Recognized artist, beloved social figure began as a sports star


“It was me who declared what I wanted to do, rather than my well-meaning friends and family who already said, ‘He’s our next basketball player. He’s our next court player.’”

Yet he initially made his name as a hoopster and a sprinter.

At Wilbur Wright High School, he was a two-time All-City basketball player and won Negro All-State honors from the black newspaper, Cleveland Call & Post.

He continued to play basketball and running at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., And is today in the school’s athletics hall of fame.

Thanks to sports, he was able to get a university degree and make art the calling of his life.

At 84, he is now an internationally acclaimed artist and one of Dayton’s favorite sons, a beloved figure, still tall and slender, with an eternally present kufi that crowns his head and a tassel of white whiskers clings to his chin.

And that brings us to today and The Contemporary Dayton Gallery in downtown Dayton, where his latest exhibition – titled Kneel – concludes a 10-week run with one last weekend on display. Then it will probably end up in other galleries around the country, as much of his other work is now.

Kneel – who metaphorically connects the peaceful Colin Kaepernick protests a few years ago and a kneeling act by a Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd – includes a series of kneeling in the found art form that Davis so often embraces.

This time, he has used recycled wood and nails and worn footballs he got from Dunbar High School, which, when explained, add a special meaning.

The purpose of the exhibition is to bring up issues such as police brutality, threatened young people and societal hopes. And the kneeling allows viewers to actually participate.

On the wall overlooking the exhibit is a quote from Ida B. Wells Barnett, the investigative journalist and civil rights activist more than 100 years ago who was one of the founders of the NAACP and is best known for her work documenting lynchings in America. :

“I am only one voice through which we tell the story of lynching. I have told it so often that I can memorize it. I do not have to embellish. It goes its own way.”

Since this exhibition – which is dedicated to the two prominent black police chiefs in Dayton’s history, Tyree Bloomfield and Ronald Lowe Sr., both friends of Davis – opened on November 5, a few people have asked Davis about his “protest art”.

He also heard, “Oh, I did not know you were so angry.”

To each one he has said “No.”

“This is not protest art, it’s just an extension of what I see.”

He also said, “I’m not angry. You can not make art out of anger. You make art out of love. I love people. I love this community and I want to deeply express what I see and feel.”

That said, he admitted to being “ruined” by the video of the police officer kneeling 9 minutes and 42 seconds on George Floyd’s neck, an act that a jury deemed second-degree murder and worthy of a 22-year prison sentence.

“One of the misconceptions we all have about lynchings is that they are about a rope and a tree,” said Michael Goodson, curator of The Contemporary Dayton. “But they go on in many, many ways.”

Several black men in his community – including some of our most famous athletes and coaches – have stories of running with the authorities when they did nothing wrong. And many could have escalated with one misunderstood move.

Davis had a shocking encounter seven years ago when he returned from being honored at DePauw.

A white motorist with weather rage targeted Davis, who he thought was driving too slowly, and called police, saying a black man was driving down I-70 and waving a gun.

The next thing Davis knew was his vehicle was surrounded by four highway patrol cars, and he was thrown to the ground and handcuffed.

There was no gun and no threat, and eventually the shaken Davis was released.

That was when he said he asked a young patrolman what would have happened if he had grabbed the glove compartment to get his glasses.

He said to me, “I would have shot you.”

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Bing 5 & Bing 6 – the internationally acclaimed Dayton artist Bing Davis – once a high school and college basketball and court star – takes a knee on one of his knees in his exhibition “Kneel”, which binds Colin Kaepernick’s silent protests together and the murder of George Floyd. Tom Archdeacon / STAFF

Bing 5 & Bing 6 - the internationally acclaimed Dayton artist Bing Davis - once a high school and college basketball and court star - takes a knee on one of his knees in his exhibition "Kneel" which binds Colin Kaepernick's silent protests and the assassination of George Floyd.  Tom Archdeacon / STAFF
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Bing 5 & Bing 6 – the internationally acclaimed Dayton artist Bing Davis – once a high school and college basketball and court star – takes a knee on one of his knees in his exhibition “Kneel”, which binds Colin Kaepernick’s silent protests together and the murder of George Floyd. Tom Archdeacon / STAFF

‘Art as an agent for change’

Davis was born in South Carolina, where his family had been co-op members.

When they moved to Ohio, his father left the family, which included six children.

Although Davis’ mother only had a third-grade education, she worked two jobs – as a hotel maid and as a chef at a few eateries downtown – and showed that she had a Ph.D. in survival and care and love.

Bing’s late brother John once told me how the two used to visit the alleys of their East Dayton neighborhood and look in trash cans.

“I was looking for pop bottles and copper wire, all I could sell, so we had 10 cents for the movies on Jefferson Street,” he said.

“But Bing wanted to see little artifacts, broken earrings, anything he could use in his art. He wanted to find pencil pieces and take them home and draw with them.”

And Bing’s mother stroked the wrinkles out of brown paper bags so he had flat paper to draw on.

“There was a lady named Miss Walker who came to our East Dayton neighborhood twice a week and held free arts and crafts classes,” Davis said. “I was playing 3-on-3 in the gym when she came, so I wanted to get someone to keep my seat on the court, and then I wanted to go to arts and crafts.”

When he was 16 – although his art and sports careers both proved promising – he considered quitting high school and getting a job to help the family.

“In my neighborhood, like a lot of black neighborhoods here in the ’50s, men dropped out of school when they were 16,” he said. “They got a work permit and went into the factories – especially the bottling company and the meat packing plant in East Dayton.”

But when coach Dean Dooley – a guiding force for Davis like Jack Reynolds, the director of the neighborhood recreation center – heard that Bing was considering dropping out of school, he gave him a directive:

“I thought you wanted to be an artist? You have to go to college to get your degree, and sports will help you get there.”

Although Davis was a prominent athlete and a good student, he received no scholarship offers.

Dooley eventually got him into DePauw, where he became one of just five blacks on campus.

He excelled in the classroom – later graduating from Miami University – and became a teacher who taught first in the Dayton Public Schools system and then in Central State, Wright State and DePauw.

Early in his career he came up with the revelation that has since defined him:

“I learned that art was about more than just beautiful paintings you put on the wall.

“In 1966, I stopped teaching art and started teaching people. I found that you could use art as an agent for change and help build better people. “

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One of the knees in the exhibition of Bing Davis called “Kneel”. It is on display for Sunday at The Contemporary Dayton Gallery, 25 W. Fourth Street in downtown Dayton. Tom Archdeacon / STAFF

One of the knees in the exhibition of Bing Davis rang "Kneel." It is on display for Sunday at The Contemporary Dayton Gallery, 25 W. Fourth Street in downtown Dayton.  Tom Archdeacon / STAFF
caption arrowCaption

One of the knees in the exhibition of Bing Davis called “Kneel”. It is on display for Sunday at The Contemporary Dayton Gallery, 25 W. Fourth Street in downtown Dayton. Tom Archdeacon / STAFF

Found art

When Davis took me through his exhibit the other day, he said, “Almost everything here is a found object from the streets, highways, and alleys. Other things are everyday things that are recycled.”

A detailed mask hanging on the wall celebrating the appointment of a new police chief included an old deck he had found discarded on Highway 35 and Masai-like, urban bean pearls that had been monasteries he had found at Mendelsons’. .

And then there were the footballs that are central to the kneeling.

“It’s a great concept and I have to thank Michael for that,” he said. “He contacted Dunbar. The idea was to get balls actually used by the boys on the football team.

“Think how many kids who held those balls and had thoughts of going to the NFL or playing in college or just making their family proud. They carried these balls, sweated and strained and dreamed.

“All these footballs now come with an energy and a power to them. One we hope we can get hold of. And one you will never have cut off from the things we have remembered here.”

This is truly an example of mutual love.

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