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Art and Dayton's Collective Humanity

By Eric F. Spina

When I walked into the gallery in the President’s Residence, I felt overcome by the truth, beauty — and sheer power — of a display of paintings and photographs by more than a dozen local African-American artists that will grace the walls until Nov. 20.

Willis “Bing” Davis, world-renowned artist and friend to UD, curated this remarkable exhibit that he calls “BLACK LIFE as Subject MATTER 2.” The genesis of the idea took shape two years ago, even before I became president, when Bing welcomed Karen and me into his studio on West Third Street and opened up our eyes to the extraordinary artistic talent in the Dayton community.

Flash forward to today. To see the artwork on the walls is literally a dream come true. I’m not an artist, but I know exceptional art when I see it, and these works are both technically brilliant and emotionally powerful. The pieces open up a window into the lives, joys, challenges, and dreams of our friends and neighbors in our African-American communities. I’m thrilled our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and visitors will have the opportunity to view the exhibit, discuss it, learn from it — and be as moved as I am — through the fall.

As Bing observed in his remarks at the reception, “These artists remind us of the beauty and artistic expression in life. Their work can stand with any work in the country.”

Bing’s own paintings, drawings, photography. and sculpture can be found all over the world in public and private collections from Australia to Africa, but in this exhibit his work mingles inconspicuously in the mix with other thought-provoking pieces that reflect life’s triumphs and sorrows.

In a color photo entitled “Power,” Robert Pinkey III captures four African-American men, silhouetted under a bright blue sky, their arms extended upward with fists meeting high in the air in a sign of unity. I saw visitors linger around Bing’s provocative, oversized color photo, “Playgrounds as Battlefields,” that focuses on the arms and legs of a person on a child’s teeter totter, the hands trapped under the metal handle. Dwayne Daniel’s heartbreaking “Damn the Good Old Days” oil painting of an African-American man shackled on the ground around a pole bearing a Confederate flag also caused many to pause in silence.

In a more spirited piece, Cliff Darrett’s oil painting, “Line Dancing,” depicts rows of dancers in step to the music. Another oil painting, “I, Too, Am American,” by Morris Howard shows a young child with soul-searching eyes, the American flag used to wrap the hair.

Bing calls these artists “visual voices.” It’s an apt description.

As the artists gathered around Bing and spoke about their work at the opening reception last week, I thought about how the arts and culture give us a common language — a common language that can transcend the power of the spoken word. And the artists on display at the Residence are using this language to speak about our common humanity.

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