By D. Amari Jackson
Imagine you could travel back in time, to the mid-1960s, amidst increasing urban unrest in major American cities, an active civil rights movement, and emerging Black Power and antiwar activism. Unlike the iconic American popcorn flick, Back to the Future, and its trademark DeLorean, imagine your time-shifting vehicle of choice is a light green Volkswagen Beetle stuffed to the gills with sleeping bags and personal belongings. Then imagine you and a family member setting out cross-country on your stated mission to experience African-American art in the making while marching and advocating for civil rights in cities along the way.
Longtime artist Alonzo Davis doesn’t have to imagine; for his remarkable career in art mostly began with such a trip. Perhaps, since he was already teaching art at a Los Angeles high school at the time, it was more of a pilgrimage or a rite of passage into his full 50-year immersion into art education, community service, cultural affirmation, and artistic enlightenment.
“We decided to take a summer trip in ‘66 to the historically Black communities around the country,” recounts Davis, of that pivotal expedition with younger brother, Dale, to rally for social justice and engage the prominent Black artists of the day. The bearded, bespectacled 80-year-old sits in the study of his Hyattsville, Maryland home framed by a wall of hanging fabric works of art and a ceiling-high bookcase. “We were in a Volkswagen, and one would drive while the other would sleep in that little seat back there,” laughs Davis, noting “we made stops here and there for hotel and food accommodations.”
The impact of the road trip was indelible. After visiting numerous cities and meeting the likes of John Biggers, Jacob Lawrence, and Romare Bearden, and marching for civil rights with such activists as James Meredith, the inspired brothers returned to their Los Angeles community and opened Brockman Gallery, the city’s first gallery devoted to the exhibition and sale of Black art. Six years later, the siblings established Brockman Productions, a community-based nonprofit promoting public art projects. The trip further inspired Davis’s own art as he became a leader in the “California Mural Movement,” culminating with his artistic contributions to the 1984 Olympics. He would go on to serve as dean of both the San Antonio Art Institute and the Memphis College of Art in the 1990s and, today, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA)—where Davis is a fellow and board member—offers the Alonzo Davis Fellowship to outstanding American writers, visual artists, and composers of African or Latin American descent.
“The first stop was Phoenix, Arizona to meet Eugene Grigsby, who was an artist out of Morehouse and who had settled in the West,” details Davis, of their encounter with the prominent artist-educator and Ph.D widely recognized for his efforts to increase awareness of African and African-American artists. The year prior, in 1965, Grigsby received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree for his work from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “Then we went on to Texas to TSU (Texas Southern University) with John Biggers and a number of the artists in that area, then to Dallas, and then on to Jackson, Mississippi where we had folks take us and introduce us to local artists in Jackson as well as at Jackson State.” Also in Mississippi, the brothers participated in solidarity with James Meredith’s “March Against Fear” to encourage African-American voter registration in the troubled state.
“From Jackson, we went to Tuskegee, retracing our roots and exploring the Carver Museum and any artwork that was a part of the Tuskegee Collection,” continues Davis, acknowledging the Alabama town where he and his brother were born. The children of Tuskegee University educators—their father taught psychology and education, their mother, a librarian—the two spent their formative years on and about the campus. Though segregated, Tuskegee was a college town, and he and Dale grew up seeing Black educators, Black professionals, and even Black wartime aviators in the legendary Tuskegee Airmen on a daily basis while hearing of the many contributions of African Americans. “I remembered, as a kid, we learned about ceramics and also the brickmaking history of Booker T. Washington.”
From their birthplace it was on to the Atlanta University Center where their grandparents had once attended Clark and Morris Brown; to North Carolina Central University in Durham to engage artists on campus while visiting their dad who taught there; to D.C. and Howard University where they met with recent graduate, artist, and filmmaker, Topper Carew, who had just established The New Thing Art and Architecture Center to teach inner city youth; then to Philadelphia and New Jersey where they engaged with several more artists before arriving in New York.
“We met Romare Bearden and were introduced to Jacob Lawrence and a number of artists from the Spiral community that Bearden had initiated,” recalls Davis, noting how these legendary New York-based artists were “very generous with their information and shared with us. We were two naive young men as I had just finished college a few years prior, and my brother was still in college.”
The cross-country travelers rounded out their remarkable journey by driving through southern parts of Canada and dropping down to see a series of murals by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts before heading to Chicago where Margaret Taylor-Burroughs had established both the South Side Community Art Center and what is now the DuSable Museum of African American History. After viewing more murals at the Art Institute of Chicago, “that pretty much wrapped up the trip,” remembers Davis, stressing the “long road home from Chicago. So we are driving through what I would call the cornfields and the desert to get back to Los Angeles and we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could open an art gallery?”
It was not the first time the siblings had traveled west from Chicago to southern California. A decade prior, in 1956, the 14-year-old Davis relocated with his mother and brother to Los Angeles upon his parents’ split. Unlike the segregated, cocoon-like college town they’d left behind, the trio arrived in an integrated and diverse southern California community where racially restrictive housing covenants had been done away with less than a decade prior. Consistently, in school, the boys experienced a variety of cultures and ethnicities including Japanese kids who had endured World War II internment camps, white students whose parents worked at the nearby University of Southern California, and the Black children of parents working long hours at the U.S. Rubber Company (now Uniroyal).
Four years later, Davis would remain in the state to attend college at Pepperdine University in Malibu where he became disenchanted with the skewed Eurocentric narrative dominating his coursework in art history. This glaring lack of cultural representation—further highlighted by his prior travels to several African countries and further contextualized by the nearby 1965 Watts Rebellion and the social inequities that sparked it—would remain an important contributing factor as Davis planned his 1966 summer break from teaching art at a Los Angeles high school.
In a February 2016 interview in Medium, Dale, four years younger and still in college during the rebellion, recalled the precarious atmosphere and how the guarded curfew area went from Watts “all the way to Crenshaw… Basically, you had to show ID to go home, to go to school. At the time I was a student at LACC (Los Angeles City College) and I had no idea that I would be subject to that kind of lockdown,” explained Dale, characterizing it as “a major surprise.” He noted that, because of the events in Watts, “all the African Americans in the city were subject to the same kind of issues and stereotypes.”
The brothers were looking for something different for their city upon their return at summer’s end in ‘66. Though energized by their trip and their gallery idea, they quickly resumed their normal academic lives until Davis decided to take the day off from his teaching job at Manual Arts High School. “I went to Leimert Park and ran into a brother there named David Bradford who was teaching at Watts Towers Arts Center,” recounts Davis. “And David said, ‘You know, there’s a little studio kind of storefront down the street. You ought to go check it out.” Curious, Davis did just that and “all of sudden, that conversation between Chicago and Los Angeles started to percolate as I saw that this little studio would make a great art gallery.”
Upon telling Dale and “kicking the idea around a bit,” the brothers were intrigued. However, their mother was not. “My mom said, ‘you don’t know what you’re doing,'” recalls Davis, with a slight smile. “And I said, ‘but I got in touch with the guy that owns the property, and he gave me this lease form, and I could rent it.’ And she said, ‘well, you better take that next door to Mr. Parks. He’s a lawyer, so let him check it out and see what he says, ‘cause you all don’t know what you’re doing.’”
“And she was right,” laughs Davis.
Despite their lack of knowledge and experience opening a business, once they got the blessing of Mr. Parks, the committed duo opened the gallery in spring 1967 and “learned by the seat of our pants.” They named the gallery “Brockman,” which was Dale’s middle name, their mother’s maiden name, as well as their grandmother’s maiden name. “Neither of us had taken business courses in college and we didn’t know anything about marketing, but I knew art, and my brother had a sense for business,” says Davis, acknowledging that “we did grow up with that spirit of ‘we can make it on our own.’ And we knew there was no stopping us based on color, because we had lived the kind of life we did in Tuskegee.”
This time, Davis was right. They had entered a space where there was little before it and no competition, and Brockman Gallery rapidly became the center of a community of Black artists due to a previously underserved community and tireless networking by Davis. The 4334 Degnan Boulevard gallery provided a much-needed hub, haven, and venue for artists of color denied the city’s mainstream galleries and museums. It engaged the local community and supported artists by offering studio space, exhibits, mural projects, film festivals, community discussions, neighborhood festivals, concerts, trips, and collaborations with other arts entities. It spearheaded the effort to bring about a thriving Black arts and business center in the city’s Leimert Park neighborhood. Over time, it launched the careers of countless new artists and buoyed the careers of established artists, featuring the likes of such creative luminaries as David Hammons, John Outterbridge, Noah Purifoy, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Charles White, Betye Saar, and many more.
“Brockman Gallery was a hub for a lot of African-American artists, especially in California, but all over the country,” says Raymond Holbert, a longtime Berkeley, California-based artist and art professor. Holbert met Davis in the early ‘70s as they were part of the same circle of creatives and professionals, with Brockman subsequently showcasing Holbert’s work and the two traveling the long state in opposite directions to network. “Alonzo was more of a very versatile mover and shaker at that point more than anything given he not only knew artists and how to deal with artists, but how to exhibit, how to promote, while also understanding the business aspect of art,” explains Holbert. “Most artists know very little about the business unless they’re in the gallery business where they pay much more attention to the significance of sales and what pieces are doing and so on. So he is the person who could actually settle in any one of those areas and be an expert, be it promotion, galleries, or the artwork itself.”
Even when competition did arrive for Brockman Gallery, the Davis brothers saw an opportunity to collaborate rather than compete. In March 1969, painter and ballet dancer, Suzanne Jackson, opened Gallery 32 not far away. The two galleries ended up coordinating their openings to fall on the same weekends, sharing both artists and collectors.
“We’ve just been really good friends keeping up with each other throughout the years,” acknowledges Jackson, pointing out “we have birthdays within two days of one another.” Though Gallery 32 only stayed open for two years, its impact was historic given its presentation of the first Los Angeles survey of African-American women artists, its dedicated community service, and its fundraising efforts for organizations like the Black Panther Party, the Black Arts Council, and the Watts Towers Children’s arts programs. “My space was basically an accident that happened because some artists saw a big space and thought they’d like to have a show there,” reports Jackson. “But the Brockman Gallery was very organized and run very well by Alonzo” as they had a family-run “board of directors and were really structured.”
After voluntarily closing her gallery, moving away, then returning to Los Angeles in the mid-70s, Jackson was hired by Davis as the artist coordinator for Brockman Gallery under the government-sponsored CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) initiative. The two worked closely together to organize the program and write proposals for the artists working under the public art program. “Alonzo has been consistent in supporting artists one way or another and making space and organized programs available for artists,” stresses Jackson, detailing how Davis “had a series of studios that he rented where an artist could actually have studio space there along with the gallery.” She goes on to reference Davis’ current A.I.R. Studio Paducah, an artist-in-residence studio and apartment located in the Lower Town Arts District of Paducah, Kentucky. Under Davis’s residency program, artists working in a range of creative disciplines can access the time and space for focused, independent work and the development of new ideas and experimentation.
For Davis, even with the prominence of Brockman Gallery, the journey continued. At the end of the 1960s, he returned to school and, in 1973, received his Master of Fine Arts in Printmaking and Design at Otis Art Institute. “The reason I went back to Otis was because Charles White was an instructor there,” reports Davis, noting “that’s how I got to know Charlie on a one-on-one basis. Charlie had a number of students who subsequently were working artists—David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Richard Wyatt, Stanley Wilson, Nathaniel Buston—and all came out of that influence. So, all of a sudden there was just a fusion of attention to what had been Charlie’s work that focused on the African-American experience,” says Davis, acknowledging “we were all influenced by Charlie in different ways.”
“I struggled with our communication,” admits Davis, of his late mentor, but “one of the things Charlie said to me that has left a lasting impact on what I do as an artist is, he said, ‘Davis, your work is all over the place. You need to work in a series where you exhaust a thought.’ And from that point on, I have continued to work in developing a series or body of work that explores exhausting a thought, so to speak, or pushing a body of work as opposed to doing one thing and then jumping to the next.”
In 1984, almost two decades after his cross-country trip had inspired him to paint murals around Crenshaw, Davis’s spearheading of the “California Mural Movement” culminated with his historic contribution to the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. The brothers’ community-serving nonprofit, Brockman Productions, which had already designed the city’s famous Crenshaw Wall, won “a contract with the ‘84 Olympics to do concerts in the venues, and the murals along the Hollywood and Harbor freeways. And that was sort of the end for me in terms of that particular public art effort.” Davis’s famous Eye on ’84 was one of ten murals on the walls of the downtown Los Angeles Harbor Freeway.
Upon leaving Los Angeles in 1987 to focus more on his own art—and weary from the politics of running a commercial operation as the brothers would decide to close Brockman Gallery two years later, which then consisted of four storefronts and several artist-in-residence spaces—Davis continued to travel extensively, a habit that has significantly influenced his own artistic efforts. After serving as the interim director of the public art program for the city and county of Sacramento, Davis traveled to Hawaii on a painting fellowship where he “was greatly influenced by the cultures of the Pacific rim” including the “Māori people, the aboriginal people, and the peoples of Micronesia” as well as others. Combined with his multiple trips to Ghana, Nigeria, and Togo, and several trips to Europe, Mexico, and countries in central and South America, these experiences further shaped his artistic lens on life. “So my work is influenced by those travels as well as by the Native American communities in the western part of the United States,” acknowledges Davis. “All those things kind of entered into my creative language, so to speak.”
After spending over a decade in academia, winning and funding fellowships, and relocating to Maryland, the Hyattsville resident is currently focused on his own work while continuing to mentor and support young artists and art administrators. Employing traditional African patterns, colors, and references in his mixed media sculptures, Davis produces collages, woven paintings, and prints from such materials as copper, rawhide, leather, and bamboo, the latter being “a worldwide material that’s everywhere. It’s a grass, it’s very strong. In Malaysia they’ve built scaffolding for high-rise buildings using bamboo. So it’s a very flexible material” and it has “become a part of my creative language and expression.”
Social justice has ever been a part of Davis’s creative language and expression. He recently received funding to produce a mixed media series to address current social justice issues. “There was a call for a social justice project from the Puffin Foundation out of New Jersey and I applied and was awarded a fellowship,” says Davis, who did a series of pieces highlighting “police brutality against brothers. I mean, we’re still fighting that today, so I used bulletproof vests to say that we need to protect ourselves against them.”
Davis’s inspired work and ongoing mentorship continues to inspire others.
“He is very passionate about, not only the work he does, but supporting others who are also interested in becoming a part of this arts ecosystem, whether that’s helping them in their career trajectory as artists or helping art administrators like myself,” says Ashley McDonald, currently the Assistant Manager of Career and Alumni Services at the T. Howard Foundation, an organization promoting diversity in media and entertainment. Trained in art administration, McDonald met Davis 11 years back at the Brentwood Arts Exchange in Maryland. She reiterates his promotion of “others who are trying to find a way or make a way within the art field, and I think it really motivates him and keeps him going.”
“Alonzo has taught me the importance of travel and patience,” says artist Kia Paxton, Davis’s studio assistant. Paxton has known the acclaimed artist-educator for eight years and has worked with him for the past three. “Travel has a very heavy influence on Alonzo’s work and, over the years working with him, I’ve been able to travel and see how art has impacted different cultures. As far as patience, he’s taught me that artwork is work,” laughs Paxton, noting how the phrase is “basically his motto. But it’s work that you have to fully commit to in order for it to work for you.” The young artist goes on to stress how Davis promotes and models the concept of having “patience with ideas and pieces. You may make a mistake on a piece but, instead of scrapping it and starting over, you have to figure out how to work it. Since he works in series, if he’s stuck on a particular piece, he’ll take a break and come back to it when he’s figured out what to do, or sometimes he’ll just experiment until it’s something he thinks works.”
“It’s fascinating to watch him work and to have seen how much he’s done in the art world over time,” continues Paxton, further characterizing Davis as an “amazing mentor” before adding “it’s an honor to work with him.”
Still, despite his remarkable resume and how much he’s done in the art world, Alonzo Davis is ever looking to the future. Like the transformative journey with his brother in the summer of 1966 that sparked his legendary half-century career in art, you still get the feeling the 80-year-old visionary is loading his bags into his light green Volkswagen Beetle and just starting out cross-country to take on the artworld while slaying injustice along the way.
When asked what his sizable legacy will be, his immediate response is as blunt as it is telling: “I don’t know,” offers Davis, shrugging slightly, as if the question has no bearing on his daily existence or future possibilities.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” he adds, eyes twinkling.
“I’m still living.”