I was saddened to read about the recent death of Carthage artist Lowell Davis. Although I didn’t know him well, my husband and I, along with our son, Nathan, spent an unforgettable afternoon with him one extremely hot day in July a few year ago.
We were visiting Red Oak II when we happened upon Davis sitting in his backyard. Acknowledging how hot it was that day, he invited us to sit down with him and his dog. Large shade trees made his backyard pleasant, and we welcomed the opportunity to have some relief from the smothering heat.
Dressed in jeans and a cotton shirt with a handkerchief at his neck, Davis was barefoot and had a pipe in his hand. From the moment we sat down, all three of us felt like we were on a magic carpet ride in a new world. The conversation, flowing freely between the past, present and future, was filled with Davis’ humorous comments and our laughter.
We talked about everything from the extreme heat and the damage Japanese beetles were doing to the pros and cons of using computers and outhouses. With regard to the latter, the benefits and disadvantages of pages from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog were discussed at length.
Davis delighted Nathan with his knowledge of vehicles and his exploits in the Leapin Lizard. He had all of us in fits of laugher as he described the women he had loved and married — especially with regard to the wedding invitation he created for his third marriage, which depicted his first two wives remarking to his new bride, “She can’t say that we didn’t try and warn her.” He believed it was the first wedding invitation ever to feature past wives.
Eventually, Davis invited us into his home. Despite the lack of air conditioning, it was much cooler inside his house, and again, we felt like we were entering a new world. Although his home was small, there was so much for the eye to see and explore, it felt expansive. The rooms were filled with prints, paintings, sculptures, figurines and books — the works of a talented man’s life.
The conversation and laughter quickly resumed at an even faster pace. Davis told Nathan he didn’t want to work for a living and that is why he became an artist. He showed us a winter painting that he got tired of working on, so he made it a “paint by number.” When I asked about the number of farm animals, he said he liked having animals be his only critics.
Davis joked about joining the military to “see the world.” He told us about flying in cargo planes over Europe and Africa in a four-man crew and how one stormy night they experienced “glowing lightning” on the airplane’s wing. It reminded him of foxfire, the bluish-green glow emitted by certain types of fungi, and it was one of the reasons he named his farm Fox Fire.
When he got out of the U.S. Air Force, he went to the Dallas-Fort Worth area as an art director for a large ad agency — but after 15 years there, he learned to hate big cities. Davis talked about periods of depression in his life, arthritis in his hands and how everyone should marry a nurse so when they get old they’ll have someone to care for them.
He also discussed business deals and his work with Ertl and Schmid. Schmid distributed his work in gift shops across the country. They always flew him first class to shows, but Davis didn’t think the people in first class were very friendly — so he named one of his books, "There Ain’t No Memories in First Class."
We also talked about death and dying — including a particularly in-depth conversation about crow funerals. Davis referenced a graveyard near his house and said he might be buried there. Nathan asked if it was legal to bury someone there, and Davis answered that he had learned it was easier to do and apologize later rather than ask permission. Then he said, “What are they going to do? Dig me up?”
As we prepared to leave, Davis gave Nathan a copy of "There Ain’t No Memories in First Class" and asked him how he wanted it signed. He said he’d been called the “Missoura Kid,” the “Norman Rockwell of Rural Art" and the “Grandfather of Country Art.” Unsure, Nathan told him to pick, and Davis signed the book. Later when we looked inside, we saw he had signed it, “Your friend, Lowell Davis.”
I think that is what impressed us the most on that memorable afternoon. We were complete strangers, but Davis took us into his world and made us feel at home. He treated us like long-lost friends and welcomed us like family. He shared, easily and openly, the ups and downs of his life. It was these endearing personal qualities that I will remember every time I see one of his works of art.
Leaving Davis’ home, we walked on a sidewalk path that was embedded with pieces of metal and utensils — including forks. I couldn’t help thinking about all the forks in the roads of Davis’ life and the paths he had chosen. He was someone who had known the ups and downs of success, but he always seemed to persevere — and now was at peace with himself. We were very privileged, for a few hours, to visit his world, and it comforts me to think that he will live on in his art.
Billie Holladay Skelley lives in Joplin.