By Mary Ellen Riddle | Correspondent
Mike Davis has a layered approach to his current exhibit that’s visual and intellectual in nature. He puts a lot of muscle and thought into creating three-dimensional portraits that have cultural and historical backgrounds. With X-Acto knife and paintbrush in hand, coupled with a wild imagination and mad skills, he created 14 portraits — “Faces of Eve,” which are on display at the Dare County Arts Council this month. The Kitty Hawk artist includes a portrait of the biblical Eve, but the series represents Eve as an allegory for women.
Each work is framed to hang on a wall, but the compositions are three-dimensional, hence the need for the knife.
“I have cut miles and miles of illustration board, and my arthritic fingers show that,” Davis said in a recent phone call. He uses carefully cut board, watercolor paper, paint and foam core to form compositions that evolve into a collection of women in lush backdrops wearing a variety of headdresses.
He achieves his three dimensions through layering the substrates. And while his approach to painting is more graphic and flatter rather than shaded, Davis uses color to create the illusion of depth by employing contrasting and neutral colors. Add in his arresting patterns and the rich headdresses, figures and backgrounds pop.
The lifelong graphic designer and illustrator includes embellished backdrops in the compositions that are inspired by the work of Alphonse Mucha, the Czech graphic artist, illustrator and painter who lived in Paris during the Art Nouveau period and was known for his stylized theatrical posters.
“I’ve done a lot of research on Mucha — I’ve incorporated that kind of imagery, circular shapes and icons in them,” Davis says of his backgrounds. The late 1800s – early 1900s Art Nouveau movement was inspired by curves found in nature and that captured a sense of movement. Movement in Davis’ work comes about by employing curves and repetition of shapes.
The audience will discover a pale nun with a black habit posed in front of a circular rose window found in cathedrals. There is Eve with glorious blonde tresses and a bitten apple. Verdant greenery partially blocks an oncoming storm. Quetzalcoatl’s multicolored, feathered headdress and cerulean neckpiece are set off by a solid orange orb behind the golden Aztec deity.
Again, illustrating his handcrafted approach, Davis deftly painted hundreds of colored dots throughout the series that were made using a tool he created — a cake decorator with a 16th of an inch circular opening to which he glued a handle. The compositions tease the eye by his use of colorful forms and motifs such as garlands and blossoms, geometric shapes, spirals, stripes, and s-curves.
Lush comes to mind when viewing these visages as well as infinite patience and skill.
“I am literally building these things, and that’s the fun process,” says Davis who not only handcrafts the work of art and the tool but also creates the mats and does the framing. The exhibit will include a description of how he produces his constructions.
Davis brings to this series years of experience working as a graphic designer and illustrator. Armed with a degree in commercial art, he worked in his field in Washington, D.C., before moving to the Outer Banks. His portfolio includes hundreds of magazine covers, illustrations for NASA and McGraw Hill and a large body of three-dimensional fine art featuring scenes and portraiture. Most of this show’s work was created in 2020 and 2021 and veers a little from past portraits he has done. The pandemic caused the cancelling of an exhibit scheduled for last October for Davis at the arts council, but it gave him time to experiment.
“These are a little less graphic,” says Davis of the new work. “The idea is experimenting, trying to come up with a way to create an image that you feel comfortable with. The earlier ones were a little too cartoony.”
Just like his technique, his series presents a layered experience. The rich artwork that jumps from the frames is, on one level, like an old-fashioned candy shop with glass jars filled with mouthwatering delights of all shapes, sizes, colors, and tastes. It’s also an imaginative and historic jaunt through time viewing women from a variety of eras and cultures. With knife and brush in hand, Davis gives us both a unique and thought-provoking experience to savor and ponder.