Archdeacon: Dayton’s connection to Russian students who need caring stalled by sanctions

Dayton artist Bing Davis and his brother, John Joseph, set up annual student awards in art, sports and academics for the C.K. Grot School for the blind and visually impaired more nearly two decades ago. Here are recent winners. CONTRIBUTED

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Dayton artist Bing Davis and his brother, John Joseph, set up annual student awards in art, sports and academics for the C.K. Grot School for the blind and visually impaired more nearly two decades ago. Here are recent winners. CONTRIBUTED

Although they are just youngsters, they live some 4,600 miles away in St. Petersburg, Russia and they are blind or nearly so, they have a good vision of East Dayton — maybe even old Wilbur Wright High School or the once-vibrant Diamond Avenue — and especially of Bing Davis and his younger brother, Joe, two men who have cared deeply about them.

For the past decade and a half, on the last day of classes in late May, the students at the Konstantin Grot School for the Blind and Visually Impaired have gathered for a much-anticipated, end-of-year assembly.

That’s when the annual Bing and Joe Davis Student Awards would be handed out to those who had excelled that school year in athletics, art and academics.

“I could spend hours explaining to people the value and importance of these awards,” Marina Artamonova, the deputy director of the boarding school where many of the students have other handicaps and some are orphans, told writer Pam Dillon several years ago.

“Since the year when we, with the brothers Davis, established this award, we report a rise of motivation among the students to be a nominee by the end of the school year.

“The fact that, on the other side of the world, there are people who care and think (about) and respect them is very important.”

But that tradition has been halted this year, an unfortunate casualty of the U.S. sanctions on Russia for its ongoing and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The modest monetary prizes — sent to the students each year by internationally acclaimed Dayton artist and educator Bing Davis — are not permitted now.

Although a few weeks shy of 85 and battling the return of his lung cancer from five years ago, Davis hopes to support at least one more awards program if and when the sanctions are lifted.

After that, depending on the time and energy he must devote to his health issues and to be able to continue his creative efforts, which include his Willis Bing Davis Art Studio and EbonNia Gallery on W. Third Street, he’d like to see the awards continue.

He hopes a local group — either some ex-pats from St. Petersburg who now live here, a group dedicated to the blind and visually impaired or someone from the arts community who is willing to share — could take over the project.

Davis feels a real connection to the Grot students, their teachers and especially Artamonova, who has facilitated the venture from the start and become his good friend.

In turn, people at the school have embraced the Davis brothers and their story.

“It’s just been a wonderful experience, a wonderful humanitarian project between East and West,” Davis said the other afternoon, just before he went to Miami Valley Hospital for the third of his five scheduled radiation treatments.

“Each year they have an assembly where the teachers talk about me and my brother and East Dayton and athletics and our support of their students.

“Over the years, I think some of them have learned about Diamond Avenue, where we grew up and our days at Wilbur Wright High, but more generally about brotherhood and growing up poor. They get our whole story and are able to relate it to their own struggles.

“And, in turn, it’s been a great way for me to remember my brother since he passed away (in 2009) and to know that someone will be discussing our artwork and the athletic pursuits we had growing up.”

Both were multisport, All-City athletes in high school. Bing then went on to DePauw University, where he was a high jumper and an all-conference basketball player who is in the school’s athletic hall of fame. Joe played basketball at Central State.

Both then gravitated to the arts. Bing was an art teacher in the Dayton Public Schools, chaired the art department at Central State, was an assistant dean and professor at both DePauw and Miami University, was a visiting scholar at the University of Dayton and was an artist in residence at Wright State.

He works in several mediums and has had shows and done projects in China, Germany, Africa and the Caribbean — as well as Russia.

Joe lived 46 years in Los Angeles, where he was a drug and alcohol counselor. Until his death from ALS, he was especially known for his photography.

At a showing of his work here in 2005 — in an exhibit that included poignant photographs of growing up in their small back enclave in the mostly white, Appalachian-rooted East Dayton to shots of prominent sports figures and celebrities from Muhammad Ali and Serena Williams to Ray Chares and Snoop Dogg — we sat and talked, and he told me about the day he first photographed Sammy Davis Jr.:

“The first time I shot him was when he got on stage for an award. As he stood there, I photographed his feet. He looked down and made some jokes about it, but afterward he asked why I’d done that.

“I told him he was one of the greatest dancers I’ve ever seen, one of the greatest hoofers in the world.

“He thanked me, and soon after that he called me to photograph his wife at UCLA. Right up to when he died, I worked with him.”

And that is the essence of both Davis brothers.

They were able to see and understand and appreciate things in a way most other people do not.

Becoming artists

“We were poor kids and didn’t have doodly squat,” Joe said. “But as we’d go down the alley behind our place on Diamond Avenue and some of the other streets, we’d look in the trash cans.

“Bing would get little artifacts, broken earrings, anything to use in his art. He’d find pencil stubs, take ‘em home, sharpen them and use them to draw.

“Me, I was looking for pop bottles, copper wire, anything I could sell so we had 10 cents for the movies on Jefferson Street.

“And then one day, I found a top-view Brownie camera. I took it home and started taking pictures of all my friends.

“After awhile, though, they got a little angry because they learned for the first month and a half I’d never used any film. I was just, you know, practicing.”

It was in that same alley behind their house that Joe set up two hurdles he’d been given by Wilbur Wright track coach Dean Dooley. Although initially fearful he couldn’t get over them, he ended up becoming the prep hurdles champ of Dayton.

In the front yard of their home, Bing built a high jump pit with an old cane fishing pole as the clearance bar.

One thing he and Joe couldn’t sail over was a steadfast rule imposed by their mom, Veronia. Their house was just four doors down from their church, Mount Pisgah Baptist, and she made it clear the boys could not be out there jumping when church services were taking place.

Veronia, who was 100 when she passed away in 2010, always was the guiding force in their family.

When Joe relocated to Los Angeles and initially got caught up in the fast life — and the nearly decade-long downward spiral that came with it — he said it was his mom who talked sense into him and helped get him back on track. And that eventually led him into counseling the homeless, addicted and dispossessed.

He was diagnosed with ALS — known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — in 2004, and a year later he returned to Dayton in a wheelchair for the show of his photographs.

The following year, 2006, Susan J. Gabbard, president of the National Art Education Association, asked Bing to be one of the 30 American art educators to attend a U.S.-Russia joint education conference in St. Petersburg.

The experiences of the trip struck a chord with Bing and the next year he launched the first Bing and Joe Davis Student Awards at the Grot School.

“Joe was bedridden then with ALS, but the awards uplifted him,” Bing said. “He was so pleased that in his final years he could still be involved and it motivated him.

“And so now, it’s become a way for me to remember him and keep his memory alive.”

Mutual love and respect

When the Davis boys — who also had an older brother and three sisters — were growing up, their aunt, Ada Belle Sparks, lived a half of a block away on Springfield Street at Irwin.

“She was blind the last 50 years of her life,” Bing said. “She lived by herself, but for 10 years her neighbors didn’t know she was blind. When she took her trash out, she’d follow her clothesline to the garbage can and no one knew.

“She’d sit out in the rocking chair on her porch, then make her way back in the house. She enjoyed her life, and she was a marvel to us.”

It was that upbringing that helped make Bing so receptive when he went to Russia and ended up being assigned to the Grot School.

“Most of the other educators in our group were interested in going to the plum schools with the outstanding programs,” he recalled. “I said, ‘That’s fine. I’ll take what’s left.’

“I was sent to the blind and visually impaired school, but once I met the people there and saw what they were doing, I thought: ‘This is where I’m supposed to be. This is why I came here in the first place.’”

He saw some similarities to the program he ran in the Dayton Public Schools in the late 1960s. Called The Dayton Living Arts Center, it was funded by a three-year, $1 million grant that explored the influence of arts on student development through the disciplines of music, dance, drama, creative writing and visual arts.

When he watched the Grot students and teachers, he was especially moved and felt compelled to do something. And so, since 2007, he has provided the moderate backing — sometimes $400 to $600 from selling a small piece of his artwork — for the awards.

“It’s the only award a lot of these children get, and they look forward to it, and so do their parents,” he said. “It shows that someone from the outside, someone from the other side of the world, cares about them.”

And the caring is mutual.

Marina recently sent Bing a note about putting the awards on hold, but her big concern was for him and his health battle.

“I do pray and hope that you’ll cope with all the problems, as you still, I’m sure, haven’t finished your mission here on earth,” she wrote.

“Please fight and do your best. Believe in yourself and your future. We’re together and our thoughts are with you.

“Love you our dear, dear Bing.

“Love you.

“Your Marina.”

Mutual respect and understanding — and especially love — cannot be sanctioned.

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Marina Artamonova has helped Dayton artist Bing Davis with annual student awards in art, sports and academics for the C.K. Grot School for the blind and visually impaired. CONTRIBUTED

Marina Artamonova has helped Dayton artist Bing Davis with annual student awards in art, sports and academics for the C.K. Grot School for the blind and visually impaired. CONTRIBUTED

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Marina Artamonova has helped Dayton artist Bing Davis with annual student awards in art, sports and academics for the C.K. Grot School for the blind and visually impaired. CONTRIBUTED

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Dayton artist Bing Davis and his brother, John Joseph, set up annual student awards in art, sports and academics for the C.K. Grot School for the blind and visually impaired more nearly two decades ago. CONTRIBUTED

Dayton artist Bing Davis and his brother, John Joseph, set up annual student awards in art, sports and academics for the C.K. Grot School for the blind and visually impaired more nearly two decades ago. CONTRIBUTED

Combined ShapeCaption
Dayton artist Bing Davis and his brother, John Joseph, set up annual student awards in art, sports and academics for the C.K. Grot School for the blind and visually impaired more nearly two decades ago. CONTRIBUTED

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Bing Davis (left) and his brother John Joseph Davis (right) at Ebonnia Gallery in Dayton in 2005. FILE PHOTO

Credit: Dayton Daily News

Bing Davis (left) and his brother John Joseph Davis (right) at Ebonnia Gallery in Dayton in 2005. FILE PHOTO

Credit: Dayton Daily News

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Bing Davis (left) and his brother John Joseph Davis (right) at Ebonnia Gallery in Dayton in 2005. FILE PHOTO

Credit: Dayton Daily News

Credit: Dayton Daily News

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