Royce Davenport has discovered high times with lowly objects from yesteryear.
By Margaret Regan
APRIL 27, 1998: GARAGE AND ESTATE sales are Royce Davenport's favorite things, almost. He doesn't like elegant sales where the wealthy are unloading the old silver for a song, mind you. Instead, Davenport ferrets out the backcountry roads where the merchandise is pure junk.
"Usually the guy has died and the wife just wants the junk out of there," Davenport said. "I went to one recently in Vail, and I was in a wonderland of tools, hardware and all kinds of stuff from the '40s." It's an honor, he believes, to be in the dusty realms of the old-fashioned tinkerers, "those old guys working in there with that old savvy of how things work."
More often than not the old guys' old tools, tins, and broken-down excuses for furniture end up in Davenport's art. A pathetic coffee table, for instance, joined forces with some tacky plastic cowboys, flickering electric lights and old bullets in "Way Out West," a funked-out wall triptych now gracing the gallery walls at Tohono Chul Park. Re-Visions: Art from Recycled Materials celebrates the transformative imaginations of some 14 Tucson artists, who, like Davenport, make art of what everybody else throws away.
Some of the art verges on the elegantly abstract--Steven Derks' sleek metal weldings, for instance--while the downright downhome is the province of the likes of Jerry Hall, maker of horses and cacti and funny owls out of giant, painted tin cans. Davenport falls somewhere in between. A trained painter and illustrator, for 10 years he was art director at the Tucson Weekly. All of his works playfully incorporate ancient junk, but the best of them also show off his painterly proclivities.
"Takin' the Back Road" at Tohono Chul is what you might call a punched-out painting. There's definitely a painterly sensibility at work, what with the alluring sunset-yellow sky, deep-blue mountains and desert-rose road, but the piece breaks out of the painting's flat planes. A real-life blue toy truck ambles along the painted road; the cacti are actual saguaro scraps, and the rocks are painted clay. Part sculpture, part painting, the work has a deliciously uneven surface. There's a reason for that.
"I had worked in the two-dimensional field since forever," Davenport said one morning last week, seated in the flowery bower of springtime Tohono Chul Park. "I used to do T-shirt designs, pen and ink, painting, oil pastels. But I saw that as we moved into the electronic era, the work was being done more and more by computer. Just about anybody who could push a button could layer images on top of each other. Computer art is very flat to me...For me, to have to rely on a machine to make an artistic statement was boring."
So Davenport opted out of a media world being fast overtaken by digital wizardry ("I made the definite choice to become obsolete before the next computer," he says); and turned to three-dimensional work that, so far, can only be made by human hands.
Now 52 years old, Davenport sees himself as part of a fading tradition. A "third-generation craftsman," he's the grandson of a Midwestern sign painter who labored "in the good old days when everything was hand-lettered. My daddy started helping him at age 5 or 7. My dad became a commercial illustrator. He was damn good. I was raised in an environment where art was going on."
Davenport has drawn all his life, but it was a while before he thought of doing art full-time. After getting out of the military, he went home to Indiana to work as a motorcycle mechanic. But on a random motorcycle trip around the West, he came to Tucson and, like many before him and since, "fell in love with the Sonoran Desert." Once relocated to his new home, he took advantage of the GI Bill to study at Pima and Yavapai colleges, immersing himself in studio art and art history.
"We need to take the time to look at the things that people took time to make," as he puts it. Nowadays, he finds himself taking time with the objects of the not-too-distant past, the almost forgotten West of the '30s, '40s and '50s, when handcrafted leather and iron commonly adorned ranches and adobes.
"In my pieces I make an attempt to go back to that time, when handwork really counted. I try to make present in my pieces that feeling of a dusty old shop...these pieces are not from today."
In his work, he also tries to elevate the common object, making old weed clippers or milagros or pieces of jeans add up to something more than the sum of their parts. He admires painter Cynthia Miller ("in her paintings, a chair can become a shrine") and photographer William Lesch ("he is just really pumping a presence" into his illuminated desertscapes). An ordained minister for 23 years, Davenport believes that in the weddings he performs, he comes the closest to merging significant object with spirit. The Tohono Chul show exhibits the table, spectacularly painted in yellow, turquoise and green, that he uses as an altar at the weddings.
"I found it in a barrio house. It was pretty ragged. I hammered and painted and sawed it. I added shock absorber caps off my old Ranchero. (At the weddings) I put on candles, the wedding rings, fresh flowers." The celebration of art and the celebration of the wedding make for "a perfect thing--they can come together."
Davenport's own marriage, to a nurse, has yielded two children, a daughter, age 9, and a son, age 4. His departure from the newspaper coincided roughly with the birth of his son, and he's devoted most of the last four years to raising the kids. To be sure, he never gave up his tinkering. During his time at home, he's added to his desert backyard two play towers, a ramada, a fish pond, waterfalls and a cookhouse. ("I've been a building fool.") It's only in the last year, as his son has grown slightly more independent, that Davenport's been able to concentrate once again on making art objects.
He came to fatherhood late, in his 40s, and one piece in the show, "Takin' the Back Road," is an homage to his old, pre-dad freedom. The change hasn't been easy, but he's content.
"I've had my way for decades. It's time to give something back," he said. And his kids seem to be thriving in the creative disorder of junk that makes its way into art. His son likes to make assemblages of stuff; and his daughter won a prize for painting at the Pima County Fair last year.
"I've also come to realize as much as I think of myself as an artist, I may be setting the stage for them to be good artists. By paying attention to them and their growth, providing an environment and visual space, I may be the platform from which the rocket is launched...They may be the ones to conquer the world with their creativity."
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