Bing Davis has always seen the arts as the agents of change.
Willis "Bing" Davis has been crafted as an artist and a mentor since his childhood growing up in East Dayton, through his decades as an art instructor in the Dayton Public Schools, DePauw and Miami universities, and Central State University, and now to his "retirement" of sorts running his own studio and gallery since 2004. Through events, seminars and workshops at the Willis Bing Davis Art Studio and adjoining EbonNia Gallery on West Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, and through the SHANGO: Center for the Study of African-American Art and Culture nonprofit arm, Davis has used his prolific talents to pay tribute to his African-American heritage and culture, as well as provide a creative vehicle and outlet for his community.
We spoke to Davis in his studio about how his childhood mentors encouraged his future art career, the importance of support in Dayton's young African-American families and communities, and what inspires him about Dayton.
What do you remember about growing up in Dayton?
Willis "Bing Davis": I was born in Greer, S.C., part of that migration of people moving from the South to the North. I was four weeks old when we moved to Dayton, and I grew up not too far outside of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in east Dayton. Even though I was very small, I still cling to my southern roots, my Appalachian background is as important as my African background.
I have had many blessings: two of those blessings are being born black, and growing up in East Dayton. Even though it was an impoverished neighborhood, it was rich in terms of what mattered. It was a small community that had that extended family concept, where everybody knew everybody – there was that old-school idea that the children belonged to the community. Many African-Americans of that time might say, I didn’t know we were poor – that only speaks of the financial aspect. The athletic and artistic nurturing that I had, I still reflect back on that wonderful time growing up.
When did you first start creating art?
WD: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t create art. I was the fourth of six children, and even though we were raised mostly by a single parent, we all involved ourselves in the arts, either performing or visual. It’s always been there.
But in fifth grade, I made a commitment. I stood up in class and said "I’m going to be an artist when I grow up." Even if this city knew me as an athlete in junior high and high school, and the athletic scholarship got me to college, the art was always there. I had great role models and nurturing: One of my friends who lived across the alley, we did drawing contests just like we did 3-on-3 basketball. When the community is aware of you, that you’re the ones doing posters for the plays and advertising for the sales, they support you.
Why do you think that community nurturing is less prevalent now?
WD: I surmise that because the black community was small, you could maintain that extended family concept, whereas in a large project, you can’t. So I and others who grew up with that support could benefit from it. It’s more difficult now, but I still see it happening. If you have a high-rise and a thousand families, it’s harder to do that. It requires a different kind of a structure. Young people don’t have enough role models, or mentoring from significant members in the community and family to help with those growing pains.
What made you decide to open your business back in Dayton?
WD: I came back to Dayton after attending college (at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.) at age 21, and I started teaching here in Dayton. But then I left in 1970 and went back to teach at DePauw as its first full-time black faculty member. In ’76, I was ready to make another move. As an artist, I talked to my friends in New York City, looked south at Spartanburg, S.C., I looked west. It was a difficult decision, but I followed the advice of some of my mentors, who said, go where you feel the most nurtured. It may take you longer in the Midwest, but it will happen.
And in coming back here, I was able to fill several long-term dreams: at that time when I left Indiana, I came back to Miami University, where I had received my Master’s of Education, and taught there. But I had been learning and growing though this whole period, and that got woven into my decision-making. When I went back to DePauw, I taught what wasn’t in the curriciulum when I was a student there: I taught African-American Art. And (later), I thought, where better to share that knowledge than in my own hometown?
I also did not want to retire from teaching before I had a chance to teach at a historically black college or university. I had gotten to the point in my thinking and in my philosophy that in all that time up to that point, I had not shared my knowledge and experience with a significant number of African-American students. I had an opportunity to go teach at Central State University in Wilberforce from Miami, which afforded me that unique opportunity, and that solidified my anchoring here.
And then for years, most of my art production took place in basements, garages or attics, but part of my goal was also sharing my interest and knowledge and art with the community, and broadening their understanding and appreciation of art and culture. And as I was approaching retirement in the late '90s, I wanted to take the studio out of the home and into the heart of the community, and make it more accessible for young/emerging artists and the greater community.
How do you use your art to mentor and teach about African-American heritage and culture?
Teaching is sharing. I learned early on that you don’t do very much by yourself. Through my culture and art training, I learned from older mentors that you have to give back. You have to share. And it’s not enough just for you to excel and achieve. What we try to do here is we try to incorporate the creative production with service to the community. I try to use my gift to enhance the space where I live.
There are some concrete things that have changed over the years, like the Dayton Skyscrapers project. Most people don’t see Dayton as a big skyscaper town. I challenged contemporary African-American artists to look in the historic African-American Dayton community, and identify an individual, deceased or alive, who excelled or gave back to his community in some way. I told them, you do the research, and create a piece in your own medium and we'll display it at EbonNia Gallery. We ran it for three years and ended up with 65 images. Now, we run it every other year.
Then when they tore down the prominent African American elementary school in our area, Roosevelt (High School), we made a presentation to the school board to have the Dayton Skyscrapers project on display in the new school. We pursuaded them to purchase all of the works from the artists, and when the Dayton Boys Preparatory Academy at Roosevelt Commons opened in 2010, each of these works were placed in prominent locations on the school’s three floors, so that no matter where a black boy goes, he’s going to always see a positive role model that looks like him.
As a result, it became the only public school in America that opened with a contemporary African American art collection as part of its learning environment. We’re talking with other cities about how to replicate this now.
When you think about Black History Month for Dayton, who do you think of, who inspires you?
WD: Two historians come to mind who have helped communicate us. One we just lost a couple of weeks ago, Charles Austin who was an African American historian, who didn’t have any high-faluting degrees and he was raw, but he had been documenting the African American history of Dayton almost all of his adult life. And then we have the great in our midst by the name of Margaret Peters: she has published a book on the history of African Americans in Dayton, right back to when the first Blacks had come.
I think of (civil rights leader) W.S. Macintosh, of (Dayton's first African-American mayor) James H. McGee, of Don G. Black, the founder of Dayton's first African-American newspaper, of inventor/scientist James A. Parsons.
What inspires you about Dayton?
WD: I love Dayton. It’s been very special, and I think there are so many wonderful people around here. We’re just scratching the surface. The potential of it inspires me, the potential of what’s being suggested, whether it’s the Arcade or the river redevelopment, or the revitalization of its communities, and this corridor (Wright-Dunbar) that has overcome its past and been given its just due. We have to realize that if we lift up all the parts of our community, the whole community benefits.
There’s an outstanding entrepreneurial nature that thrives here. If we embrace that, the city grows. It’s the valley of innovation and creativity. It didn’t stop; it’s still here, The innovation is here; the skills are here.
We pride ourselves on being a welcoming community, and we have to mean that, and that has to translate into actions. Then we will have more resources to build a great community, and that comes from work with our Hispanic brothers and sisters, our Turkish brothers and sisters, our Iranian brothers and sisters.
And if we can do that, why not Dayton?