Ken Davies: The Conjuror’s Paintbrush
by Laurencia Ciprus/Photos by Jeffery Lilly
Magic is the constant muse. Whether fooling neighborhood kids as a boy with sleight of hand, or the trickery of realistic trompe l’oeil paintings, Ken Davies’ masterful hand has mesmerized audiences for nearly nine decades. There were seminal moments and side roads along the journey, propelling his work to unimaginable destinations: The White House, The Metropolitan Opera, and a myriad of esteemed museums and galleries punctuating the globe. Luckily for Davies, the Yankee practicality of his father Bertrand – a mechanical drawing instructor – laid down compass points for the artistic odyssey and an ingrained skillset of foundational precision and perspective at an early age.
The nostalgic iconography throughout Davies’ paintings reflects an ideal childhood played out within the ‘Whaling City,” New Bedford Massachusetts. Davies’ canvases convey the impossible beauty and radiant light of changing seasons and open seas; scrimshaws and sailors’ stories; stalwart barns, Indian trading cards, and childhood toys. An evident fascination with tools and mechanical gadgets are the intimate memories of his grandfather’s Preston, England hardware store, cultivated during extended visits there with his mother. During a side-trip to the beach at Blackpool, England the boy was mesmerized by a Punch and Judy show – the puppets becoming recurrent icons throughout his oeuvre and also the catalyst for his educational growth. When he returned home to New England, he acquired his own set and began to present the magic and puppet shows in both New Bedford and Martha’s Vineyard on a stage built by his father. These events generated the revenue for Davies’ freshman year at Massachusetts School of Art in Boston.
This was also a time of creative expansion and self-discovery. Although his early work was rendered in watercolor – a challenging medium – his evident skill won him prizes and notoriety throughout high school. His first introduction to a museum was a transformative visit to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts en route to his college interview in 1943. This raised his bar for excellence; galvanizing the artist’s passion for realism. One look at William Michael Harnett’s painting, Old Models established the ignition point. In time, Davies would add his infinitely rich texture of technique and composition and form to the small clutch of artists comprising the realist movement, which along with Harnett, included New Haven, Connecticut native, John Haberle, John Frederick Peto, and Harnett school alumnus, Jefferson David Chalfant.
The artists in this genre venerated the mundane artifacts and ephemera of daily life, set in the odd juxtapositions that they would likely occur: newspaper clippings with hand-tools; toys and frayed ropes; old boots on blackboards. Unlike many artists who jogged and shuttled between styles, periods, and techniques, Davies kept his focus tight, limiting his concentration to trompe l’oeil still-forms and Precisionist works that celebrate light, architecture, and structure in homage to Charles Sheeler, Andrew Wyeth, and in more minimal renditions, Georgia O’Keefe.
With the GI Bill funding the effort, Davies moved his studies to The Yale University School of Art in 1946. Davies had already established his self-proclaimed ‘love affair’ with oil paint during his year at Mass Art. The slow drying medium allowed the luxury of time and manipulation necessary to infuse the canvas with precise detail. But it was at Yale that he began to lose the reverence he once held for the artistic elite. Davies dug in his heels and artistically pushed back against the academic mandates and class assignments for the avant garde with surreal, but tightly rendered responses. This is also where he established his unparalleled sense of self-definition which telegraphs through his significant works, Lighthouses in the Alps and Pocusmania – which garnered his first cash prize in the early 1950’s.
There were also life-affirming moments at Yale. Davies forged lifelong bonds with artist Rudolph Zallinger and Chairman of the art department, Lewis York. Zallinger was the hand behind the epic timeline mural, The Age of Reptile, still gracing the galleries of the Yale Peabody Museum which also bears the imprint of Ken Davies’ hand in the underpainting. Yale was also the place where Lincoln Kirsten of the Kirsten Gallery in New York, scouted Davies during his junior year and catapulted him into a group show with Paul Cadmus, Andrew Wyeth, and subsequent notoriety. His work sold, exhibition invitations flourished, and paintings found homes in esteemed institutions such as The Wadsworth Atheneum, The University of Nebraska, and in the collection of Standard Oil. A Fortune Magazine cover followed in 1950.
In the early ’50’s there was a detour in the journey which tested his intention. With a pregnant wife and lack of adequate revenue, Davies parted ways with Kirsten and opted into commercial art and illustration. It paid handsomely and afforded him notoriety with an array of illustration projects for numerous national imprints, the US Postal Service’s Metropolitan Opera, National Pharmaceutical postage stamps, and Austin Nichols Wild Turkey bourbon advertisements. Success aside, unlike his uncompromising posture while at Yale, Davies was now pleasing fickle advertising executives and magazine editors while putting his own artistic vision on the back burner.
True to his straightforward fashion, the artist reset his coordinates and placed more emphasis on teaching: first at The Whitney School and then at The Paier School of Art in Hamden Connecticut. Crafting a stringent curriculum adherent to the atelier model of European instruction dating back to the Middle Ages through 18th and 19th century, Davies established an incubator for a cadre of esteemed illustrators and artists such as Michael Theise, Paul Lipp, and Daniel Patrick Buckley, who would later became his protégées.
Ken Davies was finally able to return to the business of his own art and began producing work for New York’s Hirschl and Adler Galleries until he brought his work back to Connecticut in 1989. Davies joined forces first with Richard Greene’s gallery in Guilford and then The Cavelier Gallery in Greenwich, which proved instrumental in orchestrating an ambitious retrospective for his 80th birthday at The Washington Country Museum of Fine Art in Hagerstown, Maryland and The New Bedford Whaling Museum. Davies somehow portended his own future while drafting his curriculum design for Paier and via his new acquaintance with Richard Greene.
There was further magic to be realized when in 2013 Davies was faced with a professional dilemma. What does an artist do when he has “hundreds of painting images” still waiting to be realized while “the coordination between my eyes and hands finally stopped obeying what my brain was telling them to do?” Despite a diagnosis of early Parkinson’s disease, the artist’s tenacity of vision won out. Davies implemented his own atelier model; and in the tradition of master artists such as Rubens, Rembrandt, and Tiepolo, became the master of his own studio. Calling upon former students Michael Thiese, Paul Lipp, Daniel Patrick Buckley, and later Jo-Anne Scavetta and John Falato, Davies directed the process of making art with a shared signature at the bottom of the canvas.
The process is fascinating. Davies translates the images in his minds eye, selects the props, designs the composition and lighting, and then designates the artist to execute the piece under his tutelage. The process is so exacting that the viewer is often hard pressed to determine where the Master’s influence leaves off and the student picks up.
Atelier member, Jo-Anne Scavetta is a self-taught painter who discovered Ken’s step-by-step teaching volume, “Ken Davies: Artist at Work” and set herself upon a methodical path to learn every facet of his process. Thirty years ago the effort rewarded itself, and Scavetta found herself face-to-face with Ken Davies when he judged her work at a Massachusetts competition where she won first prize. There were times when she had to take a leap of faith when Davies advised her to run a red glaze over weeks of work, but with miraculous results. Her work is selling; and her technique continues to mature under the atelier process, where she is finally able to receive actual feedback from her once virtual mentor.
Another member, Daniel Patrick Buckley, was a Paier alumnus and former student of Davies. He recalls being humbled in his midst back in the classroom and finds the new alliance pure joy. Buckley’s defining moment in his own atelier experience occurred with a finished painting handed over to Ken for final critique. Davies examined it in a silent two hour Zen-like process: mentally adding or subtracting elements as Buckley continued to work on another piece. The defining element literally came down to the head of a pin. Buckley was asked to change the head from white to blue. The seemingly insignificant adjustment transformed the piece and integrated all of the elements into a unified whole.
Ken Davies continues to thrive as an artist and as a magician, transferring his mental and creative dexterity onto the canvas through the ultimate sleight-of-hand through another’s brush. There have been two significant atelier shows in 2013 and 2014 at the late Richard Greene’s Gallery, now under the direction of his wife Kathryn H. Greene.
To see the works of The Atelier members, visit Greene Art Gallery, 29 Whitfield Street, Guilford, CT 06437 203.453.4162 greeneartgallery.com