“I was the one who said what I wanted to do, rather than my well-meaning friends and family who already said, ‘He’s our next basketball player. He’s our next tracker.'”
Even so, he first made a name for himself as a hoop and sprinter.
While at Wilbur Wright High School, he was a two-time All-City basketball player and earned Negro All-State honors from the black newspaper, the Cleveland Call & Post.
He then played basketball and ran track at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and is now in the school’s athletics hall of fame.
Thanks to sport, he was able to obtain a university degree and make art his vocation.
At 84, he is now an internationally acclaimed entertainer and one of Dayton’s favorite sons, a beloved figure, still tall and skinny, with an ubiquitous kufi crowning his head and a tuft of white whiskers clinging to his chin. .
And that brings us to today and The Contemporary Dayton gallery in downtown Dayton where his latest exhibition – titled Kneel – wraps up a 10-week run with one last weekend on view. After that, it will likely end up in other galleries across the country, as most of his other work is now.
Kneel — which metaphorically links Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests a few years ago and the kneeling act of a Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd — includes a series of kneels in the found art form that Davis kiss so often.
This time he used salvaged wood and nails and well-worn footballs he got from Dunbar High School, which when explained adds special meaning.
The purpose of the exhibit is to address issues such as police brutality, youth at risk, and community hope. And the knees allow viewers to actually participate.
On the wall overlooking the exhibit is a quote from Ida B. Wells Barnett, the investigative journalist and civil rights activist of more than 100 years ago who was one of the founders of the NAACP and is best known for her work documenting lynchings in America. :
“I am just a voice through which we tell the story of the lynching. I’ve said it so many times that I know it by heart. I don’t have to embellish. He charts his own path. »
Since this exhibit — which is dedicated to the two prominent black police chiefs in Dayton history, Tyree Bloomfield and Ronald Lowe Sr., both friends of Davis — opened on Nov. 5, a few people have asked Davis about his “art of protest”.
He also heard, “Oh, I didn’t know you were so mad.”
To each, he said, “No”.
“It’s not protest art, it’s just an extension of what I see.”
He also said, “I’m not angry. You can’t make art out of anger. You make art for love. I like people. I love this community and want to deeply express what I see and feel.
That said, he admitted to being “devastated” by the video of the cop kneeling 9 minutes and 42 seconds on George Floyd’s neck, an act a jury ruled second-degree murder and worthy of a jail sentence. 22 and a half years in prison.
“One of the misconceptions we all have about lynchings is that it’s a rope and a tree,” said Michael Goodson, curator of The Contemporary Dayton. “But they unfold in so many, many ways.”
Several black men in his community – including some of our most well-known athletes and coaches – have stories of run-ins with authorities despite doing nothing wrong. And many could have degenerated into a single misinterpreted gesture.
Davis had a heartbreaking encounter seven years ago as he returned from being honored at DePauw.
An irate white motorist driving targeted Davis, whom he thought was going too slow, and called police saying a black man was driving on I-70 waving a gun.
The next thing Davis knew, his vehicle was surrounded by four highway patrol cars and he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed.
There was no gun or threat and eventually a shaken Davis was released.
It was then that he said he asked a young patrolman what would have happened if he had reached into the glove compartment to take his glasses.
He said to me, “I would have shot you.”
“Art as an agent of change”
Davis was born in South Carolina where his family had been sharecroppers.
Once they moved to Ohio, her father left the family, which included six children.
Although Davis’ mother only had a third-grade education, she worked two jobs — as a hotel maid and as a cook at two downtown restaurants — and showed she had a Ph.D. in survival, in education and in love.
Bing’s late brother, John, once told me how they both roamed the back alleys of their East Dayton neighborhood and looked through trash cans.
“I was looking for pop bottles and copper wire, anything I could sell, so we had 10 cents for Jefferson Street movies,” he said.
“But Bing would look for small artifacts, broken earrings, anything to use in his art. He would find pencil stubs and take them home and draw with them.
And Bing’s mother ironed out the creases of the brown paper bags so he had flat paper to draw on.
“There was a lady named Miss Walker who came to our East Dayton neighborhood twice a week and gave free arts and crafts classes,” Davis said. “I’d be playing 3-on-3 in the gym when she came over, so I’d get someone to guard my spot on the court, and then I’d go do arts and crafts.”
Once he was 16 – although his careers in art and sports were both promising – he considered quitting high school and finding a job to help the family.
“In my neighborhood, like a lot of black neighborhoods here in the 1950s, men dropped out of school when they were 16,” he said. “They got a work permit and went into the factories – specifically the bottling company and the meatpacking plant in East Dayton.”
But when coach Dean Dooley – a guiding force for Davis, as was Jack Reynolds, the superintendent of the neighborhood recreation center – heard that Bing was considering dropping out of school, he gave her a directive:
“I thought you wanted to be an artist?” You have to go to college to graduate, and sports will help you get there.
Although Davis was an outstanding athlete and a good student, he received no scholarship offers.
Dooley eventually got him into DePauw, where he became one of five blacks on campus.
He excelled in the classroom—later earning his master’s degree at the University of Miami—and became an educator, teaching first in the Dayton public school system, then at Central State, Wright State, and DePauw.
Early in his career, he made the revelation that has defined him ever since:
“I learned that art is more than pretty paintings you put on the wall.
“In 1966, I stopped teaching art and started teaching people. I discovered that you can use art as an agent of change and help build better people.
found the art
As Davis was showing me around his exhibit the other day, he said, “Almost everything here is found on the streets, highways, and alleys. Other things are everyday objects that are reused.
An elaborate mask hanging on the wall that commemorated the hiring of a new police chief included an old tire he found abandoned on Highway 35 and urban Maasai-like prayer beads that had been gizmos that he had found at Mendelsons.
And then there were the soccer balls that are at the heart of those knees.
“It’s a great concept and I have Michael to thank for that,” he said. “He contacted Dunbar. The idea was to get balls actually used by the boys on the soccer team.
“Think of how many kids have held these balls and thought about going to the NFL or playing college or just making their family proud. Wearing these balls, they sweat and they strain and they dream .
“All of these footballs now have an energy and a power to them. One that we hope we can tap into. And one that you would never want to be cut short by the things we remembered here.
It is truly an example of communal love.