Ask artist Dan Davis ’85 whom he respects, and he’s more likely to say Charles Darwin than Claude Monet or Vincent Van Gogh. For a lifetime, Davis’ artistic ambitions have been rooted in nature. Whether viewing a tropical jungle, a snake’s skeleton or a rare bird, Davis sees beauty worthy of reproduction.
By Jason Ryan
Photography by Sean Davis
All his adult life, Dan Davis ’85 could not contain his artistic ambitions. No matter the setting, he wanted to draw and paint. When working for a Charleston florist, he drew flowers. When studying for a college biology class, he sketched animal skeletons. At The Charleston Museum, he illustrated fossils. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Honduran jungle, he painted birds. Wherever he was, Davis’ artistic impulses were an itch that had to be scratched.
Today Davis is an artist in Guatemala City, Guatemala, within a few hours’ drive of several nature reserves that reliably provide him inspiration. He works primarily in watercolors, almost always painting birds and their surrounding foliage. But putting paintbrush to paper is only half the task. Davis personally photographs each of his subjects before painting them, spending countless hours in mangrove swamps, lowland jungles or cloud forests before snapping the perfect photo. He’s a fearless adventurer, traveling through territory populated with thick vegetation, dangerous animals and, at times, even more dangerous humans. This work requires him to be a patient stalker, sitting in place for hours, waiting and waiting for the arrival of his quarry.
A career in art, however, was never the plan. Davis initially tried to be more practical, deciding to pursue another of his passions: science. At the College, he earned biology and geology degrees before leaving to pursue a master’s in paleontology at the University of Texas. His graduate studies sputtered, though, when Davis began fearing he would not find work as a paleontologist. He transferred to Louisiana State University before quitting school. Though he regretted stopping his studies, he couldn’t imagine himself writing research papers for a living. He was also becoming dissatisfied with academia, and was unable to ignore his restlessness.
“I began to find myself in the art section of the library,” says Davis, “when I was really supposed to be studying sedimentary petrology.”
And so Davis left school and joined the Peace Corps in 1989, with hopes of traveling to Africa. Instead, he was sent to the remote Mosquito Coast of Honduras. Though not at the top of Davis’ list, Honduras proved a good fit. He had stopped drawing and painting in graduate school, but found the desire, and necessary time, to resume his art while living in the jungle. Davis ventured alone into the jungle so often with his camera that some locals suspected him of being an undercover agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The Mosquito Coast is notorious for harboring drug traffickers, and it was plausible the American was surveilling the area to find hidden airstrips in the jungle.
In reality, Davis was looking for nothing more than egrets and herons. Paddling on a canoe through the jungle one day, he marveled at the things he saw, including mangrove crabs, colorful trogans and a playful otter. He took pictures of the wildlife that he wished to paint. In between the shutter snaps, Davis had an epiphany.
If I could do that as a living, he thought, that would be the best way to stay in biology and do my art.
IN THE FACE OF DANGER
Bold ideas, however, aren’t always executed overnight. It took Davis a few years to concentrate fully on his art. He taught science in Baltimore, then Beaufort, S.C., before moving back to Central America, accepting a job teaching at a private school in Guatemala. At the same time, he started painting in earnest. And though teaching consumed precious time, the biology lessons he taught, which included evolution, meshed nicely with the subject matter in his art.
Beyond being stunned by the beauty of nature, Davis is fascinated with the science on display when he photographs wildlife. Observing a bird in the wild, without distraction, he better appreciates the creature’s evolution and how it has uniquely adapted to its environment.
“Sometimes I think you can almost grasp the big picture. All the history in it, and there it is in front of you,” says Davis. “You realize how little things are, but also how grand things are.”
Such moments do not arrive easily. When leaving for a trip to a nature refuge, Davis rises early in order to avoid both the traffic in Guatemala City, as well as the criminals, whom he hopes stay sleeping. Roadside robberies are common in Guatemala, and criminals also lurk along popular hiking trails, waiting in ambush. In some areas of the country, drug violence has made it unsafe to visit. Davis lists some birds he would like to photograph in the Petén region of Guatemala, such as the keel-billed toucan and collared aracari, before mentioning a drug-related massacre that took place there in 2011, when 27 people were murdered by paramilitaries at a ranch, with most of the victims beheaded.
Still Davis travels into the wild, taking as many precautions as he can. He chooses less-traveled paths and, when possible, hikes with locals he trusts. Sometimes he seeks permission from ranch owners to wander their property, reasoning that the private land may be safer than public refuges. Davis also knows that no matter how careful he is, some crime is more or less unavoidable. The single time he has been robbed was within Guatemala City on a Sunday afternoon, when two armed women took his groceries.
Despite the risks, the rewards are too great for Davis to forgo his excursions. When in the wild, he has these Eureka-type moments, as his brain applies his ample biological knowledge to what appears before his eyes. And, while stimulating, it’s also relaxing.
“Things start to congeal,” says Davis. “Your outside worries about jobs and stuff start to disappear.”
Later, when he begins to paint at his studio, there is satisfaction and utility in having captured images of his subjects himself. His visual memory is refreshed, and he can vividly recall being in the wild with that animal.
“I don’t think I get the same thing looking at somebody else’s photograph,” he admits.
CONTINUING THE LEGACY
Being a wildlife artist is painstaking work. Imagine the chore of painting fur, feathers and scales. Imagine illustrating overlapping leaves, twigs and berries, again and again. Skinny-leaved bromeliads, Spanish moss, lichens and ferns can take Davis a particularly long time.
To complicate things, Davis must not only make his paintings look good, they must be accurate. Rarely does a single photograph adequately capture the picture he desires to paint. A bird may be out of place, turned the wrong way, or obscured by foliage. To remedy this, he often gathers inspiration from a variety of images to create a single scene, mixing flora and fauna in a way that suits his vision. For all the advantages this approach offers, there is a danger of inconsistency, of painting, for example, a summer scene that mistakenly features treefruit that grows only in the winter.
Davis is so well versed in natural and biological science that he does not fall easily into such traps. Much of this scientific training occurred at the College, where Davis first found ways to integrate his talents and passions for art and science. He began making sketches for many of his science courses, drawing the skeletal and muscular systems of the sharks, snakes and cats he dissected in lab. Consequently, he’d ace his anatomy exams, making some pre-med students envious. The science faculty at the College was extremely supportive of his artistic talents, with one professor encouraging Davis to seek a career as a biological illustrator.
Away from campus, Davis worked for a florist, where he also sketched the flowers he delivered and arranged. He prepared fossils at The Charleston Museum, working alongside natural history curator Albert Sanders. The position with The Charleston Museum, which was housed at the College from 1852 to 1915, was appropriate for Davis, the budding artist and future science teacher. Since the museum’s founding in 1773, The Charleston Museum has established professional relationships with a number of men who were both excellent illustrators and scientists. These men were pioneers, documenting the exotic wildlife of North America for the first time, either by writing about and illustrating their finds, or by collecting specimens they’d send to The Charleston Museum or to scientists in Europe.
As Sanders details with co-author William Anderson Jr. in their book Natural History Investigations in South Carolina: From Colonial Times to the Present, John Lawson was the first person to comprehensively document the wildlife of South Carolina. The explorer left Charleston in late 1700, packed tight in a canoe with four Native Americans and six fellow Englishmen, heading west up the Santee and Wateree rivers into what is today North Carolina, before turning back east to the Pamlico River, near the Outer Banks. Along the way Lawson documented more than 300 plants and animals, including bison, rattlesnakes, opossums and assorted fish, producing descriptions and drawings of these finds in A New Voyage to Carolina, published in 1709. But just like Davis’ forays into the wilds of Guatemala, Lawson’s trips were fraught with peril. In 1711, while traveling the Neuse River in North Carolina, Tuscarora Indians killed Lawson, ending his exploration of the newly colonized continent.
Other men soon picked up the mantle. Thanks to a number of patrons, the English naturalist and artist Mark Catesby worked in Charleston from 1722 to 1725, ultimately producing the acclaimed two-volume Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahamas Islands, which featured richly detailed folios of native wildlife. In the 1770s, American naturalist William Bartram left Charleston to explore the Southern backcountry, eventually publishing Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida.
Then, in the early 19th century, S.C. Governor John Drayton produced illustrations of fossils and watercolors of plants in A View of South Carolina and Carolinian Florist, respectively. A few years later, in 1809, Scotsman Alexander Wilson, known as the father of American ornithology, visited South Carolina to sketch coastal birds that were included in his groundbreaking American Ornithology.
Perhaps the most famous natural artist known in North America, John James Audubon first came to Charleston in 1831. He befriended the Rev. John Bachman, who lived on Rutledge Avenue and was the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church. Bachman, who taught natural history at the College and boldly wrote an essay in 1850 championing the then-controversial idea that men of different races belonged to the same human species, gave Audubon winter lodging in his home for much of the 1830s and 1840s, aiding the artist as he produced his highly regarded illustrations. In 1840 the friends began collaborating on The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, a book on mammals published in three volumes from 1846 to 1854, with Bachman’s text accompanying Audubon’s art. During this same time, Audubon was aided by illustrator Maria Martin, who was Bachman’s sister-in-law, and later the widowed reverend’s wife. Martin painted background foliage and insects for Audubon, as well as produced drawings of wildlife that were completely her own.
At about the same time, prominent scientists were conducting their own investigations of the Lowcountry’s natural environment, employing artists to illustrate their finds. This includes John Holbrook, who produced North American Herpetology and Ichthyology of South Carolina, and Louis Agassiz, a Swiss scientist and Harvard professor whose investigations extended beyond animals and plants to humans. Agassiz discounted Darwin’s theories of evolution and insisted, contrary to College professor Bachman, that different races of men were separate species. Accordingly, part of Agassiz’ research in South Carolina included the study of slaves.
With the development of photography in the 19th century, it soon became unnecessary to illustrate the flora and fauna being described in scientific works. Illustrations of the natural environment generally fell back into the realm of artistry alone. In Charleston, Edward Von Siebold Dingle and John Henry Dick illustrated much local wildlife in the 20th century. Dingle’s and Dick’s paintings and drawings, as well as original or early editions of many of the works described previously, can be found in Special Collections at the College’s Addlestone Library.
As an undergraduate at the College, Davis knew the rich local legacy of naturalist artistry. In 1985, through his job at The Charleston Museum, he even helped prepare the museum for its major exhibit of the works of Audubon. Since then, in stop-and-start fashion, Davis has attempted to establish himself as an artist of equal capabilities. But, like many artists, Davis had trouble finding the time to indulge his passion. For many years, he considered the science lessons he taught to make a living as complementary to his painting. In time, though, he came to regard his teaching career as a distraction to his artwork.
Maybe teaching is no longer helping, Davis began thinking to himself. Maybe it’s hurting.
That thought echoed advice he had heard years earlier from former studio art professor Michael Tyzack: “He advised me that taking art courses wouldn’t help me too much, and that I just needed to paint as much as possible. He also said not to take on a career, as it would take too much energy away from my art.”
In August 2012, Davis resigned his teaching position in Guatemala City and moved with his wife, Margie, to a house on Lake Atitlán, a few hours’ drive west of the capital. Praised as one of the most unique natural settings in the world, the exceptionally clear, 50-square-mile lake promised to provide inspiration for Davis’ painting. The writer Aldous Huxley once compared Lake Atitlán to Italy’s Lake Como, but with the “additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”
Unfortunately, since Huxley visited in the 1930s, Lake Atitlán has developed severe bacteria problems, making its waters toxic. The lake and surrounding countryside are also polluted with trash and untreated sewage. Nonetheless, Lake Atitlán contains incredible wildlife. Davis, who settled beside an avocado plantation, spent his time there photographing the area’s aquatic birds. He also reveled in the quaint, unhurried lifestyle afforded by his remote and relatively undeveloped location. Davis’ retreat to Lake Atitlán proved to be a productive and therapeutic journey.
The hiatus could not last forever. A year later, Davis returned to Guatemala City with thousands of new photographs, ready to resume a new schedule split evenly between academic work and art. Nowadays, Davis tutors Guatemalan athletes online in the morning and then paints in the afternoon. He is also contemplating illustrating a children’s book on evolution featuring Central American birds.
Davis sometimes thinks about moving back to the United States. He misses his family, misses his roots. In the United States, too, he could worry less about safety and not have to live behind razor wire and iron bars, which is the norm for residents of Guatemala City. He grimly compares his excursions into Guatemala’s wild areas to a game of Russian roulette.
Of course, to leave Guatemala is to leave behind the quetzals and motmots, the horned guans and red-legged honeycreepers.
But, wherever he might land, Davis finds inspiration through biology. As a child, he found it exploring the woods of rural Maryland. As a young adult, he found it in Charleston, within floral arrangements and science labs. As a man, he found it in Central America. The lesson, one supposes, is that Mother Nature can play muse anywhere, so long as one takes the time to study the plants and animals that cover this earth.
“Since I was young, I have always had a fascination with the natural world,” Davis says. “My pockets were always full of rocks or some prized feather.”
At this point, Davis has produced many more paintings than research papers. Yet, for all the art, the scientist in him will not die. When looking at wildlife, Davis knows there is much more than meets the eye: “Although I paint because I truly enjoy it, I hope that through my paintings people will be more keen on observing and appreciating these products of millions of years of natural selection. The organisms, with their resulting adaptations and behaviors, are what inspire me to photograph and paint.”