Ulysses Davis


was a woodcarver who taught himself the craft of carving wood when he was about ten years old. He was born and raised in Fitzgerald, Georgia, where he attendedschool until the tenth grade, when he dropped out to help support his family. His earliest known works are bas-reliefs of rural scenes he made shortly after he began tocarve. Davis married in 1933, and the first of his nine children was born the following year. In 1942 the family moved to Savannah, where Davis found employment as arailroad office worker.In 1960 Davis went into business as a barber, using the small building he constructed behind his house. For the rest of his life he earned his living by cutting hair, anessentially sculptural skill that he had also learned as a child. His Ulysses Barber Shop doubled as a gallery for displaying his growing body of wood sculpture, and bythe early 1980s he had filled it with more than two hundred pieces, neatly displayed on shelves and countertops around the inner periphery of the one-room building.Davis’s repertoire of in-the-round sculpture included portraits of key individuals from biblical lore and United States history, relatively realistic depictions of realanimals, and his more fanciful portraits of African chieftains and fictional, dragon-like beasts. Among his more widely known works are his portrait busts of forty UnitedStates presidents, several wearing miniature eyeglasses that he handcrafted. He stained many of his carvings, to heighten and add gloss to the natural colors of thedifferent types of wood he used. He often embellished his pieces with glitter, sequins, rhinestones, and bits of costume jewelry, and on relatively rare occasions he also painted them.Acknowledging the extent to which he could become absorbed in the painstaking detail work that his art required, Davis once said that before he began a new piece,“I have in mind what I want it to look like, but after a while you’ve just got to stop your mind and just finish it, because your mind will keep going, and you’ll keepcarving till you don’t have nothing left.” Despite persistent pleas from art collectors and dealers, Davis refused to sell his works throughout his lifetime, making very fewexceptions. In explaining his reluctance to part with his sculptures, he referred to them collectively as “a treasure,” and said, “They’re part of me.” A portion of hisworks have now been retained and catalogued at the Beach Institute, Savannah, Georgia.
See also
African American Folk Art (Vernacular Art); Sculpture, Folk
Arnett, Paul, and William Arnett.
Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South,
vol. 1. Atlanta, Ga., 2000.Patterson, Tom. “A Strange and Beautiful World,”
Brown’s Guide to Georgia,
vol. 9, no. 12 (December 1981): 53–54.Perry, Regenia A.
Elijah Pierce, Woodcarver.
Columbus, Ohio, 1992