Art is one of the oldest forms of human expression. Having emerged as a cultural tool, it provides a voice for emotions, thoughts and feelings when words aren’t enough. Self-taught artist Harry L. Davis understands art’s power and works diligently to create genuine collections. “Paint what you love and love what you paint,” he offers. A professional artist for 35 years, Davis’ current oil paintings touch on love, honor, purpose and belonging in “Africa to American.” Now hanging at the Art Factory (721 Surrey Street), the work depicts everything from jazz musicians to seascapes to the African Serengeti, all showcasing vibrant colors and glossy textures.
The collection has been in the works for quite some time. According to the artist, everything hung at the Art Factory is representative of his last 10 years. “‘Africa to American’ simply refers to the fact that as black people living in America, we are all Americans, but our original home was Africa,” he states.
Critics have hailed Davis as one of the best contemporary artists of his generation. Collectors of his work include famous African American actors like Denzel Washington, Nell Carter and Halle Berry. “[It was] just being in the right place at the right time,” Davis says about his celebrity clientele. “I used to travel to New York City once or twice a year during the summer months some years ago and sell my art on the streets.”
Born and raised in Wilmington, the 64-year-old stumbled upon his future as a painter. While serving as a military policeman at Fort Bragg, Davis took a bullet in the spine when a mentally unstable MP discharged his weapon in the Mess Hall. “I turned to art as a means of therapy after my mother bought me a paint-by-numbers kit,” Davis informs. “I have always had a talent for drawing but tried painting.”
Having no formal art training, he learned everything through trial-and-error. Over the years, though, Davis developed his own successful techniques. “I always start with a detailed sketch,” he explains, “[then I] apply a thin undercoat of paint that allows the drawing to show through. Once the undercoat is dry, I begin painting. A painting can take anywhere from two days, in the case of landscapes, to two weeks with more complicated paintings.”
Davis’ shiny textures attract the eye, and the haunting faces keep the viewer’s attention. His subjects look real and dynamic, with stories all their own to tell.
Two of his pieces, “Yellow Girl” and “Yellow Man,” are especially intriguing. The close-ups of African faces don yellow paint and transcend the canvas. Their piercing eyes act as windows to troubled souls. Shadows and life-like features ensure the faces stick with viewers long after leaving the gallery.
“I am inspired by anything that moves me emotionally,” Davis says—“colors, faces, individuals who show strength, determination. Since most of my work is done from photographs, there must be something in the picture that affects me on an emotional level.”
“The Pipe Player” shows golden hues which seem to calm the senses. Yet, dark tones create an eerie feeling and leave viewers wondering what lurks beneath the black. The pipe player’s eyes look down, as if intently focused on the music. “It’s one of my oldest paintings,” Davis remarks, “painted sometime around 1979. I think it almost has a kind of three-dimensional look to it, because of the use of lights and dark shadows.”
Shadow, color and texture give Davis’ work life. “I want the people to feel something, be moved in some way, when they look at my work,” Davis notes. “Whether they like it or not, at least [they will] feel something.”
Despite the amount of art depicting African people and scenes, Davis has never been to the country. “I love painting the people of Africa, the colors, the different tribal groups, the landscapes,” he explains. “Every tribal group or country has a different look.”
Audiences can see all of Davis’ work at the Art Factory during their normal business hours Tuesday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m., or by appointment.
Africa to American
Art Factory • 721 Surrey Street
Featuring art work by Harry Davis
Closes August 28th