Written by Joe O’Donnell
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Displayed prominently on the living room wall of Norm and Carnetta Davis’s house in suburban Birmingham is a piece of art that sums up the couple’s decades-long commitment to tradition, community, and art. On a large piece of weathered wood, etched in black, is an image of Carnetta’s mother, recreated here along with objects that capture an echo from her life as an educator and mother, a matriarch.
The work was commissioned by the Davises from the artist Whitfield Lovell, who is internationally renowned for his installations that incorporate masterful Conte crayon portraits of anonymous African-Americans from the time period between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Movement. Using vintage photography as his source, Lovell often pairs his subjects with found objects, evoking personal memories, ancestral connections, and the collective American past. In 2007, Lovell was awarded with a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, often referred to as the “genius grant.”
The piece created by Lovell for Norm and Carnetta captures the essence of the collection that they have spent the last dozen years assembling, work that helps to tell the continuing story of the evolution of African-American art. The Davis Collection includes more than 100 works of African-American art, spanning the 19th to the 21st centuries. It includes such well-known names as Henry Ossawa Tanner, Charles Evan Porter, Allan Rohan Crite, Benny Andrews, Kevin Cole, and Radcliffe Bailey, among others. “What we once naively defined as African-American art based on the color of the artist’s skin and the skin color of the subjects painted we now realize is as broad and deep as the world of art itself. We have gotten to know many artists, art professionals, and other art collectors who have helped to enrich our lives and have provided unforgettable experiences for us. We thoroughly enjoy our hobby and newfound appreciation for this genre of work,” Carnetta says.
Graham Boettcher, chief curator and The William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art, has long admired the commitment of the Davises to their collection efforts. “The Davis collection, which comprises the work of historical artists such as Henry Ossawa Tanner and Richmond Barthé, as well as modern masters including Radcliffe Bailey and Whitfield Lovell, presents a magnificent survey of art made by African-American artists from the late 19th century through the present,” Boettcher says. “It is most impressive for its breadth and comprehensiveness. There are few artists that have escaped the eyes of these astute collectors, and those whose work is yet missing from their collection will undoubtedly be sourced and acquired by the Davises in the future. They are very committed collectors.”
The genre of African-American art is of particular importance and interest to Boettcher and the BMA. “There are a couple other private collectors of African-American art in the Birmingham community, but I would say that Norm and Carnetta’s collection is special because it doesn’t just focus on the work of contemporary artists, but traces the history of black artists in America from a very early point,” he says. “The area in which the Davises collect is very important to the Birmingham Museum of Art, and is a major institutional priority in terms of our collecting focus. My single most significant purchase for the Department of American Art since arriving at the BMA in 2006 is a major landscape—“A Dream of Italy” (1865)—by the African-American landscape painter Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821–1872), so we are committing a lot of resources in that area. The Davises have been wonderful friends and supporters of the BMA in this regard and added a major work to the American collection just last year, a beautiful fruit still life painted in 1884 by Charles Ethan Porter, a Connecticut artist.”
Collecting in this genre is particularly appropriate in this region with its rich African-American history and experience. “While a few of the artists in the Davis collection—such as the the landscape painter Richard Mayhew—do not create work that overtly concerns itself with African-American identity or history, most of the artists tell a rich, sometimes painful story with their work. I find that art with a strong narrative is often able to connect with viewers in very powerful ways,” Boettcher says.
Carnetta is a native of Birmingham. She received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Alabama in 1980. She is a professional engineer, licensed in several states with more than 28 years of diverse engineering and management experience, including the design and management of multiple heavy industrial power distribution and control projects. She retired in 2012 after a successful career.
Carnetta also has an extensive record of professional and civic involvement. She is a member of The Birmingham Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, and currently serves as technology chairman. She also serves on the board of directors of the Black Belt Community Foundation. She has served on a scholarship committee for the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham for the past five years and currently serves on the University of Alabama College of Arts and Science’s Paul R. Jones Collection of American Art Advisory Board. She is an active member of the Birmingham Museum of Art and is a member of the Friends of American Art support group and has served as the president of the Sankofa Society, a support group for African-American Art. Carnetta has received numerous awards and recognitions for her service, including the Distinguished Service Award from the Engineering Council of Birmingham in 2000; one of the Birmingham Business Journal’s 2001 “Top Ten Birmingham Women”; and the Cahaba Girl Scout Council’s 2004 “Woman of Distinction.”
Norm is a native of Washington, D.C., and has more than 30 years of experience in banking and financial services. He is currently managing director of the Alabama office of Trufund Financial Services. He received his bachelor’s degree from The Johns Hopkins University in 1976 and an MBA in 1981 from the Colgate Darden Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Virginia. Norm has a long history of civic involvement and has received numerous awards and recognitions for community service.
Stephanie Heydt, the Margaret and Terry Stent Curator of American Art at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, came to Birmingham to view the collection this summer and came away impressed by the works she saw. “It was terrific,” Heydt says. “They have really assembled quite a collection of African-American art.” She mentions the Whitfield Lovell work as being particularly evocative of the collection. “The Whitfield Lovell work is about bits and pieces of history and family connections, anonymous and yet universal at the same time,” she says.
But the richness of the work transcends any attempt to pigeonhole it. “The artists are more universal than simply a representation of the African-American experience. They are appealing to broad visions and ideas that aren’t necessarily focused on race,” she says.