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Damon Davis' hands reach from Ferguson to Ladue with hope for racial justice

Damon Davis hands up

The 11-plus miles of actual roadways that separate Ferguson and Ladue might as well be the distance between St. Louis and Shanghai — or at least it feels that way sometimes.

The variations and nuances that register in our psyches and imaginations — the old bugaboos of fears, conflicts, realities, prejudices, heritage, history, economics — all of this and so many more obstacles litter a twisting, turning virtual pathway between the two communities.

This clutter skitters both ways, up and down the path like bugs or snakes, and back and forth across it like chassis-jolting cracks in the asphalt, always complicating a situation that is dire indeed. The hopeful among us believe that with perseverance, the presence of this litter, the baggage-loaded class and racial enmities that cause such grim trouble, may be re-formed if more and more men and women committed themselves to such improvements.

Maryanne Ellison Simmons, an artist and printmaker and proprietor of the Wildwood Press in St. Louis, is one such person. So is Damon Davis of St. Louis, an artist too and now a collaborator with Simmons. They are involved in an artistic endeavor that will bring Ladue and Ferguson together in one place. This is to happen in an exhibit opening Wednesday at John Burroughs School. 

After the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent shootings of African-American men and women and a child in cities around the country, Simmons felt compelled to at least try to erase divisions that exist on this virtual, metaphorical road of separation.  

Davis, however, was in Ferguson immediately after the shooting and leapt into making art that spoke to the conflict in Ferguson.

Both their worlds are art, not social science or the law, but instinctively and intuitively they saw a potential for their world to establish, through no-nonsense but beautiful and impressive visual images, a basis for change and the foundation of a contribution to the common good.

“Art Has Truth, Take Refuge There” proclaims the south entrance to the St. Louis Art Museum’s 1904 building. Simmons’ and Davis’ effort might paraphrase that to read: “Art Has Power. Find Courage There.”

And so they did; they found power and courage in an ensemble of visual images Damon Davis created and posted online. In a generous and egalitarian gesture, he invited the world to print out his pictures and to enjoy them as one would enjoy a work of art shown and sold in a gallery.

Damon Davis hands up
Credit www.heartacheandpaint.com

Davis was reared and educated in East St. Louis and went to college at Saint Louis University. He now lives in St. Louis and has a solid reputation in the region; he enjoys having had a varied career in music and the visual arts. He is a figure in the growing cosmopolitan culture nourished and growing in south St. Louis, especially along Cherokee Street. He and his work are now gaining national attention.

Simmons graduated from the University of Michigan and has her MFA from the Fine Arts School at Washington University, where she also taught printmaking. She has joined forces with Davis in a professionally serious and deeply affecting way. The project on which they collaborated involved creating seven large (32 by 51 inches) and genuinely extraordinary black and white prints in her studio in the City Museum building downtown.

The imagery Davis realized as striking, and in which Simmons saw enormous potential, is the symbolic posture of hands raised, a posture that sometimes signifies surrender and always implores, “Don’t shoot.” Although now it is a universal physical message, an icon really — because “hands up” is associated with the time immediately leading up to the shooting of Michael Brown — the gesture has gained fresh consequence, and indeed became a potent signifier of the Aug. 9, 2014, shooting, even though the fact of it has been called into question.

And so, on Wednesday, the show of this work, called “All Hands on Deck” — a collaboration of Davis and Simmons and the bridge between Ferguson and Ladue — will open at Burroughs, in the school’s Haetter Performing Arts Center.

Equity Exchange

Appropriately enough, the exhibit commences during a week dedicated to research and discussions of educators representing public and private schools, the Equity Exchange, at Burroughs. Its website says “collaborative, generative, and organic discussions will be the hallmark of this public/private exchange” and that in combining theory and practice “facilitators will share methods that strengthen participant abilities to lead strategic change initiatives, facilitate tough systemic conversations, and train their own school teams.” Equity Exchange is sponsored by Burroughs, in collaboration with the St. Louis Public Schools.

While Davis’ processes and practices are certainly considerably edgier and more in the vernacular than the schools’ Equity Exchange programs, fundamentally they are similar: Both are dedicated to changing the current dysfunctional racial and class structures in this region and indeed in the United States.

Although Davis said in a telephone interview his intention is to get in the faces of white suburbanites, particularly male white suburbanites, and to agitate for equity justice, his art presents postures of hope as much as fury; some read more as hands extended in peace rather than anger. On top of that, abstractly, they are quite beautiful and richly textured.

More to the point, they are integral to Davis’ overall mission -- to tell stories that speak to the human experience. The hands, he says, represent the “people who have shaped and upheld a movement that defined, in part, the 20th century and continues today, invigorated by events such as recent killings.” Davis says his work with music and visual material has always been politically charged, and whether it concerns Iraq or Ferguson, it is meant to speak out against injustices of one sort or another and to dwell on the power of art and the courage it offers.

What takes these images transcendently from the world of propaganda and raw protest and into the world of art is their exquisite beauty, and the variety of hands presented in them and the expressiveness of these hands, which are indelibly individual.

There are bejeweled hands, the stubby fingers of a child’s hands, hands that are hard from work, hands with long and elegant fingers. All of them are so much the same yet very, very different. In their differences, they challenge us to remember that individual men and women are complex bundles of differences, as are classes and races and residents of this community or that one, 63135 and 63124.

Daniel Strong, associate director and curator of exhibitions at the Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa, has responded enthusiastically to Davis’ work and the message inherent in them.

“While Davis’s images are now icons of one particular event in Ferguson, their intent, like the artist's own, is to sound an ongoing call, first to self-reflection and then to communal action. Davis intentionally made the images available online — allhandsondeckproject.org — for the purpose of them being raised worldwide by witnesses of oppression and persecution,” Strong wrote.

“These hands mark an extraordinary period of time, from their first raising on the streets of Ferguson in 2014 to this new print edition in the aftermath of events in Charleston in 2015. As policy makers join in debates about income inequality, employment and housing discrimination, voter suppression and institutionalized injustice at all levels of governing authority,” this time feels like a tipping point, one at which the changes that must happen appear as if they actually can happen,

If you go

The show opens at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 29, with a reception in the Haertter Performing Arts Center at John Burroughs School, 755 South Price Rd.. It runs through Nov. 20. One of the prints will be raffled off at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday for the benefit of the Arch City Defenders, a law firm that helped reveal inequities in fines and sentencing procedures in some St. Louis County jurisdictions, a group of men Simmons describes as the “adults in the room.” Raffle tickets are available on line at www.wildwoodpress.us, $10 each. Several museums in communities where blacks have been killed in months since the Michael Brown shooting, the St. Louis Art Museum among them, will add the portfolio of prints to their collections.

Regular gallery hours at John Burroughs School are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.