Rightfully so, a full palette of oils, acrylics and watercolors courses through the veins of Billy Davis.
His mother was a painter; his mother's father was a composer and writer; his two uncles were painters. One of these uncles - his mother's brother - was also a furniture maker and "had a vast library of dinosaur books," according to Davis. The other - his dad's brother - had a "really positive influence in my life; he was very loyal and protective of the kids. We were very close," Davis remembers. This particular uncle also had the distinction of successfully escaping from San Quentin prison in California in the late '60s, all the while camped out in the Davis' back yard.
"He was a very artistic fellow," says Davis, who was 7 or 8 at the time. "We were very close. I didn't necessarily comprehend the social implications but I knew it was high adventure."
Eventually, he was found and returned to prison, where he would continue to paint. Davis reminisces protectively. "He was an incredibly magical persona and a musician. There was an element of coming together with his death [in 1994].
Davis grew up in the San Francisco Bay area and started painting at 11, taking classes with his mother and studying watercolor in high school. "In my last year of high school, I started taking it seriously. Over the next five years I made several bike trips to Canada, went to junior college in the Bay area and worked with my Sicilian grandfather in the garden, tilling 12 different kinds of squash," says Davis.
It was in 1985 when he attended the California College of Arts and Crafts (now California College of the Arts) and studied in Rome and Florence that Davis discovered a "propensity for painting human figures."
Whiz with a 3-inch roller
As a student in the 1980s, Davis started working as a window painter in the Bay area to support himself, when he "quickly discovered the 3-inch roller." He continued doing this upscale form of window dressing for the next 15 years, securing contracts with QFC, Rite Aid and Safeway along the way, cranking out up to 50 stores per season. His work is found all over the Puget Sound area, up the I-5 corridor from Tacoma to Kirkland to Bellingham.
"In hindsight, I'm able to see that I'm able to use this roller really proficiently because of these concentrated work sprees," Davis says. "The faster I work, the more money I made. I use it [this technique] in the studio to this day. In one stroke, I can get a line and a shadow."
Initially, he hesitated to talk about his window painting, thinking it would be discordant with or would minimize his fine art. However, this neo-Renaissance painter is clearly dichotomous; he is as comfortable plunging into a philosophical discussion as he is sharing a laugh, for example, about our choice in president.
Window painting enabled Davis to hone his proficiency for drawing and for creating murals; the latter were part of his portfolio in the '80s in the Bay area, resurfacing again over the past eight years.
"One of my motivating factors to move back to the city was to do murals," says Davis, who has done many murals for private homes. A few of his 100- by-25-foot creations are near and around Crossroads Mall in Bellevue, and include depictions of designers Coco Chanel, Gianni Versacci (created the week Versacci was shot); the kitchen of an Italian restaurant; a fir forest; and a portrait of Davis' grandfather.
New to gallery scene
Davis has had a studio for the past 14 years in Bellevue and has always operated independently, shying away from the gallery scene "simply because I was able to bring in money by doing other things," he says. "I didn't like the idea of sharing money with people I didn't know." He pauses and laughs, "You're gonna take how much?"
However, he has been flirting with the idea of having a gallery show for the past five years, slowly formulating a body of work. He met Elka Rouskov through a friend and that was that. "Elka has a European sensibility [she is Bulgarian] - and I approach the nude with a European sensibility," he says. Translation: the nude is not sexualized.
As Davis talks about his individual relationships with each of his works, the tone turns thoughtful and provocative and very philosophical. "If I can relate to the work on three different levels that's a big deal," he says. He's talking socio-political, personal, and - what he calls "most potent" - mythological.
"For me," says Davis, "I am constantly triggered by what's our mythology today - how it is manifested - what are the archetypes. This is true in my personal life as well. When I'm really happy about a painting, I relate to it personally. I see how it's shaking hands with the rest of the community."
He calls this ultimate fulfillment "ringing the silver bell": creating something with such a foundation that it speaks to these three different precepts. This is manifested in his new show, "Dancing on the Bones of Giants," so named for one of his new paintings. He identifies the ancient mythology of giants as the sum total of our past; their legacy is iconographic of our evolution.
The bones left behind symbolize the petroleum we burn; the old-growth trees we cut down; our own passing. "Giants have afforded us an incredible evolutionary jump - we're literally dancing," says Davis. "One day we'll all be dead and someone will be dancing on your bones, too," he cheekily says.
Yet, as far as he's come, no matter now many times he's rung the bell, he says, "I feel like I have a lot of homework to do still. Life is about preparing to die - and I say this is an upbeat way. Choosing to paint is a great way to move through the world for me. It's a great playing field for working on the self."
Billy Davis will be the featured artist at Elka Rouskov Gallery, 15 Lake St., July 1-31. Artist reception will be July 1, 6-9 p.m.