Ask Curtis Davis what he’s into or what he tries to convey through his art, and he’ll reply succinctly: “Everything.” He’s not being curt. The Price Hill-based artist’s body of work really does seem to encompass the entire breadth of his imagination.
In his studio space at Northside’s Visionaries + Voices, a nonprofit organization that provides resources to more than 125 artists with disabilities, Davis opens a large manila envelope crammed with at least 50 pen drawings, all of which he says he’s produced over the last few days.
“This is a Christmas tree,” he says. “This is a jellyfish. This is some flowers. This is the ghost.”
He methodically introduces me to his work, piece by piece, patterns becoming apparent as they’re spread across the table. Davis is smitten with plant life, favoring logs and floral scenes. He draws portraits with uniformly mysterious expressions, eyes veering to the right as if there’s a secret being kept outside the confines of the page. He’s also compelled by certain numbers: 33 and 35 are lightly penciled through each piece, adding subtle accents.
More developed pieces surround us. Massive sculptures coated in countless layers of paint loom like colorful shadows next to portraits housed in complex, collage-like frames. His output is a language of its own: a vast network of familiar symbols that create surreal dreamscapes when combined.
Come June 27, a select portion of this work will be featured in New York City’s White Columns gallery and, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign conducted by V + V, Davis will get to come to New York with it.
When I first meet Davis for coffee, he wears a paint-splattered Dallas Cowboys cap and cuffed cargo pants. He’s joined by V + V’s exhibition director Skip Cullen and development director Jim Neidhard.
As of that Friday morning, V + V had crowdfunded more than $3,500 in order to send Davis and others to the opening of his solo exhibition in New York. His show will add to White Columns’s 15-year history of collaborating with programs that support artists with disabilities; the show will focus on Davis’ sculptural work, which is produced by gradually covering salvaged objects like logs, rocks and dolls with coats of paint, each layer a different color.
It was Davis’ found-object work in particular that caught the eye of White Columns director and chief curator Matthew Higgs in July 2016. Higgs initially made the trip to V + V’s studio to meet visual poet Dale Jackson, but he was so intrigued by Davis’s process that he made three Instagram posts of the artist in action.
Higgs’s sizeable following helped put Davis on the map of international collectors. In 2017, four of his pieces were displayed at the center of the summer exhibition for Belgian gallery Sorry We’re Closed. Perched on a large, white table, his cake-like assemblages never looked so Instagrammable, their dreamy pinks and blues floating in space.
Cullen says that Davis changes the color of his pieces every few days, often after periods of contemplation in V + V’s backyard garden.
“He comes in every day and kind of has a ritual,” Cullen says. “Some days he focuses on more 2D work, and — I don’t want to say he puts a layer of paint on every day — but yesterday, for example, he painted a sculpture of a girl.”
“Hell yeah — I painted her blue, man,” Davis interjects, laughing.
After White Columns confirmed Davis’s upcoming solo exhibition, V + V board member Kate Harrow set up a GoFundMe page on June 11 to help cover travel expenses in order for Davis to attend opening night: $1,500 would mail his art to New York City; $2,500 would be enough to board Davis and his independent provider; and the final goal of $3,500 would allow for a staff member to go with them. By June 20, the page had already eclipsed all three goals.
As the opening approaches, Davis continues to hone his craft, working from about 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on weekdays as he churns out sketches, creates glitter-coated candelabras and teaches the occasional class at V + V’s storefront in Oakley.
“When I get started,” he tells me “I get finished.”