The new African American art exhibition at the David Owsley Museum of Art explores Kerry and Betty Davises’ hopes and passions

The second section of the “Memories & Inspiration'' exhibition titled, “Experiences & Remembrances,” Oct. 28. Director of the David Owsley Museum of Art, Robert LaFrance said the works of art in this section represent personal memories of the Davises and of the experience of many African Americans from their generation. Sumayyah Muhammad, DN
The second section of the “Memories & Inspiration'' exhibition titled, “Experiences & Remembrances,” Oct. 28. Director of the David Owsley Museum of Art, Robert LaFrance said the works of art in this section represent personal memories of the Davises and of the experience of many African Americans from their generation. Sumayyah Muhammad, DN

“Memories & Inspiration” will be open to the public until Dec. 22. The David Owsley Museum of Art hours are 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 1:30 - 4:30 p.m. Saturdays. The museum is closed Sundays, Mondays and during holiday breaks. 

“Start with what you like.” 

That was Kerry Davis’ first lesson for his wife, Betty Davis, when she began collecting art alongside her husband. When Kerry Davis first started collecting art in the 1980s, it was the art of Jacob Lawrence, a 20th century artist known for his modernist depictions of everyday life and epic narratives of African American history and historical figures, that sparked his interest in African American art. 

“[Jacob Lawrence] did a lot of narrative paintings where he told stories about the Underground Railroad and ‘The Migration Series,’” said Kerry Davis, retired postman for the United States Postal Service. “It resonated with me how he told stories.”

Kerry Davis grew up in Atlanta and would visit Clark Atlanta University to see the school’s African American art collection. In the 1940s, Atlanta was one of the few places where African Americans could exhibit their artwork. There, he learned more about artists like Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. 

Because Lawrence traveled to Atlanta to showcase his artwork in the ‘80s, Kerry Davis had the opportunity to meet Lawrence and said he was impressed by the way Lawrence spoke to him.

“I've never taken an art class or anything, so my questions were all comical or childlike, but he never spoke down to me [and] never got annoyed with me,” Kerry Davis said. “He could articulate what I was looking at [and] explain those things to me, and that inspired me. I had a much greater appreciation for his work.”

After Kerry Davis’ mother passed away in 1988, he said he wanted to use his insurance money to pay off his bills and be debt free. However, after having an epiphany about being in debt again, Davis decided to use the money to buy something that would always remind him of his mother. 

“When I was discharged from the Air Force, I took a job as a carpenter, and Jacob Lawrence was a collector of carpentry tools,” Kerry Davis said. “Because I was kind of like [my mother’s] handyman, I bought [one of] the drawings from Lawrence’s ‘Builder Series.’”

Lawrence’s eighth piece of his “Builder Series,” along with more than 60 selected works from a body of art collected over 35 years, is featured in Kerry and Betty Davis’ African American art exhibition, “Memories & Inspiration,” in the David Owsley Museum of Art at Ball State.

Kerry and Betty Davis pictured at the home in Atlanta Dec. 2020. Kerry Davis said one of his goals is to continue to bring “Memories & Inspiration” to institutions and museums that lack diversity. Kerry Davis, Photo Provided

“Memories & Inspiration” is organized by International Arts and Artists (IA&A), a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing cross-cultural understanding and exposure to the arts internationally through traveling exhibitions, programs and services to artists, art institutions and the public. This collection is also supported by Arts Alive funding from the College of Fine Arts at Ball State. 

IA&A discovered Kerry and Betty Davis when their first art exhibition, “This Postman Collects: The Rapture of Kerry and Betty Davis,” was displayed at Clark Atlanta University Jan. 17-July 15, 2016. Davis said nearly 65 percent of the artwork featured in their current collection was derived from their first exhibition. 

The title, “Memories & Inspiration,” was created by IA&A after a comment Davis said he made about when people would ask him about the artists featured in the collection. Because many of the artists were friends of the Davises and have died, Davis said the art in his collection brings back pleasant memories. 

“When I see a particular painting, there are so many stories behind the painting about our relationship with different art,” he said. “I'm inspired by a lot of the subject matter. The things that are going on just give them strength.”

The “Memories & Inspiration” collection was previously featured in Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, the Appleton Museum of Art in Ocala, Florida, and the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London, Connecticut. Ball State is the fifth venue where the Davises’ art exhibition has been featured. 

“When we would visit different museums, people who would attend — even children — they are inspired,” said Betty Davis, former television news producer for ABC in Philadelphia. “Some are inspired to collect —  some are inspired to see African American artists differently. It’s a wonderful memory for us about what we’re doing.”

The traveling exhibition features drawings, painting, prints and sculptures from 20th century artists like Romare Bearden, Amalia Amaki, Sam Gilliam and others. “Memories & Inspiration” focuses on Black history and culture through religious aspects, social commentary, foundational jazz, abstract, performing and graphic arts. The exhibition opened to the public Sept. 23 and will remain open until Dec. 22. 

“When people see the works, [they] will have an opinion,” Kerry Davis said. “I’ll go as far as to say one of those images will resonate with [them] [or] [their] own culture and upbringing. [The art ranges] from the 1930s to the Black Lives Matter movement.”

As director of the David Owsley Museum of Art (DOMA), Robert LaFrance went to see the “Memories & Inspiration” collection when it was at the Lyman Allyn Museum in May to measure out the rooms and individual artwork. Because IA&A gave LaFrance a bit of leeway, he said, he regrouped some of the works to break the exhibition down into four sections: artists involved with the William E. Harmon Foundation Award, “Experiences & Remembrances,” “Courage & Social Justice” and “Non-objective and Abstraction.” 

“One of the most important things about the show is that it offers a wide variety of styles, artists and themes,” LaFrance said. “It's a perfect introduction — and ideal introduction — for students to the whole world of African American art.”

Robert LaFrance, director of the David Owsley Museum of Art, said the fourth section, “Non-objective and Abstraction,” features work from Sam Gilliam, Alma Thomas and Romare Bearden. LaFrance said these artists relied on the “universal language” of art like form, color, line and shape in order to communicate universal messages. Sumayyah Muhammad, DN

At DOMA, “Memories & Inspiration” is accompanied by another exhibition that explores the museum’s past, present and future of collecting African American art by sculptors, printmakers and painters. The display features paintings and prints by John Wesley Hardrick, Elizabeth Catlett, Richard Mayhew and Martin Puryear. 

“It means a lot to us, for this particular collection, to get out in areas where people may not necessarily have access to major museums across the country who have more diversity in their exhibition,” Kerry Davis said. “I really wanted to go to communities that lack access as far as diversity. We are grateful that Ball State accepted this exhibition to share in the community.”

Amalia Amaki, an Atlanta-born artist, curator and educator, met Kerry Davis when he would deliver mail to her art gallery, Sandler Hudson Gallery, in Atlanta. Featured in the “Memories & Inspiration” collection, Amaki’s mixed media piece, “JL: The Ring, ” is a button-based construction combined with photography, found objects and embellishments that tells a story about the life of African American boxer, Joe Louis. 

Most of Amaki’s artwork explores the social, political and psychological implications of race and gender and shares the lives and culture of Black women of the Diaspora — people who have a direct lineage to Africa — in the U.S. 

“[Black people have] been so dispersed throughout the world,” Amaki said. “We have a common point of beginning, even though we are in these different cultures, and we've gone in different directions. I do quite a bit with women because one of the things I'm big about is bringing what I feel is a kind of historical visibility to women.”

Because diversity and inclusion is a big problem in our country, Betty Davis said, she hopes “Memories & Inspiration” will inspire a “thirst for more” diversity to be included in art. Kerry Davis said he hopes viewers do not take for granted that African American art is available all over the continent. 

“We have to bring [‘Memories & Inspiration’] all over the country,” Kerry Davis said. “And, for the people who don't get a chance to see this work, [we hope they] get an appreciation, get inspired and a thirst to petition in their own communities — and in their own places — to bring it back to their homes so they can show their children and they can show that next generation.” 

Contact Sumayyah Muhammad with comments at or on Twitter @sumayyah0114.


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