Two artists whose friendship was the catalyst for one of the Miami Valley’s most creative annual events are being honored this month with a retrospective of their work.
Mixed media artist Willis “Bing” Davis and sculptor Tess Little, friends for decades, are founders of REACH Across Dayton. The acronym stands for Realizing Ethnic Awareness and Cultural Heritage. The 27th annual event, slated for Friday, Feb. 22 at Sinclair Community College, is open to the public. Davis and Little, who retired as co-chairs, will kick off this year’s conference by sharing their stories and memories.
“REACH was created with the idea that we have more in common than differences,” says Little. “While there are differences between cultures, we believe that if we create a place where people can work together, play together, talk with one another and get to know one another on more than just a superficial level, we create deep and lasting bonds. Then when the differences arise, we have a foundation of friendship to help solve these differences.”
REACH, she adds, uses the arts and humanities as a vehicle “to allow folks to sit down together, work together on a project and get acquainted. “Although the early years of REACH focused on the commonalities found in African-American and Appalachian communities, over the years the event has grown to include many other ethnic and cultural traditions.”
Officially, it’s a “studies conference,” but that title doesn’t begin to reflect the fun that’s in store for those who attend. The cultural exchange introduces 400 participants to a wide variety of programming that explores the many ethnic traditions of the Miami Valley. It’s a potpourri of speakers, workshops, hands-on art activities and musical performances. This time around, sessions will range from bluegrass music to a one-act play in Chinese.
An integral part of REACH is the art exhibits held at both Sinclair’s Burnell Roberts Gallery and the Dayton Visual Art Center (recently renamed The Contemporary). This year’s exhibition is a retrospective featuring art work by Davis and Little that reflects their African-American and Appalachian roots. The shows incorporate painting, sculpture, ceramic, photography and drawing.
Little, who creates both large-scale sculpture for public places and smaller artwork for the private home, works in clay, bronze, welded steel and concrete. Her work on display dates from 1975 through 2018 and is inspired by animals, the figure and family. She also will show ceramic platters, vessels and mixed media.
Davis’ well-known Ancestral Spirit Dance oil pastels and Urban Mask photography dating from 1975 through 2018 will be shown. He also has created collages and ceramic vessels. “The Ancestral Spirit series is my tribute to those ancestors on whose shoulders I stand,” Davis says. “The Urban Mask series reflects my historical connection to the past by seeing mask-like shapes and forms, as I move around my community.”
“Bing and Tess’ lifetime involvement, both locally and internationally, has born of constant advocacy, nurturing, and supporting both people and the arts,” says Eva Buttacavoli, The Contemporary’s executive director. “They both have been ‘pied pipers ’ of the community for over 40 years — forging links within and between the African-American and Appalachian — and all — communities, the educational community and the art community. It is their gentle presence and constant humanness that endear them to everyone that their life and art touch.”
Sinclair’s Pat McClelland says exhibits at Sinclair and The Contemporary are separate, but complimentary. Each feature similar, but different work.
“At Sinclair, Bing is exhibiting African pattern inspired pastel drawings that are representative of the work people most commonly associate with him, however, he is also showing related work in ceramics, photography, and collage,” McClelland says. “Tess is exhibiting work in ceramics, cast bronze, and assemblage sculpture, many of which incorporate found and repurposed objects.”
Accompanying the exhibit at Sinclair, in the Works On Paper Gallery, is a collection of photos, documents, and art objects that address the two artists’ 25-year involvement with the REACH program.
Both artists agree they are fortunate to know one another. In addition to raising money, collecting supplies and planning art workshops for the REACH conference over the years, says Little, she and Davis have always taken the time to discuss their families, current art projects, world travel and community events. “All of these things bond us,” she adds. “I am very blessed to have Bing in my life.”
Davis, who was teaching at Central State University when he first met Little, says he always appreciated her artwork and admired her effective teaching style. “It was obvious that she cared for and believed in the students under her charge,” he says. “She also believed in the energy and power of art to enrich and change lives. Tess’ concern for all students trying to navigate the educational system was evident, plus she had a special concern for those struggling students with an Appalachian and African-American background. She felt that some educational difficulty could be cultural related.”
The two decided that teachers and others in the educational system could benefit from learning and appreciating the cultural background of their students. “These two important cultures in our community are often pitted against each other, yet they are more alike than people realize,” says Davis. “REACH started as a positive effort to build a better relationship between these two important cultures in Dayton and the nation.”
Turned out both Davis and Little shared an Appalachian cultural background from birth. “Tess is from the mountains of Kentucky, while I am from the little town of Greer, S.C.,” Davis says. “My family settled in East Dayton when I was a few months old. The Southern/African extended family concept continued to East Dayton and helped to share my vision , life, and work ethic.”
The two friends believe the REACH concept has the potential of becoming one of the most positive and effective ways to celebrate and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity of our region and nation. “The arts and humanities are natural ways to celebrate self and appreciate others,” Davis says. “Art, music, drama, creative writing, and spoken word, can unite us.”
HOW TO GO: THE ART EXHIBITS
What: "Journeys: The Work of Willis Bing Davis and Tess Little," a collaborative art exhibit by Sinclair Community College, The Contemporary and EbonNia Gallery.
When and Where: Exhibit 1 at The Sinclair College Galleries is on view through Feb. 26 at the Burnell Roberts Gallery, Building 13, 4th floor. Exhibit 2 at The Contemporary (118 N. Jefferson) is on view through March 23.
More: A free reception at each venue is slated for Thursday, Feb. 21. It will take place from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at Sinclair and from 6 to 8 p.m. at The Contemporary.
More honors: A REACH-Out Open House honoring the two artists will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 10, at The Contemporary. It will include live music and refreshments.
HOW TO GO: THE CONFERENCE
What: REACH Across Dayton all-day conference, "In the Spirit of Re-Discovery," featuring keynote sessions, workshops, hands-on art projects, musical performances.
When: 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 22
Where: Sinclair Community College, Bldg. 12
Admission: A ticket to the all-day conference is $50 which includes the conference, lunch, all materials, refreshments, and parking. Fee must be paid at time of registration. A limited number of scholarships are available.
More info: www.sinclair.edu/reach