Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Paul Davis: Controlled Accidents

In 2013, Paul Davis was selected by 200 of his peers as one of “Utah’s 15 most influential artists.” The following profile appeared in Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists, published by Artists of Utah in 2014. Click here  to learn about Round 2 of Utah’s 15.

Photo by Zoe and Robert Rodriguez.

Paul Davis likes his studio dark. He compares the former garage — now rendered useless by the roof-high pile of firewood in front of its doors — to “the bat cave.” Inside, where the windows are blacked-out, the only natural light comes from a small skylight that the artist keeps mostly obstructed. “It’s a little dark, a little sleepy,” he says, “like a movie theater just before it goes dark. That’s the way I like it.”

Though he has made Utah his home for close to 40 years, Davis is a New England boy. Born in Rhode Island, he grew up in Connecticut before moving to a small town in the mountains of Vermont at age 10. He can remember his perfect Saturday as a child — in the museums until 1o’clock and the rest of the day in the movie theater. “Those two things have always been mixed up in my head,” he says. In third grade, when television was just coming to the neighborhood, he remembers there wasn’t much on, mostly old black-and-white movies from the ‘30s. So, he says, you’d end up watching anything—good or bad didn’t matter— and that early mix of imagery has been swimming around his head ever since.

“Painting used to be what movies are now,” he muses, comparing a fiery Rubens masterpiece to today’s action flicks. “When film and camera came along, painting had to become something else to survive. Or at least they thought it did.” But Davis’ own art has been reluctant to give up the light and shadow of the cinematic. It has always been imbued with a narrative sense, and frequently relied on dramatic lighting. Underlying this, however, has always been a tension between disclosure and concealment, story and mystery, coming from a master draftsman with a desire to both conceal and reveal in narratives hinted at but never fully explicated.

After a stint in the service, Davis began investigating art schools, ultimately settling on Boston University, “because it offered more figure drawing than any school in the country . . . You’re basically locked up with a naked person in a room for four years.” He enjoyed B.U. for its classical education, core sense of values and what he calls a “solid environment.” They weren’t trendy, or being led by the nose by the art magazines, he explains. In fact, when one critic disparaged the program by saying it was the “best 19th-century art school in the country,” students and professors embraced the insult as a badge of honor.

Davis remained at B.U. for his graduate work as well, mostly for the opportunity to study with Bay Area artist Jim Weeks, and the recently arrived Philip Guston, who was embarking on the figurative portion of his career. “I loved his middle period abstract paintings,” Davis says of Guston. “I didn’t know why. I do now — they were really figure paintings, very elegant figure paintings.”

After school, Davis began picking up a few teaching jobs in Boston, and it was when he took a trip across the country, meaning to go to California, that he bumped into Utah. “It blew my mind,” he says of the landscapes he discovered there. When he later learned there was a painting and drawing position open at the University of Utah he immediately applied.

That was the start of what turned into a 25-year teaching career at the U, a period in which he influenced hundreds of students, many of whom are now well-established artists. “I just try to be helpful,” he says about his teaching style. “I don’t try to be a guru. I just try to teach them how to paint, which is what they want . . . You know, it’s really a great way to earn your living. You’re interested in something that they’re interested in. And you can help. So what more can you ask for. It’s pretty satisfying.”

“There is no one better at teaching figure-drawing than Paul,” says Wendy Chidester, who studied with Davis for her undergraduate work and continues to seek out his instruction in workshops. Other former students speak of him in glowing terms, both as an instructor and as an individual. They speak of his uncanny ability to articulate what is going on in their heads as painters, to put words and a method to the process of creating art (his triangulation method of drawing has become a gospel truth for many of his former students), and of his willingness to spend time with them, treating his profession as more than just a living, but rather a shared adventure.

“I have always considered him as an example of how to live life,” says painter Doug Braithwaite. “He always treats everyone with patience and respect. I have always respected his dedication and work ethic. In a way, walking into Paul’s studio always felt like a religious experience because of his pure interest in the investigation of his art.”

While teaching at the U, Davis developed a strong reputation as a draftsman and a figure painter. A retrospective at the Salt Lake Art Center in 1989 displayed his various talents: portraits done directly from life, in three or six-hour sittings, dramatic images stolen from television and film and imbued with an existential sense of mystery; and a series of draped figure paintings that have become his best-known works. These latter both conceal and reveal. Though they feature nude models, sometimes revealing a gleaming shoulder or rounded breast, they aren’t particularly erotic. The real subject is the covering, the glittering textures of the fabrics. These classically rendered and enigmatic figures became Davis’ calling card, establishing him as one of the premier figure painters in the state.

“I came to a point where I didn’t have anything more to offer with those paintings,” he says. “I didn’t want to continue along that vein — classically draped figure paintings, realistic works based on direct observation.” Davis says he had always been known as a good hand and a good eye. He wanted to see if he was anything more. So he took the first sabbatical in his professional career, headed to his home in remote Teasdale and spent what he describes as a very difficult winter pursuing two goals: “I wanted not to be such a serious person . . . and I wanted to see if I had any imagination.”

“The paintings just turned into total chaos,” he says of his initial attempts. “My strategy was to just go ahead and paint anyways. Most paintings just dissolved into a big mess. And after a while I would look at the big mess and it would start to look interesting and so I would start to doodle around it.” Though he initially mistrusted these floundering attempts, thinking them “stupid” or “unrefined,” he kept plugging away, following a dictate he has since stressed to his students: “When you don’t know what to do, do something. Something will happen if you stick at it long enough.”

And something did stick. It was a small painting, the type that fits in the palm of your hand, and it was nothing more than random, monochromatic textures, but Davis felt there was something there. He transferred the lines and textures onto a larger canvas and then began a process of discovery that continues two decades later.

He begins with a blank canvas and to get something started he’ll use a trowel to lay in a few shapes. Then he’ll proceed with a sort of self-made algorithm, cutting into each shape three or four times, shifting values from light, middle and dark and eventually something will happen. Inside that mass of darks and lights, not unlike the rock formations he can see just down the road from his studio, a figure will begin to appear — a clown, a pirate, a cowboy: a mélange of the B-movie images he absorbed as a child will begin to populate his paintings. Then, like “a cheap god” he’ll bring them to life or wipe them out with a swipe of the putty knife.

He talks about this process as a form of automatic writing, a way to access your subconscious. “Whatever goes on inside your skull when you’re dreaming is a little like this process,” he says. “You begin with random patterns, your visual cortex gets activated and the brain begins looking for patterns and creates a string of narratives that can last for hours. “ He’s learned to trust that process, to begin with chaotic patterns and let them stimulate his imagination. “What was an accident or a disaster becomes part of your repertoire, part of your bag of tricks,” he says. “It becomes a way of painting without intention. Of bypassing your ego . . . and trying to get out of the way.”

The canvases eventually are littered with figures, in an all-over pattern full of lights and dark, but it all proceeds from controlled accidents. At a certain point, the artist might discover a certain thematic element. It might be a figure that looks like it’s out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, and another that might be out of Dickens. And so he’ll pursue the idea of a literary theme.

He’s learned, though, not to control too much. “If I get this great idea like, O.K., now I’m going to make it into this, I can get bogged down for three weeks and it’s not going to work.”

The new work has also taught him something about himself. “What I discovered was that the person who made these kinds of paintings was a different kind of person than who made the other paintings . . . I kind of liked that person. So then I became a little more like that person.”

Davis returned from the sabbatical reinvigorated by this new body of work, and continues two decades later to mine the possibilities of controlled accidents. At the university, however, he was becoming increasingly dissatisfied. You can see it in that first painting, which Davis has retained as a kind of map to return to if he loses his way. In the middle of “The Clowns Celebrate the Arrival of the Titanic” you’ll see a tiny performing monkey. Davis says it’s a self-portrait.

“The university system generally doesn’t work for art schools,” says Davis. “There’s something about the tenure system that just doesn’t work. You can’t get enough life, enough change.” But if not in a university setting, where would one teach art? During his tenure at the U, Davis had organized summer painting trips to southern Utah. Inevitably, they would run into problems with weather, so he wanted to develop a program where they wouldn’t be subject to those conditions.

In 1999, he and fellow professor David Dornan bought a former brothel in the small town of Helper, Utah. Davis credits Dornan, and his wife Marilou Kundmueller, with doing most of the “heavy lifting,” but together they created the Helper Workshops, which for nearly 15 years has attracted artists, many of whom are already degreed, to the struggling mining town to learn from their favorite teachers.

Today Davis is less active in Helper, but he continues to teach summer workshops in Teasdale, where he and wife Silvia Davis both have studios (hers is full of light) next to their lovely home; and for the past 12 years he has taught workshops at Kings Cottage Art Academy in Salt Lake City, run by his former student Susan Gallacher.

When he’s not teaching, you’ll find Davis working away in his personal theater, the light dimmed just right, regardless of how blue the skies are outside. “I want to surprise myself, I want to have fun,” he says of the hours he spends each day in the studio. “When I know something is really, really good, I’ll notice that I’ve just laughed.”

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