Artist Profile – Ulysses Davis
1914–1990, born in Fitzgerald, Georgia; lived and worked in Savannah
Ulysses Davis learned metalworking from his father, a blacksmith, and began carving when he was eleven. He left school after the tenth grade to help support his family by working for the railroad. After being laid off in the early 1950s, he began barbering in a shop he built behind his home in Savannah, Georgia, carving figures from wood in his spare time. He decorated the outside of his barbershop, which he filled with his reliefs and freestanding carvings—rarely selling his work.
Davis created a diverse but unified body of highly refined sculpture that reflects his deep faith, humor, and dignity. His carvings were featured in the seminal exhibition, “Black Folk Art: 1930–1980” at the Corcoran Gallery. Because he wanted his work to stay together after he died, Davis rarely sold his sculpture. As a result, they have had little exposure outside Savannah, particularly since his death, and he is little known outside folk art circles. One notable exception was the curator J. Carter Brown’s inclusion of Davis’s portrait bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Rings: Five Passions in World Art,”an exhibition at the High Museum of Art during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games; Davis was the only Georgia artist whose work was included in the show.
Davis’s sculptures, which range in height from six to over forty inches, can be divided into major categories: portraits of U.S. and African leaders; religious images; patriotism; works influenced by African forms; fantasy; flora and fauna; love; humor; and abstract decorative objects. Davis also carved utilitarian objects such as canes and furniture. Among the pieces owned by the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation is a group regarded as his masterwork: a series of 40 carved busts of all the U.S. presidents through George H. W. Bush “In many ways, Ulysses Davis’s artwork is a paradox,” says Susan Crawley, the High’s Curator of Folk Art. “Its sources could range from prosaic advertising images to the artist’s extravagant imagination, its moods from whimsical fantasy to solemn dignity, its forms from lavishly ornamental to radically simplified. Yet despite these extremes, it is always recognizable as his. Davis’s work is widely esteemed but too rarely seen.”
Primary Source Resources:
High Museum of Art, Folk Art Department, Atlanta, GA
King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, Savannah, GA
Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, Atlanta, GA
Monographic Books and Exhibition Catalogs:
Crawley, Susan Mitchell. The Treasure of Ulysses Davis: Sculpture from a Savannah Barbershop. Atlanta: High Museum of Art, 2008.
Books and Exhibition Catalogs that include Davis:
Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770-1976. Atlanta, GA: Georgia Council for the Arts and Humanities, 1976.
Livingston, Jane, and John Beardsley. Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi/Center for the Study of Southern Culture for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1982.
Outside the Mainstream: Folk Art in Our Time. Atlanta, GA: High Museum of Art, 1988.
Georgia Folk Art. Gainesville, GA: Quinlin Art Center and Gainesville College, 1991.
Passionate Visions of the American South: Self-Taught Artists from 1940 to the Present, New Orleans: New Orleans Museum of Art, 1993.
Dust Tracks on the Road: Four Southern Artists. Atlanta: High Museum, 1995.
Freeman, Roland L. A Communion of Spirits: African American Quilters, Preservers, and Their Stories. Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1996.
Arnett, Paul and William Arnett. Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South. Atlanta, GA: Tinwood Books, 2001.
Hobbs, Robert. “Strategy for the High: African-American Folk Art.” Folk Art Messenger 9, no. 1 (Fall 1995): 12-13.
Kiah, Virginia. “Ulysses Davis: Savannah Folk Sculptor.” Southern Folklore Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 3 (1978): 271–285.
Patterson, Tom, and Judy McWillie and Lisa McGaughey Tuttle. “Revelations: Visionary Content in the work of Southern Self-Trained Artists.” Art Papers (November/December 1996): p 35-38.
Perry, Regeina A. “Contemporary African American Folk Art in America. An Overview.” International Review of African American Art 11, no. 1 (1993): p 4-30.
Rosenberg, Karen. “A Barber’s Carved Legacy, Finished With Rhinestones and Shoe Polish.” The New York Times, Art Review (23 April 2009).
Young, Brian. “Arkansas Arts Center.” Folk Art Finder 20, no 2 (April-June 1998): p 8-9.
Discovering Black Africa in Coastal Georgia, King-Tisdell Cottage Museum, Savannah, GA, 1982.
Woodcarvings of American Presidents, King-Tisdell Cottage Museum, Savannah, GA, 1985.
Ulysses Davis, Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center, Atlanta, GA, 1985.
The Vision of Ulysses Davis: People, Humans, Animals and Plants, Beach Institute, King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, Savannah, GA, 1994.
The Vision of Ulysses Davis: Faith, Piety, and Love, Beach Institute, King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, Savannah, GA, 1994.
The Vision of Ulysses Davis: History, Leaders, Patriots and Sovereigns, Beach Institute, King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, Savannah, GA, 1995.
The Vision of Ulysses Davis: Humor and Popular Culture, Beach Institute, King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, Savannah, GA, 1995.
The Treasure of Ulysses Davis, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA, 2008; American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY, 2009; INTUIT: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Chicago, IL, 2010.
American Folk Art Museum, New York, NY
The Beach Institute, King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, Savannah, GA
Haggerty Museum of Art, Milwaukee, WI
High Museum, Atlanta, GA
Fine Arts Museum of the south, Mobile, AL
Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, NY
Nexus Contemporary Art Center, Atlanta, GA
Compiled by Samantha Mitchell