The Day – From Postman to Art Collector: Kerry Davis, along with his wife Betty, amassed a premier African American art collection, on display at Lyman Allyn

For those who think art collectors are nothing more than the super-rich, consider this: Kerry Davis was a postman and his wife, Betty, was a television news producer in the mid-1980s when they started their collection of art. ‘art.

At the time, their intention was simply to display in their home in suburban Atlanta.

Today, more than 35 years later, the pieces they have collected reflect an astonishing breadth and range of works by esteemed African-American artists – and more than 60 of the 300 pieces are the subject of a several years tour of museums.

“Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art” is on view until August 22 at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London.

“While the Davis’ long-term goals – preserving cultural memories and providing their community with a source of pride and inspiration – are goals shared by many art lovers, the Davis Collection is notable for both its originality and accessibility “, the exhibition wall states of the text. “His esoteric and varied approaches to the black image are one piece with his passion, resonance and stylistic abundance. The result is an extraordinary gathering of works across different media, subjects and styles by a group of artists from the African Diaspora who in terms of training, experience and expression are surprisingly diverse yet unified in their use of cultural and historical stories …

“The Davis’ have built one of the richest private collections of African American art in the world.”

Featured artists include Radcliffe Bailey, Romare Bearden, Beverly Buchanan, Elizabeth Catlett, Ernest T. Crichlow, Sam Gilliam, Lois Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Alma Thomas and Charles White.

Build a collection

Kerry Davis was a sergeant in the US Air Force before becoming a postman (he is now retired). He is also an ordained deacon.

He and Betty both loved art and lived frugally, choosing to spend their money on art.

In a phone interview last week, Kerry Davis spoke about the collection. (This week the Davis’ are in New London for visits to the Lyman Allyn; when asked what exactly they would be doing here, Davis, who has a playful sense of humor and effervescent personality, said: “I was hoping to find a lobster roll somewhere – after that, I’ll do whatever they want with me.”)

As to whether he was interested in art as a child – loved to draw, for example – Davis laughed, “I can’t draw a straight line. I love art, I love beautiful things, but that was it. When I grew up in our house we never had art in our house except for (photos of) Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Jesus. You know, we called it “the trinity.” But apart from that, nothing else.

The walls of the Davis house, on the other hand, are covered in art – so much so, he says, that the painting can barely be seen.

When they first started buying art, the Davis’ s looked at entries posted on auction sites, visited galleries, and went to real estate sales.

They met and became friends with artists, who sometimes offered them a piece. Kerry Davis was somewhat of a talented craftsman and framer. He remembers having traded his framing services for works of art.

The Davis’ bought some of the work before the artists became famous – so the prices were much lower than they are now.

“Our collection is made up of works by African-American artists, which were largely, even until the 1980s, under-recognized… Now the circle has come full circle. The art market for African American art and in some of those art auctions is really exploding – in value, ”he says. “I just knew about these things very early on, I would say.”

Abstract art; social justice

Davis says he liked hanging out in artist studios; he was intrigued by how artists could paint – something Davis couldn’t do – and he loved to see the process and learn more about it.

He says that in terms of collecting art, “I think you evolve as you go along. I learned from certain artists about form and composition, color. I guess you watch so much, you watch so much, you watch so much – without knowing it you educate yourself. So through this evolutionary process, I started to keep what I thought were the best songs.

“When I started, it was buying figurative, but there was a period when I moved towards abstraction, then I got to a point where I wanted to diversify the medium so it didn’t isn’t so much paper work now, it’s canvas work or… even sculpture in there and photography. Before you know it, you’ve got a house full of stuff, “he laughs, pulling the last word.

“Memories & Inspiration” divides the collection into categories, sometimes in terms of style, and other times in terms of subject – one segment is non-objective art, and the other is “Courage and Social Justice”.

The exhibition tour spans five years

The Davis collection tour was to last three years. It turned out to be so popular that the tour organizers requested an additional two years.

“At first I said, ‘No, maybe it’s time to bring it.’ Then I thought, ‘You know, I have nowhere to put this stuff if it comes back!’ The walls are full now, because we really don’t live in a big, lavish mansion. So I decided to let another two years go by, ”says Davis.

“Memories & Inspiration” is organized and presented on tour by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC. It is supported by the Department of Economic and Community Development, Office of the Arts and an anonymous foundation.

The Davis family opened their home to friends, neighbors and parishioners to such an extent that the home has been called a “home museum.”

“Leave with joy”

Davis says he hopes people who see the exhibit at Lyman Allyn “will see works by artists they may never have seen before and never considered before and recognize them now.” like artists, good artists ”.

Above all, he said, “I hope they will leave with joy.

“Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art,” Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London; until August 22; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue-Sat and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., last admission at 4 p.m. Admission fee; (860) 443-2545.

Norma D. Ross