John Davis

Obituary for John Davis Born 16 September 1936 Died 17 October 1999

John Davis died as he had lived, prepared and clear minded. Once he made the ultimate choice to let go of his irreversible struggle with cancer, he organized final things, and then consciously he entered the zone-of-loving-care provided by his children. On October 17th he died, surrounded.

In every known way, John's life was consistent: the man, the husband, the father, the teacher, the artist, the friend, the citizen were congruent. His life line and his art were held together by a strong substructure, integrated, invisible, motivated by a patient sensitivity to nature and an enduring imagination.
John's CV is pages long: decades of exhibitions throughout Australia, installations in the Indian Triennial, in the Venice Biennale, in the USA and Scotland, in Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia, New Zealand; residencies in Australia, the USA, Japan and New Zealand. His professional life was full and his oeuvre unique. A new book on his work is currently being prepared by Craftsman House.

John was born in Ballarat, Victoria, spent childhood time in Melbourne, but essentially grew up in Swan Hill, close to the Murray river, which he loved. He married Shirley, his life-long companion, who died suddenly less than two years ago leaving a rupture beyond words. John and Shirley were both educators, John teaching first in regional high schools, then in Melbourne and finally at the VCA, where he was Coordinator of Post Graduate Studies for many years. His students called him inspirational, with good reason. He was generous and responsible with what he knew, offering the same values to his students that he applied to his own work: time, skill, clarity and an eye for truth.

He faced the world with simple materials, twigs, calico, bitumen, glue, needle and thread. He foraged for twigs and made an empire from their fragile joints for his exquisitely constructed sculptures. In the early days he was called the twig-man, and he remained true to twigs until the end. Even now, a cropped forest waits on his studio floor.

Though the land was his source and inspiration, it was always tangent to conceptual development. Consistently, his work was both symbolic and grounded in observation. He turned his passion for the environment into metaphor, stitching together miles of calico, like a tailor sewing a poem about a river or a fish or a memory.

His last work, prepared just before his death, will be shown at Robert Lindsay Gallery in Melbourne next year. I was privileged to see and discuss the work-in-progress with him. At one end of the exhibition is an expression of contracted darkness, a black statement; at the other end, an offering, a Ko-an. In between there are 12 stations-of-river, honed to river-bones of stillness, rising from the floor. In his final months of life, John Davis was working patiently with ultimate things, grappling with and understanding contradictions. Carefully, he left a legacy of grace.