Phillip Davis is a modern-day Renaissance man.
He’s recently exhibited paintings at the “Freedom Now” exhibition at the Cultural Arts Center Gallery. He’s an accomplished poet and has written two books. In March, he’ll be releasing another album as his musical alter ego Phil Beach. He’s a teaching artist at Deep Center, has formed the non-profit creative arts organization The Indigos, and manages the online directory CreativeSavannah.com, which features artists as well as other creatives, entrepreneurs, and small businesses.
But it’s his personal point of view on issues of equality that made me invite him into the studio as this week’s guest on Art on the Air. I brought in our mutual friend and fellow artist Xavier Hutchins to act as co-host.
“I can’t ever just tiptoe around [an] issue.” He told us, “If it’s in me, I feel like I have to say it. I have to speak it.”
This was particularly true of Davis’ works in the aforementioned “Freedom Now” exhibition, where he literally targeted a number of contentious issues by depicting a model with a bull’s-eye painted on its back, surrounded by the quote, “Oh how carefree it must be to inherit such luxury!” The figure looks through a window at four smaller paintings: A red “Make America Great Again” hat; a police badge with the slogan “Neglect,” Disturb,” and “Abuse”; a Ku Klux Klan mask; and the words “All Lives Matter.”
“I feel like as humans we all have moral laws and universal laws that we should live by,” explained Davis, “And it’s like we can obviously see that society is not living by some of [what] should be basic laws.”
In spite of the difficult subject matter in some of his work, however, Davis is gregarious and approachable, asking his viewers or listeners to talk about what they see and hear in his images and words.
“I definitely want my art to speak to [these issues] and again create that conversation.” He said, “Art itself is a great way to open that up. Put the art out there. Let people see it. Let them form their thoughts. Hopefully they aren’t triggered. And then we sit down and talk about what’s going on.”
Davis recognizes that it’s a hard ask of people. During our conversation all three of us had to admit that we could also get defensive when discussing certain issues. But the key is moving past that towards finding a solution.
“People like to be comfortable.” he acknowledged, “And I’m not blaming any human for wanting to be comfortable. But, step outside of that comfort zone. I don’t really think it’ll be as hard as people are making it seem.”
And once that barrier is broken, Davis believes that real progress is possible.
“Just being able to sit down and say ‘hey, these are the things in my culture I’m experiencing. Do you see these things?’” He said, “And hopefully that person can be honest and take themselves out of their shoes and look at it from a different perspective and say ‘you know what, I do realize these things are going on. How can I, as a just human, being allow these things to happen and be comfortable?’”
As Davis, Hutchins, and I were rounding off our conversation, we turned outward, looking for ways to make change outside of the echo chamber where we admittedly reside most of the time. The solution, said Davis, is to go where we live.
“It will most definitely start with us going into our own communities, rallying our people together, and saying ‘hey, we’re trying to create change. You might not think like me, I might not think like you, but let’s get together and get on the same page where we can all benefit, and come together, and unite.”
Listen to our entire conversation with Phillip Davis embedded here, including a live reading of his poem UPS. Included in the audio is a Field Note interview with Peter Roberts recorded at Kobo Gallery.
Tune in to “Art on the Air” every Wednesday from 3-4 p.m. on WRUU 107.5 FM in Savannah, and streaming worldwide at www.wruu.org. Next week we’ll have members of the Savannah Art Association in the studio to talk about their 100 year anniversary!
Art off the Air is a digital-only column that is posted every week on dosavannah.com as a companion piece to the WRUU 107.5 FM show “Art on the Air.”
Rob Hessler is an artist, host of the radio show Art on the Air on WRUU 107.5 FM Savannah, and Executive Director of Bigger Pie, a Savannah-based arts advocacy organization.