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President's Blog: From the Heart

A Dayton Original

By Eric F. Spina

Willis “Bing” Davis makes a lasting impression on everyone he meets — from school-age children to my 97-year-old father, from scholars and artists far and wide to community leaders.

And it’s not because the internationally recognized artist boldly wears traditional African attire, complete with a flowing dashiki and embroidered kufi. It’s because “you feel comfortable in his presence,” says Dr. Dwayne Daniel, Bing’s former student who now serves as a professor of fine arts at Central State University.

“He can define the kernel of positive energy in people and nurture it so they can grow and blossom,” Dr. Daniel told a diverse crowd who gathered in Roesch Library on May 22 to celebrate the Davis family’s decision to make the University of Dayton the repository of Bing’s papers, artifacts, and memorabilia. What an extraordinary gift and what an honor for UD!

Like Bing himself, this collection will leave a lasting impression on students, scholars, artists, and activists who want to understand how to use art as an expression of the human spirit, as a catalyst for social change — and as a medium for community building.

“There has been a major shift/reckoning in the visual arts world that is now more embracing of a pluralistic view,” said Rodney Veal, choreographer, artist, educator, and host of “The Art Show” on ThinkTV, at the joyful gathering of family and friends.

“All too often the exclusionary gatekeeping has blocked out the efforts of Black creatives, artists whose works and ideas have been lost and abandoned, unless an intentional effort is undertaken to intercede. How inspiring is it that under the direction of the University of Dayton archives the voice and impact of Bing Davis will never have to suffer that fate,” he said. “In a world that can seem in short supply of hope and grace, the archives of Bing Davis are a shining beacon of inspiration.”

I vividly remember a summer weekend seven years ago when Bing and Audrey welcomed Karen and me, newcomers to Dayton, into his studio on West Third Street to help us better see Dayton and its possibilities. That day, we bought one of Bing’s remarkable “Ancestral Spirit” pastels that ever since has prominently hung just inside the door as visitors enter the UD president’s residence.

I began to more clearly see the world through Bing’s eyes when he developed a tender friendship with my father during his trips to town and then curated an exceptionally powerful exhibit at the president’s residence that showcased paintings and photographs by more than a dozen local Black artists that further revealed truths about our city and its people. Truths that are real and gritty, sad and tragic, pleasing and glorious, much like Bing’s own work, which can be found in public and private collections from Australia to Africa.

As Bing rose to speak at the library’s celebration, the audience rose to give him a standing ovation. Like the prominent poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and the great inventors the Wright brothers, he is one of our own with deep roots in the Dayton community. He’s a national treasure who could have donated his papers anywhere, but he said “the best vehicle is right here at home.”

As for the impact of the Bing Davis Collection on future generations, “it’s like a blank canvas. We don’t know what to expect, but it will be beautiful,” he told us.

And lasting.

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