Art With Character

Dexter Davis on sources of inspiration...the dynamics of the creative process...and when he knows a piece is ready

Cleveland-based artist Dexter Davis has it both ways at the Cleveland Museum of Art – not only does he hold down a day job working security, but he's one of the artists featured in the collection. A longtime staple of the Cleveland art scene, Davis creates mind-warped collages that are immediately striking: images sprung from his childhood amid the violence of Cleveland's Hough neighborhood, various mediums and textures, nods to styles ranging from Cubism to Abstract Impressionism – he tosses it all into the blender. His current show runs through Oct. 13 at the William Busta Gallery. We caught up with Davis at a coffee shop near the museum.

Is it inspiring or intimidating to be surrounded every day at the museum by all those great works of art?

I think it is inspirational. Because that's the thing that keeps me there, the collection, and me knowing about the collection.

Any works in particular that you find inspiring?

Picasso is number one. La Vida that we have in our collection, it's from the Blue Period, one of the best from that period. You can always go back to it or refer to it. The new show I'm doing now is about my life, and when I look at Picasso's Blue Period, he was sort of in the same situation: He was poor, he was depressed, all these horrible things, and yet the painting is so inspirational. Believe it or not, Matisse is another one. Matisse is sort of the opposite of Picasso, it's all happy and childlike. That's another inspiration — art that's not so pretentious, it can actually make fun of itself as well as inspire.

Over the past year or so, you've been written and talked about a lot. When people are trying to interpret your work, do they hit on what you're trying to get across? Or do you sometimes just wonder what the hell they're talking about?

I see all of the above. You're going to find all kinds of people thinking all kinds of things. But it's okay, because that's what art is about, it's a dialogue. And if you get somebody even just looking at something, it's a starting point. That's something that's important to me, if you can get somebody to just pay attention. There are some people who have said things where I just couldn't believe they would say that; and then there are people who are right on the money. I remember a situation years ago, after my mother's death, someone said to me, "Now, because of your mother's death, you have something to paint about." It does not work that way. But that's what that person thought.

How does it work? When you start on a piece, are you trying to get a particular experience down on the canvas, or do you just start working and see what develops?

You have concepts in your mind, especially if you go to art school. Most people have a natural ability, but art school helps you to grow that ability and cultivate it in a way where you're able to discipline yourself in certain things, so you'll always have a concept when you think of something, and you'll have rules for it and boundaries. But as far as experience is concerned, everybody's experience is their own experience. I find that my work, the more I do it, is based on all the things I have ever done, people I have met — these things are always in the back of your mind somewhere. They may not come out right away, but as time goes on, your start referring to those experiences. It takes time, but it happens. It's there.

When did you realize you wanted to be an artist?

My father was an artist, my brothers were artists. But with us it was a hobby, we liked comic books and things like that. Also, nature was an influence, I wanted to draw birds and all that stuff. But I never wanted to be an "artist." I wanted to do art. I was kind of one of those crazy kids, I just wanted to appreciate life, and record it somehow. And I think that what happened to me as time went on, art chose me, because I kept coming back to it. But as a kid I just thought it was a hobby and something to enjoy — it made me happy.

One of the reasons your style is so distinct is because it mixes mediums and recycles elements and styles. Where did that come from?

It started in high school when I started getting into this art business. Even before that, I used to always make puppets and stuff. I had this thing about liking materials, and creating my own materials from stuff that was discarded. Then in high school, the art teacher noticed that I could mix different media together, and it worked. For some reason, something that was mixed together had more life to it. I wasn't conscious of these things at the time, but I kind of felt better when I used everything. When I was an undergrad, the professor said to me, "Most people's accidents ruin their artwork." But my accidents actually give my art its life. And these materials, these things that seem to be oddball, give it character.

Do you tackle pieces one at a time or together?

It varies. Usually, I work on more than one thing at a time. I work in series, and there can be five in a series, or there can be 10 or 20. And sometimes they give to each other. For instance, if I have three pieces in front of me, and two are starting to come together, the third one might be lacking. If I can't get the third one to work, what will happen is I will take it apart and add it to the other two. So one will be sacrificed if the other two need that extra something to work. Also, I can work on a piece for a year, or sometimes I can work on it for a day, and it works. Once I feel I've activated this thing called the life force, I don't mess with it anymore, I start a new piece. I know that when I see it.