The first major traveling exhibition of works by Ulysses Davis in more than 25 years premieres at the High Museum of Art
today. Davis was a barber in Savannah, Georgia, who was also a self-taught woodcarver of remarkable talent. He created a body of highly refined sculpture that expresses his humor, dignity and deep faith. The exhibition offers an opportunity for audiences to appreciate Davis’ remarkable work, which is rarely seen outside of Savannah.
“The Treasure of Ulysses Davis,” which was organized in collaboration with the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation of Savannah, Georgia, will feature approximately 115 works drawn from both collections and select private lenders. It will be accompanied by the first significant catalogue dedicated to Ulysses Davis. Opening in Atlanta December 6, 2008, “The Treasure of Ulysses Davis” will remain on view through April 5, 2009, before traveling to the American Folk Art Museum in New York and other national venues to be announced.
“The High is deeply committed to folk and self-taught art. We are the only major museum in North America to have a curatorial department specifically devoted to the field,” said Michael E. Shapiro, Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr. Director of the High Museum of Art. “We believe that Davis’ work is sure to excite visitors with its energy, whimsy and drama.”
“The Treasure of Ulysses Davis” will include representative works from every genre in which Davis worked: portraits of U.S. and African leaders, religious images, patriotic works, works influenced by African forms, fantasy, flora and fauna, love, humor, abstract decorative objects and utilitarian objects such as canes and furniture. The exhibition will feature Davis’ best-known artwork, a series of 40 carved busts of all the U.S. Presidents through George H. W. Bush from the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation collection. Other highlights include his largest sculpture, a moving depiction of “Jesus on the Cross,” from the High’s permanent collection, and a varied selection of Davis’ fantasy work—his “Created Beasts” and “Creatures from another Planet.” A range of rarely seen carvings from private collections will also be on view.
Approximately 80 carvings in the exhibition will be lent from the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, which acquired most of Davis’ work after he passed away, fulfilling his desire to keep his body of work intact. The exhibition will also include 10 works from the High’s permanent collection and a selection of pieces owned by other museums and collectors. The title is inspired by Davis’ own reflections on his work: “These things are very dear to me. They’re a part of me. . . . They’re my treasure. If I sold these, I’d be really poor.”
“In many ways, Ulysses Davis’ artwork is a paradox,” says Susan Crawley, the High’s Curator of Folk Art. “Its sources could range from prosaic advertising images to the artist’s extravagant imagination, its moods from whimsical fantasy to solemn dignity, its forms from lavishly ornamental to radically simplified. Yet despite these extremes, it is always recognizable as his. Davis’ work is widely esteemed but too rarely seen.”
During his lifetime, Davis carved more than three hundred wood figures, reliefs and furniture pieces, ranging in height from six to over 40 inches tall. He often used stacking boards from freighters, which he reduced with a hatchet before refining the form with chisels and knives. To add textural details he sometimes used tools of his barbering trade, such as the blade of his hair clippers, or stamps he had learned to fabricate during his career as a railroad blacksmith’s assistant.
Ulysses Davis - Ulysses Davis was born in 1914 in Fitzgerald, Georgia. He learned metalworking from his father, a blacksmith, and began carving when he was eleven. He left school after the tenth grade to help support his family by working for the railroad. After being laid off in the early 1950s, he began barbering in a shop he built behind his home in Savannah, Georgia, carving figures from wood in his spare time. He decorated the outside of his barbershop, which he filled with his reliefs and freestanding carvings—rarely selling his work.
Ulysses Davis was featured in the seminal touring exhibition “Black Folk Art in America: 1930–1980,” a group of 50 works presented at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1982. Examples of Davis’ carvings have also been included in exhibitions such as “Rings: Five Passions in World Art,” at the High during the 1996 Olympic Games; and “Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1776–1976,” at the Library of Congress in 1978.
“The Treasure of Ulysses Davis” is organized by the High Museum of Art in collaboration with the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation of Savannah, Georgia. This exhibition has been made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts as part of the American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius initiative and generous support from The Henry Luce Foundation with additional support provided by The Judith Rothschild Foundation.