Bing Davis: A lifetime of 'reaching back'

Oct. 2—He's always been guided by his mother's advice and quotes it frequently: — "Reach high and reach back." — "Always walk with dust on your shoes." — "The people you'll see on your way up, you'll see on your way down." — "If you walk with your nose in the air, you'll drown when it rains."

"What she meant was to keep your feet on the ground and stay humble," explains Willis "Bing" Davis, Dayton's most famous artist/educator. "My mother taught us to be kind to people. She said you never know who is going to bring you your last drink of water. If we achieve, we have to reach back and help others achieve. To reach back means to give back."

Davis has been following that sage advice for the past 85 years. "She picked cotton as a sharecropper in South Carolina, had an elementary school education and raised six kids by herself," says the proud son of Verona Hargro Davis. "The older I got the smarter she got."

In recognition of a life lived for others, The Presidents Club of Dayton will honor Davis with its 2022 Citizen Legion of Honor Award on Thursday, Oct. 6 at the Dayton Convention Center. More than 350 are expected to attend.

A servant leader

Phil Parker, a past president of the club and the co-chair of the prestigious honor, says although all 70 past recipients have had distinguished professional careers, this special recognition focuses on their leadership as volunteers. "Bing received the nomination because he has played a vital role in transferring his love for the arts to adults and many, many young people," says Parker. "He's used his artistic ability and educational background to help generations of Daytonians love and enjoy the arts and cultivate their own artistic abilities."

Reaching back

If you've been in Dayton for a while, chances are you've interacted with Bing Davis in some way or another. It may have been in his role as educator at a Dayton Public School or the historic Living Arts Center. It may have been at DePauw, Miami, Central State, or Wright State universities or the University of Dayton. You've likely seen his bold and impressive mixed media creations in galleries ranging from the Dayton Art Institute and The Contemporary Dayton to The Ohio Arts Council's Riffe Gallery in Columbus. His work has also been displayed in museums and galleries around the country and around the world. "I learned early on that art wasn't just making pretty pictures to put onto walls," Davis once said. "I view art as a way to address those issues that concern me."

What you may not realize is how much time, energy and love Davis pours into mentoring and guiding emerging artists, coming up with innovative new projects for the community, networking with local, statewide and national non-profit organizations. He's the only visual artist to have received five of our state's top awards including the Ohio Governor's Irma Lazarus Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest art award given in the state of Ohio.

Judge Walter Rice, who nominated Davis for this award, says Davis has given school age children an appreciation of art at a time when the public schools are having to cut back on subjects like art and music and has also given them a sense of pride in their African-American heritage.

"I would call him a quiet but effective civil rights advocate," says Rice. "He's as gentle a soul as I have ever met. Whenever he feels that a member of his race is being slighted or there's a group that convenes and it is not a diverse group, he is quick to call that to people's attention. Even when he points out a lack of diversity in a particular initiative, he does it in a way that the people he's talking to are thankful he raised the issue."

Davis is responsible for curating a number of art exhibits that encourage and promote black artists and subject matter. The exhibit "Black Life as Subject Matter II," curated by Davis, was named Best Exhibition in the State of Ohio in 2021 by the Ohio Museums Association, earning the award for the Springfield Museum of Art for the first time in its history.

Here's just a small sampling of ways Bing Davis helps folks in our city, our nation and our world: — Davis, along with his wife, Audrey, and office manager Rosalyn Green, run The Davis Art Studio and EbonNia Gallery in the historic Wright-Dunbar Business District. The Third Street complex also houses SHANGO Center for the Study of African American Art and Culture, their non-profit organization that coordinates youth and community art and cultural activities. One of those projects is the Visual Voices Dayton Skyscrapers exhibit you've seen in the Wintergarden at the Schuster Center each year. The exhibit celebrates local African-Americans who have excelled in their field, showcases African-American visual artists and provides role models for urban youth. — When Davis accepts invitations to serve on community boards, his goal is to help those organizations become more diverse and inclusive. At the moment, the Dayton Art Institute is a case in point. On a national level, he's a past president and co-chair of the executive board of directors of The National Conference of Artists, the oldest arts organization dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and enhancement of African American visual artists. — For the past 14 years, the Konstantin Grot School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in St. Petersburg, Russia has handed out cash awards to students who have excelled in athletics, art and academics. Davis and his brother, Joe, originally funded the project and after his brother passed away in 2009, Davis continued it in his brother's memory. — The idea for the peace pole that was dedicated on Sept. 21 at Dayton's International Peace Museum, originated with a group of local artists at the Davis art studio. The pole incorporates 20 words of peace from 20 languages spoken in Dayton. — At the moment, Davis is passionate about raising funds to commission nationally-known sculptor Ed Hamilton to create a life-size bronze statue of Paul Laurence Dunbar that will be placed at the entrance of the new Dayton Metro Library on Abbey Street in West Dayton. — He's also active in the Dayton Africana Elders Council, a group of retired professionals seeking to give back and share their knowledge and experience with younger generations. — For 20 years, Davis worked alongside his colleague and friend Tess LIttle to create R.E.A.C.H, one of Dayton's most exciting and educational community projects. Hosted by Sinclair Community College, the speakers, art and music workshops, exhibits and even foods, focused on the commonalities found in African American and Appalachian communities. Over the years, the project expanded to embrace and serve other ethnic and cultural communities. Reach stands for Realizing Ethnic Awareness and Cultural Heritage across Dayton.

Little, a retired professor of art at Sinclair, admits she loves Bing Davis with all her heart. "The REACH project was always a labor of love," she recalls. "Bing would say 'if you can pay me something, pay me, but if you can't, that's OK too."

Little says her friend could have moved anywhere but always chose to stay in Dayton's west side. "One of the reasons that area has come back successfully is that Bing was the first business there," she believes. "So much was burnt during the riot in the '60s and the buildings had been closed for a long time. When I started going over there, he was the only business in that area. He became an anchor and was the backbone of rebuilding that community."

When there was talk about replacing the Third Street bridge, Davis was asked to serve as aesthetic consultant. By the end of the process, the new bridge had become The Dayton Peace Bridge, a symbol of unity, of bringing people together instead of dividing them. It's design incorporates a wide range of people and events that have made significant contributions to the Miami Valley.

Over the years, Little has witnessed her friend's kindness to others. "I would be at his gallery on Third Street and people would knock at the door and he would always lend a hand," she says. "Bing Davis is a type of knitter. "He knits the community together, knits people together. Once you meet him he will remember your name and he will ask about you and how you are doing. He is always so kind."

HOW TO GO:

What: Annual luncheon of The Presidents Club honoring Willis "Bing" Davis

When: 10:30 a.m. -1:15 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 6

Where: Dayton Convention Center

Tickets: $35. Mail your payment to: The Presidents Club, 525 W. Riverview Ave., Dayton 45405. Sponsorships and tables are also available.

The event benefits the Presidents Scholarship Fund at Sinclair Community College for active student volunteer leaders in our community

For information: Contact Phil Parker at (937) 478-3000 or emailing pparker@dacc.org