She came each day to stand in front of the murder ballad paintings. She had grown up listening to all that music. “I just stand here,” she told me, “And the paintings pull the marrow from my chest.”
At first, the England of his youth seems a far cry from the rural American South where artist Julyan Davis later came to set up his home and easel. Where the former had placed a premium on manicured lawns and self-restraint, the latter, as Davis soon discovered, was anything but tidy, with the jumbled contents of yards and lives sprawled out and exposed for all to see. As the artist’s paintings reveal, here was an environment which seemed to almost revel in those places where passions and indiscretions left their mark. And yet there is a connection between Davis’ distant, Celtic connections to Scotland and Ireland and his new home: a strong culture of honor, connecting the artist’s past with his present, and where, through the language of oil and canvas, light and shadow, insiders and outsiders alike discover that beauty can be found in even the darkest of places.
INTERVIEW WITH JULYAN DAVIS
Asheville, North Carolina ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: It seems like it must have been such a far leap to make the move from London to Asheville, North Carolina. What called you to this part of the world?
Julyan Davis: I had left art school in London, and wanted adventure. I found an old book, Stars Fell on Alabama, by Carl Carmer, written back in the thirties. There was a chapter on the history of Demopolis, Alabama: how it had been settled by exiled Bonapartist generals, back before Alabama became a state, when it was wild, uncharted territory. It sounded like something Werner Herzog would film.
Julyan Davis: I went over, stopping first in New York and then the Library of Congress to learn more about Demopolis. I was playing the role of a writer, really, armed with a little 1920’s leather suitcase that weighed about twenty pounds, empty.
I’d read a lot of Southern literature, and loved the music, and I found the South to be as loaded with history ~ a very complicated history ~ as I had hoped. I have never run out of things to paint. After several years, I made my way to the mountains of North Carolina, drawn by the spectacular scenery. I lived for some time out in the country, but finally ended up a part of Asheville’s busy art community. I have many great friends here.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How were the stories of these lives different from the ones being told by your countrymen?
Julyan Davis: Interesting. A lot of what intrigues me about stories I hear about and from Southerners is that they are close relatives to my countrymen, my ancestors. That historical similarity fascinates me. For example, there is a strong, long-untouched Scots-Irish strain here in the Appalachians. A culture of honor. An extreme example might be a story relating to my friend’s local bar. He took it over after a fierce crime closed the old place down:
One man killed another with a hunting knife. At once, word was carried to the dead man’s brother. He came running down the street with his own hunting knife, chased the murderer, killed him against the side of a city bus. This stuff doesn’t happen much where I’m from. But it is the stuff of the Scottish borders, only a long time ago.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How has living in this part of the world changed you?
Julyan Davis: Living in the South, I think, made me self-reliant. I don’t have a Masters, so I’m not qualified to teach at any university. I’m not wild about grants, so there’s not much of a safety net here. I had to learn fast how to make a living as an artist. From the odd example of crazy old Southern folk artists, I learned not to let anyone’s opinion stop you making the work you have to make, and from them. I learned you can also make art you can keep for yourself, like the murder ballad series, for example.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What were the stories you were told as a child that have most stayed with you?
Julyan Davis: [quote]My father used to tell us great ghost stories. There was a lot of family history, stories of remarkable ancestors. There was also the music, of course. My father sang all this old, traditional music. I was allowed to play his great stack of records. It’s funny to think of all that tragedy, all that morbid dry wit, seeping into my five year old brain.[/quote]
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How would you describe yourself as a boy? I imagine you were rather curious, given to going off on your own to investigate places, nooks and crannies that intrigued you?
Julyan Davis: I have two younger sisters, but no brothers. I kept myself entertained. I did explore. I was very short-sighted. I wore heavy, always-damaged glasses. I was a liability playing games like cricket, so they told me just to run instead, run around the pitches. “The loneliness of the long-distance runner.” I think that was defining.
Julyan Davis: I was quite fastidious about my toys, and often dismayed at the way visiting friends would throw my carefully assembled armies around. I think of myself as being a bit old-fashioned from an early age. Tom Waits said something about his looking forward to being old. A part of me was like that. Another part, but one I can’t really recall, was quite delinquent though. I skipped school, failed exams – enough that my parents finally had to send me off to the Jesuits to get me back on track.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What role does the uncovering of secrets play in the psychology of your work?
Julyan Davis: Perhaps that’s the polemical side of my work? There’s that strong satirical thread in English art. I have some of that. [quote]I do paint aspects of America that might make people uncomfortable. I have addressed poverty, violence, pointed out things that some of my audience would rather not see.[/quote]
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Please tell me about the painting, I have Led You.
Julyan Davis: [quote]I did a series of interviews with victims of domestic violence at a local shelter. There was a recurring theme, particularly among the younger women, of being drawn to young men, who were both macho and sensitive, oversensitive, putting on a brave front when they were full of self-doubt. As they became more and more controlling, they often returned to an evangelical Christianity they had grown up with. There was a strange battle in these men between evangelism, atheism and addiction.[/quote]
From these interviews I started paintings like this one. Symbolic paintings. They had to be that to protect the individuals involved. I can’t really explain what’s in the fire, or why there’s a fire, but it relates. “I have led you in upright paths.” Proverbs 4:11
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What are some of the songs performed with your Traveling series? Who performs them?
Julyan Davis: The songs are performed by Greg and Lucretia Speas. Love songs like “Barbara Allen,” murder ballads like “Pretty Polly” and “Banks of the Ohio.” Also Scottish border songs that ended up here like “The Two Sisters.”
Julyan Davis: I painted the newest works, although with no specific song in mind, but rather a mood and a narrative. Greg wrote a song inspired by my painting, To Grow in the Sick Tree’s Path, and they perform this also. I am discussing with a good friend in Nashville the idea of doing a series of paintings and having further musicians use these images to write their own songs, do an album or something.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is the responsibility an artist has to his public? What are the unspoken agreements you make with your own viewers?
Julyan Davis: If I have an unspoken agreement, it’s that I have taken time and care to do my best, to be honest, and hope that this will let the viewer complete the exchange, enter the painting. Art can be fraudulent.
I have another responsibility, to the public and myself, that I find challenging but essential: that is to never copy myself, to keep pushing both style and subject. I must have got this from all my early excitement about Picasso and Matisse, all those old Modernists reinventing themselves endlessly on the Riviera. It’s completely out of fashion now, of course. Changing tack has proved costly to me and a frustration to any sensible dealer. [quote]Abrupt changes are about as welcome to the art market as Dylan was to the Folk scene when he went electric.[/quote]
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What is it about tales of murder and psychological decay that fascinates us so as a society? Is it a hunger to learn about others very different from ourselves or because we suspect they might not be so different after all? Are we looking for evidence that proves our own innocence, or guilt?
Julyan Davis: Perhaps it’s that background of carnage that can make the smaller story more compelling ~ our universal agonies and joys? Generally, we can only watch so much entertainment that delicately mimics the quiet facts of our own lives.
[quote]I think we all have some deep, secret, gothic hope that we might have the passion to be vengefully murderous, or spontaneously suicidal, should the darkest circumstance arise. In reality, very few of us are that romantic, in the Byronic sense, but we are fascinated by our dark possibilities.[/quote]
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How has becoming a father affected your painting or choices in subject matter?
Julyan Davis: Becoming a father has directly influenced my work, particularly this year. I’ve noticed when my four-year-old plays, or asks for a story, it’s essential for him that the bad guys lose, the superheroes win. Justice must be done. Seeing this need of his has made what’s going on the world today freshly offensive to me. The resulting work is a kind of purging, I guess. Angry work. I’m doing a sort of Stations of the Cross, the figure of Christ replaced by a circus elephant they managed to lynch not far from here, back in 1915. My son is a tiny figure, trying to protect the animal from the crowd. It’s all done from his, or rather my imagined idea of his perspective of the world: bright colors, dinosaurs are real, that kind of thing. I need to jump on that kind of anger and use it while it’s there to inspire, because really at heart I’m horribly optimistic and chipper. A sort of Bertie Wooster with a paintbrush.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: As an artist who tends to leave in those less than idealized details that many other painters typically elect to leave out, how do you determine what is necessary to your composition and what isn’t?
Julyan Davis: [quote]Well, I am drawn to the untidy reality of my environment: all the stuff that seems to tumble out across people’s yards, or clutter up the skyline. I was always being asked if I could paint out the telephone poles. Actually, for me mess is very soulful. [/quote]Most of my childhood was spent in very manicured parts of London and the West Country. Very tidy, pristine, but I find mess more interesting. Maybe that’s what I get for growing up in Bath, England’s prettiest city.
Compositionally, America has suited my work. I like anything that breaks and chops up traditional perspective, and I love something I take from Bonnard: the seemingly random detail that keeps the eye moving around the canvas in unexpected ways.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What feedback have you received from those whose personal landscapes you’ve captured?
Julyan Davis: [quote]I feel honored that I’ve become known for capturing a lot of aspects of the South that are close to people’s hearts, but which hadn’t been recorded much before, at least in paint: the untidy edges of a state fair, car lots, suburban alleys, places that in the raking light of early evening remind people of reflective moments in their lives. It took a long time for this work to be accepted. The South can be sensitive, and perhaps they thought I was being judgmental. In the main, I was just saying there is a kind of overlooked beauty in such places, a wistful sadness.[/quote]
I got a wonderful compliment from an elderly docent at the Morris Museum in Augusta, Georgia. To have reached out to a person like that means everything to me.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What have been some of the most haunting landscapes you have ever encountered?
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are there some you were moved by but chose not to capture?
Julyan Davis: Yes, I find it best to wait to paint a place, to go back a second, even a third time, perhaps. That way the painting carries a certain weight: of memory, loss, even. A Proustian view, I guess? Sometimes you don’t get to go back and those places are never painted.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: If you could select one landscape to serve as a self-portrait, what or where would you capture?
Julyan Davis: Lovely question! For now it would be a waterfall that I used to visit every day when I lived in Scaly Mountain, NC. It was almost unknown. The trail was steep and I never saw another person there. I visited it in every kind of weather ~ ice storms, blizzards, hurricanes ~ I had to see how it had changed. I always wanted to paint it lit only by the moon, because I still think of it often at night and how the water keeps falling whether or not it is in anyone’s thoughts. Anyway, it’s a place very far from England that I came to think of as my own.
|Julyan Davis is an English-born artist who now lives in the United States. He received his art training at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. In 1988, having completed his B.A. in painting and printmaking, he traveled to the South on a painting trip that was also fueled by an interest in the history of Demopolis, Alabama, and its settling by Bonapartist exiles. Julyan now lives in Asheville, North Carolina. His work is exhibited internationally and is in many public and private collections. Recent acquisitions include the Gibbes Museum in Charleston, the Greenville County Museum of Art (South Carolina), the Morris Museum (Augusta, GA) and the North Carolina Governor’s Mansion and Western Residence. A current series, ‘Dark Corners: Appalachian love songs and murder ballads’ is touring museums of the South, accompanied by lectures and musical performance.To learn more, please visit the artist’s website.|