That’s how friends and family describe John Will Davis, a born and bred Annistonian who left a job in an Anniston foundry to become a nationally exhibited painter.
A small selection of his work at Nunnally’s Framing in Anniston illustrates the diversity of Davis’ work. His paintings of a cross and a young child rolling out dough use a dark background and vibrant color to draw the viewer into the scene. Another painting of the 1961 Freedom Riders Bus burning comes alive with the portrayal of billowing smoke and running figures on a white background.
Davis, who died Saturday at age 55, was a self-taught artist who came to his career as a painter later in life. He worked at U.S. Pipe, a pipe foundry in Anniston, for more than a decade before leaving to pursue art, his widow, Gloria Davis, said.
He had been doing charcoal sketches, and then in 1996, started doing oil painting. Two years later he had his first show in Atlanta, she said. Since then he’d had shows in Texas, Las Vegas, Birmingham and Anniston.
Ann Welch, owner of Nunnally’s Framing in Anniston, said she first met Davis through his charcoal sketches.
“I was looking for the artist that did little black and white notecards of buildings in Anniston,” Welch said. “I searched for the longest time and finally discovered it was John Will Davis.”
She still has some of the notecards — sketches of local churches that Davis did.
She searched so diligently because it was difficult to find a talented local artist who focused on local subjects, Welch said.
It’s important for a city to have an artist documenting the local history and events, she said. Davis did commission work and also did work with his own vision of his world, which included Anniston and its inhabitants, Welch said.
“He demonstrated his life through his painting,” Welch said. “I would be willing to bet that there is a story behind every piece he did.”
The Anniston City Council also recognized Davis at its meeting Monday morning.
“His art, it lives and breathes Anniston,” said Councilman Seyram Selase. “My heart is going to ache that he isn’t going to be able to paint some of these new developments we’ll be having.”
Friends and family knew Davis as a devoted family man and steadfast friend.
“I miss him already,” said his widow on Monday. “He was everything to me.”
Davis was born in Anniston Jan. 12, 1957, and lived here his entire life. He was a 1975 graduate of Anniston High School, where he met his future wife. On Monday, people who knew him said repeatedly how close the two were; how Davis said the first time he saw Gloria that he knew she was the one for him. Still, the two were together for 17 years before they got married, Gloria Davis said.
It was a second marriage for her and she was a little leery of going through the heartbreak of a broken marriage a second time, she said. But being with him was the best thing that ever happened to her, she added. He was a special person and everyone recognized it, she said.
“He was like a sage,” said artist Joseph Giri. “The kind of guy you just want to be around.”
Giri met Davis when the two collaborated on a mural painted on a building on West 15th Street. Davis drew the pictures and Giri painted them on the building.
Davis lived through the tumultuous times of the civil rights movement in Anniston; but he wasn’t bitter, Giri said. Davis remembered not being able to go in the restaurants downtown and having to drink from separate water fountains than white residents, and he had come to terms with it, Giri said.
Davis did help document the struggle, though. One of his paintings depicts the 1961 Freedom Riders bus burning that garnered national attention, Giri said.
Davis was very attached to his hometown. Gloria Davis had wanted to leave Anniston, she said. But her husband’s family was here and he wanted to stay. His grandmother, his mother and father and his brother all preceded him in death. He took care of them, nursed them through illness and at their death took care of their final arrangements, she said.
His daughter, Caportia Jenkins, one of his five children, said that was one of the things she loved about him.
“He would do anything for anybody,” she said. “Whatever you wanted him to be, he would be it if he could.”
The funeral is scheduled for noon Saturday at Smith Metropolitan AME Zion Church at 1335 Pine St.
Staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545. On Twitter @LCamper_Star.