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From mailman to art collector: Kerry Davis, with wife Betty, have amassed a collection of top-notch African-American art, on view at Lyman Allyn

For those people who think art collectors only consist of the super-wealthy, consider this: Kerry Davis was a mailman and his wife, Betty, was a TV news producer in the mid-1980s when they started their art collection.

At the time, their intent was merely to display in their suburban Atlanta home.

Now, more than 35 years later, the pieces they have gathered reflect an amazing scope and range of work by esteemed African-American artists — and more than 60 of the 300 pieces are on a multi-year tour of museums.

“Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art" is on view through Aug. 22 the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London.

“While the Davises’ long-term objectives — to preserve cultural memories and provide their community with a source of pride and inspiration — are goals shared by many art enthusiasts, the Davis Collection is remarkable for both its originality and accessibility,” the exhibition wall text states. “Its esoteric, wide-ranging approaches to the black image are of a piece with its passion, resonance, and stylistic abundance. The result is an extraordinary gathering of works crossing different media, subjects, and styles by a group of artists of the African diaspora who, in terms of training, experience and expression, are strikingly diverse but unified in their use of cultural and historical narratives …

“The Davises have built one of the richest private collections of African American art in the world.”

The featured artists include Radcliffe Bailey, Romare Bearden, Beverly Buchanan, Elizabeth Catlett, Ernest T. Crichlow, Sam Gilliam, Loïs Mailou Jones, Jacob Lawrence, Gordon Parks, Alma Thomas, and Charles White.

Building a collection

Kerry Davis was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force before becoming a postal carrier (he’s now retired). He’s also an ordained deacon.

He and Betty both loved art and lived frugally, choosing to spend their money on art.

In a phone interview last week, Kerry Davis spoke about the collection. (This week, the Davises are in New London for visits at the Lyman Allyn; asked what exactly they’ll do here, Davis, who has a playful sense of humor and an effervescent personality, says, “I was hoping to find a lobster roll somewhere — after that, I’ll do anything they want me to.”)

As for whether he was interested in art as a kid — loved to draw, for instance — Davis laughs, “I can’t draw a straight line. I like art, I like beautiful things, but that was about it. When I grew up, in our home,, we never had art in our house, except for (pictures of) Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Jesus. You know, we called that ‘the trinity.’ But outside of that, nothing else.”

The walls of the Davises’ house, on the other hand, are covered with art — so much so, he says, that you can hardly see the paint.

When they started buying art, the Davises pored over entries posted on auction sites, visited galleries, and went to estate sales.

They met and became friends with artists, who occasionally gifted them with a piece. Kerry Davis was something of a craftsman and was a talented framer. He remembers bartering his framing services for some artwork.

The Davises bought some of the work before the artists became renowned — and so the prices were much lower than they are now.

“Our collection is works by African-American artists, which were largely, even up to the ‘80s, under-recognized … Now it’s come full circle. The art market for African-American art and at some of these art auctions is really exploding — the value,” he says. “I was just aware very early, I would say, on those things.”

Abstract art; social justice

Davis says he liked hanging around artists’ studios; he was intrigued with how the artists could paint — something Davis couldn’t do — and he enjoyed seeing the process and learning about it.

He says that, in terms of collecting art, “I think you evolve as you go along. I learned from some artists about form and composition, color. I guess you look so much, you look so much, you look so much — without knowing, you’re educating yourself. So through that evolution process, I started to keep what I thought were the better pieces.

“When I started out, it was buying figurative work, but there came a period where I evolved to the abstraction, then got to a point where I wanted to diversify the medium so it’s not so much work on paper now, it’s work on canvas or … even sculpture in there and photography. Before you know it, you got a house full of stuff,” he laughs, drawing out the last word.

"Memories & Inspiration" breaks down the collection into categories, sometimes in terms of style, and other times in terms of subject matter — one segment is nonobjective art, and one is "Courage and Social Justice."

Exhibition tour expands to five years

The tour of the Davises’ collection was scheduled to last three years. It proved so popular that the tour organizers asked for an additional two years.

“At first, I said, ‘No, it might be time to just bring it in.’ Then I thought, ‘You know, I don’t have anywhere to put that stuff if it comes back!’ The walls are filled now, because we really don’t live in big, palatial home. So I decided to let it go another two years out there,” Davis says.

"Memories & Inspiration" is organized and toured by International Arts & Artists, Washington, D.C. It is supported by the Department of Economic and Community Development, Office of the Arts, and an anonymous foundation.

The Davises open their house to friends, neighbors and parishioners so much that the abode has been called an “In-Home Museum.”

'Come away with joy’

Davis says he hopes that people who see the exhibition at the Lyman Allyn “will see works by artists that maybe they’ve never seen before and never considered before and now recognize them as artists, good artists.”

Most of all, he says, “I hope they come away with joy.”

"Memories & Inspiration: The Kerry and C. Betty Davis Collection of African American Art," Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London; through Aug. 22; hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun., last admission at 4 p.m.; admission free; (860) 443-2545.

If you go

What: Ice cream social

Who: Kerry and Betty Davis will be there and meet visitors

When: Noon-2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London

Cost: Free

Contact:, (860) 443-2545



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