Five summers ago I had the pleasure of taking a 10-day journey through the Southwest United States. If any region could have resembled an alien planet in comparison to my fast-paced, well-populated Northeastern metropolitan city, that was it. There were borax mines and sun-fried shrubs, dusty shadeless roads, valleys of unfathomable vastness, a full moon lingering high above the buttes, and the sense that we were gliding through an imaginatively crafted, but perhaps not quite real, world. A world equal parts beauty and bleakness.
And that memory may be what first captured my attention when I came upon the watercolor paintings of Glenn W Davis recently at the Uptown Espresso Caffe in the South End. The lines, shapes, subtle coloring and color shifts, paired with an occasionally other-worldly use of perspective, put me back there again, but from some other angle. There was something elusive in Davis’ images that made me feel both comfortable and vaguely off-kilter, and that is a feeling I remember fondly from somewhere out there in the wild west. “Sunset at the Bottom of the World,” one of a group of three larger pieces in Davis’ “Landscape Yarns” show at the café, turned my perception delightfully upside down and perhaps sideways too—it was hard to tell exactly where I was situated in the landscape, but that was okay with me.
I naturally figured Davis had been to the Southwest, too. The paintings evoked the wide passes and open skies that I remembered, as well as the worn rocks, the dust in the air and the full moon in the sky. But when I asked about his inspiration for this series—a vacation? a former home?—I learned he’d come to them through a series of doodles that he drew during a meeting. Drawing 42 doodles whose motif was a diagonal line and a circle, he eventually developed them into small paintings. He transferred the simple drawings freehand to watercolor paper and then applied watercolor paint in what he considered the appropriate color palette. When I entered the café, the series’ three large pieces with their dramatic black mats, were the first thing I noticed, dreamy and inviting against sage green walls.
“The titles came quite a long time after,” said Davis. “I don’t remember the impetus for titling the paintings but I do remember laying most of them out on my work table. Then I proceeded to fashion titles as I looked at each piece. A lot of the time the picture would just suggest a story. Titles like “Flat On Her Back” or “Sunset At The Bottom Of The World” or “Disoriented In The Desert” would occur to me. I made use of the Beat aesthetic of ‘First thought, best thought.’”
Davis has rendered in watercolor for more than 25 years. He originally wanted to paint with oil paints but couldn’t afford them, and while attending New England School of Art in Boston he tried working in acrylics, but didn’t care for “the plastic-like effect the paint had when it dried.” Watercolor paints and tools were recommended to him as an inexpensive alternative. “I tried learning watercolor painting in art school and felt I couldn’t control the medium well enough to get satisfactory results,” says Davis. “However, my desire to express myself without the use of words was strong. I decided to just sit down and learn the mechanics of watercolor painting. I had the mistaken idea that watercolor couldn’t be controlled as oil paint or pastel could be. However, it could be mastered because the paint wouldn’t go outside the puddle of water you put down on the paper. What made it seem difficult was the fact that watercolor was transparent and all the other 2-D media were opaque. Once I realized that, I approached it with transparency in mind.”
Davis discovered glazes as a way to create both colors (taking two colors and creating a third by adding glaze without mixing) and depth (the more layers, the more glazing would bring them to the foreground). Reflecting on what it is he likes about the medium, Davis says, “There is something about the look of watercolor; the layers of color, from the transparent to the translucent that other media don’t have, that make it an unsurpassed source of light.”
Until now, watercolor has been his primary medium of expression—his most recent paintings are a series of endangered animal portraits—but for the time being, he’s put his watercolor brushes aside to take up graphite, and pen and ink, developing “My Cat is Gone,” a pen and ink graphic novelette for children that is in the final stages of production. He’ll be self-publishing it with the help of the Harvard Book Store and their ‘Paige M. Gutenborg’ bookmaking machine. Davis said, “The idea blossomed one evening shortly after my wife lost one of her pet cats…and my daughter had to euthanize a pet cat of her own earlier. I had the whole story in one draft.”
I asked Davis about other projects he’s been involved in. He once participated in an outdoor Chalk Walk on Church Street in Harvard Square that he calls “an art for art’s sake project.” Selecting a 2” x 4” watercolor landscape, he transposed it freehand to a 2’ x 3’ drawing onto the Church Street pavement.
Another project, temporarily shelved, is an installation called “Whisper (To Me) The Elaborate Symphony of Need and Desire” which has seven drawings of couples depicted in ballpoint pen, each drawing sitting on a music stand with the couple within whispering to each other. As Davis envisions it, “As you stand in front of any individual portrait, a particular symphony plays until you move away.” This installation “would be actual as opposed to virtual. My sense of it is that it would make for a richer and more stimulating experience to walk around the music stands and have the music triggered on and off than participate virtually.”
In the meantime, I’ll be going back to Uptown Espresso Caffe to visit his watercolor paintings again, over a really good cup of coffee and a tuna wrap panini in this friendly little neighborhood spot. “Landscape Yarns” will be on display there until July 31, 2011. The café is located in the South End at 563 Columbus Avenue, at the corner of Wellington Street.
All images in this post property of Glenn W Davis. Do not reproduce without permission.