, they use every part of it as sort of an homage," Davis says. "My work was kind of like that."
This novel approach to art convinced Busta that Davis was an artist with a loud, emphatic voice that needed to be heard. He hosted a solo show for him at his gallery in 1997. There, Davis' pulsing, textured work caught the attention of members of the city's cultural vanguard, who passed his name along to friends and connections.
Collector Tom Miller heard about Davis from a friend who had bought some of his pieces. Miller purchased Davis' painting Twelve Dead: No. 7. "I really liked the work. It was very different — more of a collage than a painting," he says. "Everything in the picture seemed to be in the right place."
In the next few years, both the Cleveland Clinic and Progressive Insurance, which invest in promising local artists, bought a few of his works for their galleres.
But attention came at a price. Davis was slow to produce much quality work in the mid 2000s, hitting a low point around 2005. "In life, artists go through better periods and worse periods," Busta says.
Then tragedy struck once more.
On Christmas Eve 2007, Davis was putting together a holiday celebration. He turned on the oven to heat some food and went to a friend's apartment for a few minutes. The minutes stretched on, and Davis forgot all about his oven until he smelled smoke. When he opened the apartment door, flames were everywhere.
He lost almost everything in the fire: his work, his clothes, his photos. He had no insurance. Davis was suddenly homeless and in a losing fight with the owner of the building. He was forced to file bankruptcy.
"Dexter was really hurt over it," says his sister Sylvia. "I kept telling him it was an electrical fire." It wasn't his fault, she says.
Davis didn't hear Sylvia or anyone else who tried to comfort him. Once again, he began losing himself in grief.
"I was so depressed, so miserable," Davis says. It was hard for him to get up in the morning and go to work. He stopped painting for two years.
But his community wouldn't let him retreat completely. The Red Cross found Davis temporary shelter and clothing. Friends and strangers provided food, clothing and love. Jean Kubota Cassill, the widow of H. Carroll Cassill, one of Davis' former professors, gave the artist many of her husband's former tools and art supplies.
"Dexter was one of my husband's favorites," she says. "He admired Dexter for sticking to the guard job and staying in Cleveland when so many of his students had moved to other cities and positions. I felt Dexter deserved whatever I could give him."
Slowly, Davis started to heal and to pick up a paintbrush again. "Ironically, I do my best work when I'm miserable," he says.
One painting led to another and another, until Davis had the beginnings of a new body of work. He sent images of the collection to Busta, who offered the artist his first solo show in 10 years.
The top of Black Heads contains a print by H. Carroll Cassill, given to Davis before his death. The print features a sketch of Icarus. In Greek mythology, Icarus was imprisoned with his father. To escape, Icarus' father constructed a pair of wings from feathers and wax. He warned his son not to fly too close to the sun or his wings would melt. Icarus didn't listen, his wings caught fire and he fell to his death.
The print was one of the few works that survived the apartment fire, though its edges were burned and smudged with soot. "The symbolism of the story and its parallel with my own life was scary," Davis says. "But I am still trying to reach the heavens."
On Jan. 7, 2011, the morning of Davis' opening night, the artist awoke early with a feeling of dread. "I felt vulnerable and scared," he says. "I suddenly didn't know if the work was any good."
And with freezing, stinging winds outside, Davis didn't even know if anyone would come to the show.
He didn't have to worry. By the 5 p.m. opening, the gallery was packed with friends, supporters, media and colleagues.
Holding glasses of wine, visitors walked the gallery, looking at drawings of bloodied eyes, floating hands and disjointed skeletons. The series, called Monsters and Ghosts, was supposed to represent men at war with themselves and each other. The conflict was revealed in jumpy, flashy images mimicking the blast and sound of a gun. The works featured soulful, sad eyes outlined in red. The eyes were like microphones. "I saw the whole African-American experience revealed in the work," says CWRU's Adams.
The day before the exhibit closed, Heather Lemonedes, the Cleveland Museum of Art's curator of drawings, stopped by. Lemonedes was transfixed by the images — especially by Black Heads.
"I was really astonished by what I saw," she says. "I was not really expecting to be so blown away by the work."
Davis was going to become an artist of significance. The museum, she knew immediately, needed to purchase one of his pieces.
Lemonedes arrived at the museum's office the next day and started talking with the traders and contemporary curators about acquiring Black Heads. A committee brought the proposition to the museum's chief curator, who agreed that they needed to purchase a piece.
In June, the museum acquired Black Heads for an undisclosed price. The museum had never before purchased a work of art from one of its own security guards.
In Black Heads, a ribbon of dark handprints bisects the canvas like a belt. Hands are one of Davis' favorite images.
"When I was in college, I went to the south of France. We had a tour guide who took us to these underground caves," Davis says. "It was one of the most impressionable moments of my life. There were all these cave paintings — and what I will never forget about them were the hand paintings [of the artists]. They were just this small human touch on the surface of the world. That signature will be there forever."
In October, Davis arrived at the museum's contemporary gallery. He paced the halls like an anxious groom, waiting for the movers to place Black Heads on the wall, where it would hang until January 2012. When the movers finally unveiled the piece, placing it between portraits by famed artists Francesco Clemente and Philip Guston, Davis couldn't speak.
"It was spiritual," he says.
"I couldn't stop looking at it. I couldn't believe it. I felt like a god," he says. "For so many years, I've walked the floors of the museum, fantasizing that one day my work might be shown. I can't even believe that this is my reality."
For the three months, Davis was mostly stationed in the contemporary gallery. He watched as visitors ogled, stared and examined his piece. Davis tried his best to keep still and quiet, but pride and excitement often got the best of him.
When a Chilean couple asked him to take a picture of their family in front of the piece, Davis broke form. "I'm the artist," he told them. "That's my work!" Excited, the family asked another visitor to take a picture of the whole family with Davis.
Today, Black Heads is protected in bubble wrap and placed carefully in storage. Davis is back on his regular guard rotation. "I still have a lot of debts and a lot of bills to pay," he says.
But at night, Davis continues to work on his current collection Personal Matters, which will premiere at the William Busta Gallery in September. The pieces, the beginnings of which are pinned to his office corkboard, will focus on his childhood memories and how those moments affect him today.
Target-practice sheets serve as the canvas of four of these paintings. Davis has outlined one of the bodies in blue and added a dash of red to the chest of another. The series is called Bodies. It addresses the violence Davis witnessed as a child.
"This series has been my talk therapy," he says. "I'm trying to find closure in my childhood and to communicate my story without being preachy or feeling sorry for myself."
Davis finally feels ready to make peace with his past. "I'm grateful for it all," he says. "It's gotten me to today."
Meet three more artists on the museum's security team.
Anthony Valentino Robinson
12:00 AM EST
April 21, 2012