Lowell Davis: Ozark artist.
Lowell Davis would like you tobelieve he's a farmer, that painting and sculpting are only his hobbies. And as if to clinch any argument, this small, slightly stooped giant of the plate-art world wears jeans everywhere but to bed. (His wife, Charlie, draws the line there.) But he is by no means fooling a legion of buyers--some 2,000 distributors and 92,000 gift shops that handle his paintings and farm-animal figures in the United States and Canada. Lowell Davis is first and foremost an artist; his 40-acre Foxfire Farm, just outside Carthage, Missouri, the Jasper County seat, serves mainly as inspiration for the art that makes Davis' collectables the hit of prestigious shows across the country.
Your first look at Foxfire Farm willmake you wonder if the small plane that brought you to nearby Joplin didn't somehow fly backward in time to the 1930s. To suggest this to the Ozark artist-farmer would be to pay him the ultimate compliment, because most of his "hobby' money goes into creating this time-warp illusion.
Why would Davis want a farm thatsports buildings, machinery, and tools dating back to that era? He chuckles in reflection. "I was raised on a farm in a little community that consisted of a general store, a country church, a country school, may grandpa's blacksmith shop. Everyone in town was related. I was born on a farm, but during the drought and Depression may dad lost the farm and moved us to the community. We lived in the back of the old general store. And there was where I learned to whittle and carve. The old-timers would sit around the potbellied stove in winter and swap yarns and whittle. And I was just awed by these characters. I mean, to me they were like kids today with television--my mom would have to drag me off to bed.
"We were all poor, youknow, but we didn't know it. We had a Jersey cow and a garden, and mom and dad ran the store. Anyway, everybody was hellbent to get out of that era. Now, 50 years later, we look back and say, "That wasn't such a bad era after all!' We can't go back, of course. A lot of those people are locked in the cities--but my work depicting the end of that era kind of brings back memories,' he says.
Not surprisingly, the collectablesbuyers who scramble to buy Lowell Davis' figurines (at prices of $47 to $400) and paintings (from $800 to $4,000) are those very "locked-in' city people. Other figurines on the market when Davis began, although beautifully executed, were "do nothing' animals, he says--they just stood there. "They had no soul,' he says. "That's what I put in.' To fully appreciate what Davis is talking about, you have to see such works as Right Church, Wrong Pew, with a cat and her kittens occupying a hen's nest, or "But will you still respect me in the morning?' with two cats necking.
"Whenever I'd make a little money,'Davis tells us, "I'd buy some animals. Or I'd fix up a building. Or if I saw an old building falling down, I'd get the farmer to let me move it here to Foxfire and fix it up. I collect anything to do with farming in the '30s. Now my barns are full, my sheds are full. It adds up to a museum, almost.'
It also adds up to a nostalgic settingfrom which this Ozark artist draws inspiration to depict a way of life he remembers from growing up. And to look across Foxfire Farm today, to see Davis at his easel in the sun, his 14-year-old dog, Hooker, at his feet, to see him working from memory ("I don't use live models, I have my animals memorized,' he says), you might assume he had come directly from the whittling stage to the success he enjoys today without so much as a cut thumb. But he is not the least hesitant to tell you that at one time he had lost it all.
First, however, he has totell you about Hooker. "I call her my dollar dog,' he says. "When I lived in the city I had a kind of little registered pooch. When I got the farm, I decided I wanted a "dog' dog. So I went to the pound and said I wanted the ugliest dog they had, one they were going to get rid of. They trotted out this five-week-old female pup. She had mange and blisters and her hair was falling out, and she was slated to be destroyed that very afternoon. I said, "That's the one I want,' and I gave a dollar for her. She has been on five magazine covers, a mural, seven figurines, and about six different plates. So I've got my dollar's worth out of that dog. She goes with me everywhere, even to shows. I wish I could train my wife as well as I've trained Hooker. I wouldn't trade her for a million dollars.
"But getting back to bad times. Iwas raised in the church, the Assembly of God, and they were so strict that when I finally escaped to the Air Force I said, "I'm never going to step back in the church, and that's that.' I went just about as liberal as you can get. I mean there wasn't anything I didn't do. And that's the way it was when I took a job as art director for an ad agency in Dallas and had a wife and family. Liberal living is fine for a while, but someday it all catches up with you, it all comes tumbling down. And that's what happened to me. I lost my family, my home, everything, just everything, overnight. I was down there on the bottom, didn't know what direction to go--and I certainly wasn't thinking about religion. . . . Are you sure you want to hear about this?' We're sure.
Photo: No matter what the subject is, the artistalways finds a place for his wife's name, "Charlie,' in his paintings.
Photo: A Davis memory from age two:"When I dumped a box of Crayolas, made scribbles, and knew this was for me.' His inspiration still comes from his rural setting and lively models.
Photo: Why did Davis decide to write a book about chickens? Helogically notes, "I don't know baseball, I don't know politics, but I know everything about chickens.'
Photo: Foxfire Farm is a stone's throw from the county seat, but ahalf century behind the rest of the world. A collector himself, the artist has restored "Leapin' Lizard,' a 1924 motor home, and a horse-drawn plow.
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|Author:||Stoddard, Maynard Good|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1986|
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