“…thumbing my nose at society,
although with a bit of humor.”

(This biography, in Mr. Davis’ own words, was written in 2009, just before his death)

“I was born 77 years ago in 1932, in Salinas, California, a small agricultural town. I was drawing at age 2 or 3. I attended kindergarten in Salinas, enjoying the daily art classes. I fell in love with the airplanes and dirigibles that often passed over our house. Probably half of my drawings were of aircraft. Also I had many peculiar dreams (sometimes scary), and my mother explained that dreams were just something that happened, and could be weird.

My mother and my younger brother and I moved to San Francisco when I was about 5 or so. I attended grammar school there — and went to painting (finger painting) and drawing classes on Saturdays at the San Francisco Museum of Art (cost a dime to attend). I think I only went to the classes 6 or 8 times; a dime was hard to come by for my mother. The museum later became the San Francisco Modern Museum.

At age 10, 1942, at the beginning of WWII, my brother and I were sent off to boarding school. It was there that I decided I wanted to be a newspaper comic strip artist, and drew everything in sight, other kids, priests, nuns, gardens, warplanes, and studied hard to grasp anatomy and how things were constructed. I continued to have strange dreams and often regaled my classmates with the stories in my mind; I tried to draw some of my dreams; and odd concepts they were.

After the war ended, my brother and I returned home. I drew and drew all during my teenage high school years. I intended to become a comic strip artist like Milton Caniff, who drew Terry and the Pirates for newspapers. I realized (was told) that I had to learn how stories were constructed and began reading books on fiction writing and my comic strip adventure stories improved dramatically. Over those years I submitted maybe three of my ideas and drawings to newspaper syndicates but was always rejected.

Finally I attended San Francisco City College, and fell passionately under the spell of modern art. As a child of the Depression I was only vaguely aware of modern art. The first time I was exposed to the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico I was jolted out of my seat; Imagine! Somebody had paintied my dreams. WOW! The art teachers told us students that who or whatever was inside each of us, our art should come from the person inside ourselves. Our personalities would dictate what kind of artist we would become (assuming any of us pursued any kind of artistic career). Much to my parents chagrin I put aside my comic strip career.

During these early exposures to modern art I began my lifelong passion for visiting art museums.

The Korean War intruded, and I was drafted into the army in 1952, age 20. I was sent to Korea, and Japan. I went to as many museums that I could. Later in 1954 I was mustered out of the army , pleased that I was still alive. I continued my art studies at S.F. City College. My art work evolved slowly, but my ideas were not as significant as I wanted them to be. My sense of social conscience grew strong, and it was slowly integrated into my paintings. I had the confidence of youth and began taking my paintings around to the local galleries. I had my first solo exhibition at Studio 44 Gallery in 1956. My personal visions and dreams persisted and those themes became the backbone of my paintings.

During the middle 1950s I lived in North Beach in San Francisco and became involved with the so-called Beat Generation. That movement was primarily a literary movement, but there were artists, and I knew most of them. Slowly my work improved, and the themes of injustice, the lack of communication among people, our fear of progress, our inability to give up the past (especially in the arts), and mistrust of the new, became stronger although more peculiar, unique. I was satisfied with that content, but also in my methods and technique. I often destroyed paintings that I decided were not good enough, but satisfactory paintings were slowly outnumbering the ineffective ones. I had a few more exhibitions in San Francisco.

I made my first trip to New York City in 1957, age 25, and went crazy going to galleries and museums. (At that time there were about 300 galleries in NYC.) Back in San Francisco I had other exhibitions, and eventually in 1959 I had my first exhibit outside S.F., in Chicago. In the waning months of the 1950s I was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle and went to work in that newspaper’s art department. (I did that until I retired in 1984.)

As the 1960s developed, I thought the world had gone mad. The Hippie movement coincided with the growth of Rock’nRoll. Flower Power was added to the mix, and my paintings reflected some of this. Our president was assassinated. The establishment takeover (as I thought of it) in the 1970s and 1980s were themes added to my painting repertoire. Paintings were a form of communication, but i believed humanity lacked a strong sense of communication. (Thus what I call my Alphabet paintings.) I realized that my paintings were not for everyone, and that was all right with me, since I only needed one person to buy one painting. I prided myself that I seldom repeated a painting, and In that my work was unique. What I dreamt and imagined and thought about continued to grow. I had exhibitions in Los Angeles, Denver, New York City, and other cities.”

Time, as it will, went on. All these years later I am still at it, sometimes still thumbing my nose at society, although with a bit of humor.”

I wanted you to hear this in Kenn’s words rather than my retelling.  Coming from him it sounds as though he plodded along with his painting but actually he was so spirited in his younger days that he couldn’t be satisfied with one art and moved into writing and film, for short periods of time taking his eye off his paintings and the promotion of them.  These diversions may have hurt his art career but they broadened him as a man.


About ruthbid

I am a retired writer/antique dealer/mother and the widow of the late surrealist artist and author Kenn Davis who died on January 12, 2010.
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2 Responses to THUMBING HIS NOSE

  1. Tim Carroll says:

    I couldnt help holding back as a flood of tears (mostly of wonder and joy but with a dash of sorrow) erupted from me when I opened this Blog. The heading picture alone said so much. To see Kenn’s work again in stunning color has given me a tremendous lift. Amazing, Allegorical, Whimsical, Wise, Timeless. I miss Kenn very much having only re-connected relatively shortly before his passing, yet having this Blog makes me feel close to him and to Liz. I cant imagine a world anymore where we would not have the miraculous power of technology to allow us these connections.

  2. ruthbid says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this experience with me Tim… You are one of my favorite people, as you’ve probably guessed by now. Some days I can’t do this blogging because it’s too painful but knowing that I’m building something that will be here of Kenn is too important for me to stay away. I just have to find the right audience and the right voice for myself. I will keep working at it. In the meantime, I have so much to cover and share that already exists. Do keep joining my journey.

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