ANOTHER NUT WORTH STUDYING

Kenn Davis’ paintings have been described as interpretations of American obsessions, passions and foibles.  A child of the Depression, he has a strong social conscience, but prefers not to propagandize but to find a universal context.  He seeks in his work to find the paths that we as humans take to reveal ourselves.

“I  DON’T PAINT WHAT I SEE AROUND ME, NOR DO I CREATE STANDARD LANDSCAPES.”

“I PAINT THE THINGS THAT ARE INSIDE MY HEAD; I PAINT MY DREAMS.”

“I ONLY USE BOUT 12 COLORS – INCLUDING BLACK AND WHITE – I CAN DO EVERYTHING I WANT WITH JUST THEM.”

Kenn’s influences started early beginning with Milton Caniff, creator of “Terry and the Pirates” comic strip.  As an adult after his tour in Korea, Evans Ecke and Fanchon Gary, art instructors and San Francisco City College took him on and challenged his talent then turned him over tto Ralph DuCasse at San Francisco Art Institure.

These teachers led him forth but his real teachers were of a hautier bearing:  Rembrandt, Goya, Tiepolo, Francesco Guardi, Heironymos Bosch, Breughel, Claude Monet, Odilon Redon and Van Gogh.

Then there were his beloved Surrealists and Visionaries including Phillip Guston, Franz Kline, Dali, Josef Albers, Matta Eucharen, Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Deborah Remington.

“I SAW A PAINTING BY GIORGIO DE CHIRICO AND SAID: ‘MY GOD!  THAT’S ME!  I HAVE DREAMS LIKE THAT!”

           KENN ON ART:

  • “ART ASKS QUESTION:  WHY IS IT THIS WAY”  WHY THIS AND NOT THAT?  WHY NO THAT AND WHY THIS?  WHY DOES ANYONE CARE?  THIS IS WHY THE BUREAUCRACY WANTS TO ELIMINATE ART EDUCATION IN SCHOOLS, THEY WANT TO STULTIFY THE PURSUIT OF ANSWERS; THEY DON’T WANT PEOPLE LEARNING TO ASK WHY.”
  • “PEOPLE WHO CREATE – PAINT – HAVE TO HAVE A REASON FOR DOIN IT?  THAT’S WHAT MAKES THE PAINTING?” 
  • “AN ARTIST MUST DEVELOP THEIR OWN LANGUAGE:  THE WAY THEY MANIPULATE THE BRUSH; THE WAY THEY SEE A PARTICULAR COLOR; THE WAY THEY SEE A PARTICULAR MOOD AND THE BEST WAY TO INTERPRET THAT WITH COMPOSITION AND COLOR, SHADING OR LIGHTS AND DARKS, OBJECTS OR NON-OBJECTS.”
  • “IT IS THE PERSONALITY THAT CONTROLS MORE OF THE ARTIST’S STYLE THAT ANYTHING.”

Kenn once told me that there was only one way he wanted to be remembered for his art and that was:

  • “HERE’S ANOTHER NUT WORTH STUDYING.  THIS IS AN AMERICAN SURREALIST ARTIST WHO DID HIS WORK REASONABLY WELL; SOME OF HIS STUFF IS MAGNIFICENT.”PAINTED IN 1968
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Korean Gift, The GI Bill

Samurai Warrior by Kenn Davis

    Kenn seldom talked about his time in Korea and he didn’t bring home any souvenirs.  H went to the front lines but he never fought.   Once the Army discovered his IQ, they kept sending him to Japan for advanced training in everything from radio communications to payroll of course leadership, although he chose never to rise in the ranks.   He had no desire to be in charge of other men lives. What he did love to do was go into the villages and communicate with the Koreans with his drawings.  He told me that you can always converse as long as you can draw.  Through his sketches he told them of his family back home and he actually found that the Koreans had a flair for pen and paper communications too.  He made many a financial dealing with a drawing. 

While in the service, Kenn’s artists’ skills were often utilized for signs, banners and covers for pamphlets, but nothing that kept him from the barracks and the freezing cold.  With pad and pencil he drew his comrades, many of them poor southern boys who had enlisted to see the world.  He told the story of good old boy, PFC Willy Dent who was a grunt from Mississippi.  Somehow he’d gotten by the physical without the army finding out that he had to wear a heavy back brace.  He couldn’t put it on by himself  and he a bit sheepishly asked his black bunkmate (from Mississippi too) to help him.  It turned out that this  was the only GI Willie would trust to put on his brace for him every morning.  Kenn always laughed at this and would  say  “You just knew that when they were back home, Willie wouldn’t ask this “boy” to do anything for him.”  The Korean war was the first time that the black soldiers were allowed to serve side by side with regular army.  It seemed so strange to Kenn coming from San Francisco for it to be such a big deal, but it was and he saw it everyday.  This made an impression on Kenn, one that would show up in his work for the rest of his life.  He was an inclusive artist and friend….  his only prejudice seemed to be against ignorance by choice.

In the 50s, when Kenn arrived home from Korea his brother Marvin had become Zekial Marko in his private life  and was already written a paperback original mystery under the name of John Trinian.  Kenn suddenly felt he’d lost a lot of time and enrolled in San Francisco City College.  He stayed two years attacking their art classes with zeal and then went on to the San Francisco Art institute all on the GI Bill.  The GI Bill was a blessing for Kenn whose parents had bought a house in the avenues close to the ocean and needed every dime. 

Kenn worked many part-time jobs so he could live in his beloved North Beach where everything that was anything was going on.   This era is thought of mostly as spawning writers, poets and musicians but there were artists too and Kenn was one that knew all the players.   He starved with the best of them and partied with the worst of them.  I tried to get him to write a book about his days in North Beach and he kept promising but something always got in the way… then came  death  …   the never-ending procrastinator. 

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“Terry And The Pirates”

Kenn Davis and his brother Marvin were born Schmokers in Salinas, California.  Their mother was a young wife of a man who was abusive and finally her family helped her get a divorce and she moved herself and her sons to San Francisco to live.  This was a the beginning of World War II.  She soon found out that a single woman had a slim chance of holding onto a job while attending to two boys so she sent the boys to a Catholic Boys School in Marin County where they lived through the duration of the war.

Kenn spoke of this period of his life with profound bitterness, having missed his mother’s love and attention and having to watch over his troublesome little brother daily.  The Schmoker brothers were set against brothers from rough neighborhoods in San Francisco, who had been sent to the school by order of the court.  These boys t had been trained to protect themselves on the streets.  Because of Marvin’s antics and call of “big brother will get you” Kenn soon learned to fight them or live in hell for the duration. 

Kenn’s “little drawings” were unappreciated and discouraged by the nuns.  Many a sketch was torn to shreds and dismissed as “an unseemly waste of time” by the stern German nuns.  Yes, the order of nuns were German and barely spoke English.  The boys were certaAin that they were running a spy ring and contacting the SS in a dark room in the basement of the school.

At the end of the war, Kenn and Marvin’s mother brought them home to a tiny apartment in the poor area behind the Marina in San Francisco.  They moved shortly though because their mother had quite a surprise for them, she had married a returning soldier, Henry Davis.  “He has a good job with the government,” she explained right off, “and is moving us into a nicer apartment.”  Marvin threw a fit and Kenn sulked.  They’d seen so little of their mother and just wanted her for themselves for a while.

Kenn grew to respect Henry quickly mainly because he was interested in Kenn’s drawings and soon after they were settled in their new home, he took Kenn shopping for some art supplies.  When Kenn and Marvin were enrolled in their new school Kenn was glad to become Kenneth Davis, but Marvin chose to remain a Schmoker.

  A couple of years later Henry bought Kenn his first easel with a  paint and brush set… a very big deal.  His mother was hoping that this would encourage her son to leave the cartooning behind.  She took him to museums on a regular basis, starting his life long love of those huge “depositories of glory.”

Kenn was not swayed though.  By his teen years, he had developed his own super heroe character based on WWII types which were still all the rage… like his favorite “Terry And The Pirates.”  When he was 15 with his mom and dad’s support he sent in 2 weeks worth of a comic strip that he had written and drawn to a publisher.  It was rejected but he went on to complete an entire comic book by the time he was 16.  

His mother began to pressure him after his graduation from highschool about how he was going to make a living without formal training.   She didn’t have long enough to work on him, his draft notice arrived and another war with Korea was looming.  Kenn hoped for  European duty but was sent straight to Korea.

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An OverView of Kenn’s Mystery Novels

 With permission I borrowed an excerpt from an article about Kenn’s writing career made even more interesting because it came to light through the cult that has been building over Kenn’s brother’s paperback mysteries written under the name of John Trinian… they suddenly discovered that Kenn Davis was his brother.  Kenn’s brother changed his name to Zekial Marko  not long after he was done with the Trinian books.   

” At the end of my previous post on Zekial Marko, better known to paperback collectors and mystery fans as John Trinian, I hinted at a small piece of information that turned up in his online obituary.

   Namely, that Marko had a brother named Kenn Davis. The double N immediately caught my eye. Could this be the same Kenn Davis, the mystery writer? Turns out that he is, and I hadn’t known it before. It was also news to Al Hubin, author of Crime Fiction IV, but after doing some investigating on my own, if it was a secret, it hasn’t been very well kept. People on various blogs and Yahoo groups have pointed it out on several occasions in the past.

   So it’s not exactly breaking news, but it’s still reason enough to talk about Kenn Davis’s books:

Cover for "The Dark Side" 1st Carver Bascombe Novel

 

    DAVIS, KENN. 1932- . Series character: CB = PI Carver Bascombe. All books are paperback originals.

      The Dark Side [with John Stanley]. Avon 30957, pb, December 1976. [CB]
      The Forza Trap. Avon 44552, pb, June 1979 [CB]
      Bogart ’48 [with John Stanley]. Dell 10853, pb, February 1980

KENN DAVIS 

      Dead to Rights. Avon 78295, pb, August 1981
      Words Can Kill. Gold Medal 12667, pb, May 1984 [CB]
      Melting Point. Gold Medal 12901, pb, May 1986. [CB]

KENN DAVIS 

      Nijinsky Is Dead. Gold Medal 13096, pb, 1987 [CB]
      As October Dies. Gold Medal 13097, pb, 1987 [CB]
      Acts of Homicide. Gold Medal 13351, pb, 1989 [CB]
      Blood of Poets. Gold Medal 13352, pb, 1990 [CB]

   In spite of the number of books, I have a feeling that both Kenn Davis and Carver Bascombe are fairly well forgotten today. Even though I believe I have all but one or two of the books, they’re boxed away where I can’t get at them. (You’ve heard that before.) So far I’ve been able to come up with only a few cover images, which you will see both above and below.

   But did you know, as I certainly didn’t — and I’ll get back to Carver Bascombe shortly — that Kenn Davis is also a well-known California-based artist, and has been for over 50 years?  Taken from a website illustrating some of his work, one of which is shown here:

KENN DAVIS

    “KENN DAVIS has devoted his 53 year painting career to the interpretation of life in his own time. Associated with the North Beach Scene in the 1950s, he has continued to work with his chosen SURREALISTIC concepts, frequently in a satirical vein. In exhibitions throughout his home state of California, as well as in New York, Chicago, Boston, Houston and in Museums shows in San Francisco and Dallas, Davis has demonstrated his fascination with imagination. His work is often disconcerting and deliberately so. ‘There is enough art that lulls us into feeling right with the world, but to be stimulated by the artist brings us to another level of appreciation.’” 

   Kenn Davis and John Stanley also co-wrote the screenplay for the comedy-horror film Nightmare in Blood, the storyline described on IMDB as: “Attendees at a horror-film convention in San Francisco keep disappearing. It turns out that the guest of honor is a real vampire…” Kenn Davis was the producer, and John Stanley directed. More on the making of the movie here, written by John Stanley himself. (No, that is not him in the coffin below.)

KENN DAVIS 

NIGHTMARE IN BLOOD DVD COVER

   As for Carver Bascombe, from the second of the two websites linked to in the above paragraph, Stanley says:

    “One other thing we shared in common was an interest in science-fiction and horror. We also liked mysteries and in early 1970 had begun working on a private-eye screenplay, The Dark Side of the Hunt

    “It was Kenn’s idea to write a story about a black San Francisco detective named Carver Bascombe. (This was before anyone had ever heard of John Shaft or Richard Roundtree.) We had even found a San Francisco-based stage actor, John Cochran, to play the Bascombe role.

    “And then came a big mistake: American-International offered to buy the script from us, but because we had promised John Cochran that the three of us would make the film come hell or high water, we turned it down. (Primarily because they wanted the script without us attached as would-be film wreckers.) We should have taken the offer but we were young and idealistic–and very idiotic.

    “(Dark Side of the Hunt didn’t completely die. A few years later it would be novelized by Kenn as The Dark Side –- my name was on it but I really didn’t write it –- and published by Avon. Kenn would go on to write an entire series about Carver and his San Francisco adventures.)

KENN DAVIS

   As it happened, The Dark Side was nominated for an Edgar in 1976 as Best Paperback Original. (Note that by the time the book was published, the movie Shaft had already appeared, in 1971, based on Ernest Tidyman’s 1970 novel) From the cover of The Dark Side:

    “Faster than Sherlock Holmes, Higher than Superfly, Handsomer than Inspector Poirot — It’s CARVER BASCOMBE, in his first adventure.”

   Kevin Burton Smith in the online January Magazine has this to say about the series:

    “For those who want a P.I. with good taste, you can hardly do better than Carver Bascombe, originally created by Kenn Davis and John Stanley in The Dark Side (1975), but continued for the next seven books by Davis alone, the series concluding with 1990’s Blood of Poets

    “Bascombe’s a young Vietnam vet with a military police background, who’s now an ambitious, art-loving private eye and part-time student working his way through law school in San Francisco. Bascombe’s passion comes in handy, because his cases invariably involve the arts somehow, be it opera, drama, literature, art photography, ballet, painting or poetry.

    “The first few novels in this series were uneven, but by the fourth one, the Shamus-nominated Melting Point (1986), Davis had really hit his stride, with Bascombe sweating out a long, hot summer waiting to hear if he’s passed the bar, while at the same time he hunts down a missing sculptor.”

    Of special note, the link above leads to a long article by Kevin about black PI’s, a complete overview from a historical perspective. It’s well worth your reading.

[UPDATE] 01-18-10. I have bad news to report. Kenn Davis died six days ago at the age of 78.  For a wonderful tribute to him as an author, check out Jeff’s piece about him on The Rap Sheet.    I am pleased to say that Mr. Davis saw this post I did on him (see Comment #7). I am not pleased to say that in spite of all good intentions, an interview I kept meaning to do with him never happened. I wish it had”

    I reprinted this for all of you because not many of you probably know about the inception of Kenn’s books and how they developed along side his job at the San Francisco Chronicle and his painting.  When I met Kenn, he was President of the Bay Area Branch of Mystery Writers of America” and was also working on a short film to try to get into the running for the Academy Awards.  I don’t know when he slept, but he ate very, very well.   He wined and dined me like I had never experienced…. It was something I’ll always remember.  I had two teenage boys and was being treated like a queen.  Really something for a divorcee with low self-esteem…. in fact, it turned to be a cure. 

Kenn was a hectic romantic… imagine working me into his schedule….  He was 2 years out of a 20 year marriage and we didn’t talk about that very much, because I didn’t want to talk about my divorce.  Kenn had an aging father (step father whose name he had taken as a child) who he kept close tabs on as an extra responsibility.  He seemed to thrive on all of it, but when he added me, (who lived in Berkeley,) I could tell that he was beginning to lose his rhythm.  More later.

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THUMBING HIS NOSE

“…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.

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Kenn Davis Memorial Blog

Writers Block

    I am Elizabeth Calkins Davis and on January 12, 2010  my husband, Kenn Davis died in our home in Roseville, California.

    We were not expecting such an event and certainly not in such manner.  In the last 15 years,  my son and I had nursed my husband through 2 major heart surgeries with bypasses and a heart valve replacement, hip replacements, 2 bleeds on the brain that both ended in surgeries and one in a stroke that he recovered from with little ill effect and so on… he always lived and went on with his beloved painting.  But this day he went with my son (who had helped us for too many of his own valuable years) to do errands and both came home laughing with a big bucket of KFC chicken … a no no in our house … but the treat was well received.  We all ate too much of our anti-heart- health meal.   After we finished,  Kenn  excused himself to take a shower.   But he didn’t return … my son became worried and knocked on the bedroom door… and went in. 

   This man who had lived almost 79 years and had bounced back from every conceivable challenge had fallen to the Colonel’s chicken.  Yes,, that is exactly what Kenn would have said.   He laid on the bed half dressed after taking his shower but he was not breathing at all.  My son went into lifesaving mode immediately and thought, at one point, that he was getting a response; but the EMT workers explained later that it was just the body’s reaction to death.  He was gone.  They took him away to the hospital to be pronounced “dead.”   My son was in shock and I was just numb.     It is  5 months later, and I am still numb.

   I’m hoping that by building my husband’s website and telling his story of being a creative personality struggling in this world that I, too, will gain a better understanding of the creative soul and how our society has left so little room for the artist to flourish.  My spelling may not perfect at times and you may catch a typo but I have dystonia and it affects my vision (worse at times than others.) My head wobbles (a la Katherine Hepburn) and my fingers do their own thing, but my mind is still clear.  So we’ll get on with this while I’m able.  See you next time

                                                                                                                             …………………………….

 

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