Archdeacon: Artists depict the ‘skyscrapers’ who inspire, improve Dayton

Walking down Third Street in the Wright Dunbar section of West Dayton the other day, it felt like I was in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers.

Bing Davis, the internationally-acclaimed artist, longtime educator and local treasure, was in his EbonNia Gallery, his shirt sleeves rolled up, as he worked on some of his own art in his studio.

Across the street, a half a block east, Dwayne Daniel, also a celebrated artist and educator — for 30 years a cornerstone of the fine art department at Central State University — had stopped at the West Social Tap and Table food hall for lunch at SOCA, the place known for its cuisine from Trinidad, Tobago and the surrounding Caribbean.

Daniel, who spent his early years in Eastman, Ga., grew up in the DeSoto Bass Courts housing project on Germantown Street and graduated from Dunbar High School, where he was an offensive lineman for the Wolverines football team, but better known for his artist talent and eventually had Davis take him under his wing.

“To be quite honest, my life would be totally different without Bing Davis,” Daniel said.

But at 62, Daniel long ago forged his own path and now you can find his work exhibited around the country and especially here in the Miami Valley, from the campuses of the University of Dayton and Central State to the Trotwood library or, a while back, in a special presentation at the Dayton Art Institute.

Across the street from EbonNia, is the domain of Nigerian-born, Xavier University of Louisiana-educated pharmacist Nnodum Iheme, who with his wife Nnenna, launched Ziks Pharmacy.

Though Iheme himself wasn’t available to be interviewed for this story, his presence was felt throughout the neighborhood.

His pharmacy — located in the old Rubenstein furniture store which has been renovated — is an anchor to this once-bypassed neighborhood that is now going through vibrant revitalization.

Most important is the health care it offers residents who previously had faced a medical assistance vacuum in the area.

“One of the biggest things for me was (Ihene’s) impact and assistance for people during the COVID era,” said Daniel.

During the crisis, Ihene put on over 50 clinics around West Dayton explaining the pandemic. His pharmacy administered thousands of vaccinations and saved countless lives from a virus that especially impacted Black people.

That’s why Daniel chose Ihene as the subject of the colorful acrylic painting he did for the 2024 Dayton Skyscrapers Art Exhibit that — thanks to an extension announced a few days ago — will remain on display through July 31 at EbonNia (1135 W. Third Street; Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 937-223-2290).

In terms of towering presence in West Dayton — and beyond —Davis, Daniel and Iheme stand as tall as do the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and 30 Hudson Yards in Midtown Manhattan.

Davis introduced the annual Dayton Skyscrapers exhibit in 2007.

The idea is to have African American visual artists from the area represent fellow African American men and women who have stood tall for what they represent, what they have achieved in their field and what they’ve contributed to the quality of life in Dayton and the Miami Valley.

The project — done in a collaboration with Dayton Public Schools — not only celebrates local artists and societal pillars, but it provides positive role models for urban youth who are introduced to the Skyscrapers in their classes.

Daniel has been a contributing artist since the Skyscrapers project began.

His subjects have included everyone from the late Idotha “Bootsie” Neal, the first African American woman elected to the Dayton City Commission, to Norris Cole, the Dunbar grad who went on to pro basketball fame and won two NBA titles with the Miami Heat; Dr. Karen Townsend, the founder of the About My Sisters organization whose mission is to empower one million girls and women; and Marshall “Rock” Jones, the turban-wearing bassist and one of the founding members of the Ohio Players.

Iheme was a perfect addition to the litany of leaders to whom Daniel has paid tribute.

“When I chose a subject, for the most part, I look for their accomplishments and their presence in the community,” Daniel said.

Iheme — who a quarter century ago developed and now manufactures Ziks Pain Relef Cream to treat arthritis, bursitis, myalgia, diabetic neuropathy and other aches and pains — is an integral part in West Dayton health care thanks to the change in state health care policy in 2019.

That gave pharmacist providers status to help patients with conditions like diabetes and asthma.

Daniel entitled his piece “Ziks for the People.”

It’s a close-up of Iheme’s face done in varying shades of blue and green colors, he said, which are indicative of the medical profession. They provide a three-dimensional effect which draws you to what appears a kind and assuring presence.

And that’s when you realize those folks back in Eastman over a half century ago were right when they saw 6-year-old Daniel drawing away.

“People would look at what I was doing and say, ‘That’s magic!’” he shrugged.

“I didn’t really understand. I thought everybody could do it. But I also knew one day I wanted to be an artist.”

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Credit: JIM NOELKER

Making his mark in education

Daniel said he learned this story later in life from one of his dad’s old friends down South:

“He told me how, when my dad was young, someone gave him a guitar with just one or two strings. That’s how he learned to play, and he was bending notes and got pretty good.

“Well, a travelling fair came to town, and he brought his guitar so he could show them how he could play. People gathered around when he did, so they brought him back the next day and a crowd gathered again.

“He ended up travelling the state of Georgia with that fair and that’s how he ended up in Eastman which is a good way (160 miles) from Heard County, where he came from.

“My mom was the co-valedictorian of her high school class there and she met my dad when he came to town with that guitar. My father stayed there, and they got married and started a family.”

Daniel said in 1973 — when he was 12 ― his family moved to Dayton where some of his uncles lived.

They ended up in DeSota Bass, which had a long-standing reputation for lawlessness, but was also a place where he said he was nurtured:

“I grew up in the Bass and yeah, things happened there, but there were a lot of beautiful people there with some of the strongest morals I’ve ever been around,” Daniel said.

As he made his mark at Dunbar, Daniel — like his two brothers — worked at Ren’s Supermarket. He said the owner, Lorenzo Harris — who grew up picking cotton in Alabama, graduated from the University of Dayton in 1951, was a Korean War vet, a Sunday school teacher and a prominent West Dayton businessman — was a mentor.

Daniel also was influenced by Curtis Barnes Sr.: “He was the first African American artist I ever met.”

His biggest influence though was Davis, who was impressed when he saw the teenager’s artwork.

Davis had become the chairman of the Central State visual arts department and was trying to revitalize and rebuild its programs. One of his first student recruits was Daniel, who was about to graduate.

“I had seen his work when I went to Dunbar, so I asked him if I could go visit his mother,” Davis remembered. “Even though the family could use the money he made at Ren’s, I asked his mom if she’d let him drop that job so he could come to Central State.”

Sadie Daniel, who later worked at Sugar Creek meat packing plant here, had been an amateur artist herself and encouraged her son to draw back in Georgia.

She saw Davis’ offer as a way to make even more “magic.”

And that’s what happened.

“He was voted the No. 1 freshman art major and was No. 1 as a sophomore and then a junior, too,” said Davis. “He was co-No.1 his senior year, but that’s only because he helped another student get better and she tied him.”

After CSU, Daniel went on to Miami University to get his master’s and was convinced to pick up an education component.

“They told me one of my responsibilities there would be to teach a class,” he said. “Teaching had never crossed my mind and I wasn’t interested. But I didn’t have a choice.

“Still, here I was, from a small town in Georgia, having grown up in public housing and gone through Dayton Public Schools and Central State. Then, all of a sudden, I’m at Miami University and I’m thinking: ‘How am I supposed to teach these little, rich white kids? What do I have to offer any of them?’

“But the students were very receptive, and I started to get a lot of attention.

“The chair of the department at the time gave me a compliment and I believe he called Bing and told him I was one of the best teachers they had.”

After graduating from Miami and then a year teaching in Andover, Massachusetts, he returned to Dayton where his parents were ailing and was hired by Davis.

After Davis retired, Daniel became the coordinator of the visual arts program at CSU for nine years and helped get it accredited by the National Association of Schools or Art and Design. Today he said CSU is one of just a handful of HBCU’s (out of 107 in the nation) which has an accredited arts program.

As for Daniel’s own art, he works in various mediums, including oil, charcoal and acrylic. Along with those distinct skyscraper portraits, he’s especially known for pieces that present pointed social commentary.

As we looked at his work the other day, a couple of pieces especially stood out:

One was entitled “Damn the Good Old Days!” and depicted a Black man lying on his side, his hands and feet tied and he’d been trussed to a flying Confederate flag.

Daniel’s gripping portraits of a saddened, but focused Black man — entitled “Determined” — hangs in the UD library and one of a young man expressing outrage — done after the murder of George Floyd and entitled “Enough!” — is part of the permanent collection at CSU.

So is “Lady Sings the Blues,” which is inspired by Billie Holiday, but if you look closely, a city skyline behind her is burning and the iconic flower in her hair includes, as he put it, “a cadaver on a slab.”

“You don’t see it when you first look at it,” he said quietly. “But once you do, you can’t not see it after that.”

Again, magic.

‘Look beyond the ordinary’

Davis has presented the Dayton Skyscrapers concept at conferences around the nation and as far away as Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Shanghai, China.

Skyscrapers attracts a loyal following, including a group from around the nation which makes an annual pilgrimage to visit the grave of Martin Robison Delany, the abolitionist, journalist, physician (he was one of the first three Black men admitted to Harvard Medical School, only to be dismissed after continued protests by white students) and Civil War veteran who is considered the first proponent of Black nationalism.

Delany was buried in an unadorned grave at Massie Creek Cemetery in Cedarville for 120 years until the National Afro American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce raised $18,00 for a headstone for him and his family.

“A group comes every year and visits his grave and then comes here and has lunch and sees the (Skyscrapers) exhibit,” Davis said.

This year the group will see 14 different Skyscrapers done by 10 different local artists. Subjects include: Katt Williams, the Dayton-raised, Emmy award winning comedian, who is being honored with a day in his name by the city of Dayton later this year; Judge Mia Worthem Spells; Paul Laurence Dunbar historian LaVerne Sci; Steve Ross, the college football player, coach, educator, stock car racer and executive director of the Greater Edgemont Community Association; and Troy Pearson, considered the father of youth basketball in Dayton, whose Mohawks’ program produced some of the area’s greatest sports legends and, in the process, helped them bolster their educational prowess and social skills.

Iheme — who also has a pharmacy in Cincinnati and another on Salem Avenue — has embraced the community, as well.

Recruited to West Third Street by Bootsie Neal, his pharmacy, wellness center and medical supplies business employed over 100 people at onset and had a goal of adding over 200 more jobs.

“The first day he opened his pharmacy, he came out with his white jacket on and walked up and down the street and introduced himself to every business here,” Davis said.

“And every year he throws a block party for all his customers. There’s a live band, hot dogs, a lot of fun. He’s a great neighbor, just a good guy.”

Davis always advises artists who want to be part of the skyscraper exhibit to avoid subjects who are loved ones and friends and people who support them:

“I tell them look beyond the ordinary. I tell them to look places that they would not.”

Going down West Third the other day, that meant looking for the people who cast the biggest shadows.

Looking for the Skyscrapers.

They all have the magic.

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