Because La Verne’s Eric Davis has been spoiling local residents with his design, painting, printmaking, and photography and production skills for decades, you wonder how much longer the city can claim the resident artist as its own before Southern California, the rest of the state and the world lay claim to his considerable talents.
As locals know, you can’t enter the city or travel its main corridors without experiencing the Bonita grad’s work. There’s his brushed aluminum oak tree sculpture where the Molly Maid building stands as you prepare to exit the 210 at Foothill, there are his tulip-shaped wrought iron gates greeting the faithful at the Church of the Brethren, and there is his wraparound mural at the 4th Street mill capturing the city’s citrus-and-church-infused history. This is the same guy who designed the 75th anniversary logo for the Los Angeles County Fair.
But those artistic feats are almost ancient history. He’s riding a new wave, and just how far it carries him, is anybody’s guess, including Eric’s. He’s just put the finishing touches on a plein air series of 50 piers dotting the California coast from San Diego to Crescent City. They are, well, pierless.
If you need to know anything about the Davis clan (his brothers Carl and Muir are equally talented), there’s always a story behind the story. In other words, Eric didn’t become a water-coloring, beach bum overnight.
A Horse, Of Course
Christmas 2010, Carl, an amateur woodworker, presented Eric with an art horse bench that he had been inspired to make after seeing painters at the Getty use them. Only Carl’s next-gen version was collapsible so that his brother Eric could fold it like an ironing board and tuck it in his trunk and take it on the road to paint. Whenever Eric would pull it out to paint, he always told by fellow painters that he should patent the design, so he did — a slow, often-agonizing three-year process.
After creating a marketing website that helped attract and deliver a 20-piece order came from Arkansas, Eric and Carl knew they had something. The fabrication of The Folding Art Horse has since been handed off to local master craftsman Simon Lambert, owner of the Furnivall London studio in La Verne.
To say Eric’s folding art horse has been road tested would be understatement. While Eric and his wife Juliet were in Huntington Beach to attend a luncheon for Juliet’s work, Eric slipped away in the morning with the intention of setting up his folding art horse and painting the Huntington Beach pier and making it back to the hotel for the noon banquet. The only trouble was, Eric got lost, and ended up in Seal Beach, so he painted that city’s pier instead. Huntington Beach, the original Surf City, would have to wait.
That Eric could complete a painting in only a few hours and be back in time for lunch might seem an impossible task best left to sketch artists working Main Street at Disneyland. But much of the outdoor rigors of performing plein air (open air) is to be in the moment, directly observing nature and capturing its essence in a short impressionistic session, free of photographs and other artistic enhancements later added in the studio.
On The Road
After Eric’s initial plein air painting, he set off to paint 49 other piers over the next 17 months. At first, he set off early mornings in his truck to make it as far as, say, Pismo Beach, before turning around to be home by dinner. But with locations farther afield, Eric decided to invest in a teardrop trailer big enough to accompany a queen-sized bed so he could stay overnight and be ready to work at the break of dawn to capture the interplay and often fleeting quality of light that is so critical to plein air perfectionists.
Each time Eric has perched on a bluff or rocky outcropping to paint has made both his folding art horse and personal artistry a little better. For example, he has since crafted “horseshoes” for the feet of his folding art horse to keep the legs from splintering. Also, when used indoors, the shoes keep the horse from scraping and scuffing expensive hardwood floors. He has also learned to tip his folding art horse at just the right angle so he can paint vertically or horizontally, techniques that give him more freedom and flexibility in working with both paint and paper.
As for immersing himself in the elements, he has learned to greet a gloomy day with as much enthusiasm as a picture postcard day where the sunlight is endlessly streaming.
Unpredictable factors also include the human kind, such as curious surfers and beachgoers looking over his shoulder, adding to the intimidation factor.
But each outing and completion of a painting also have boosted his confidence and ability to portray what he sees and feels. The convergence of the weather, the breaking waves and the position of the piers under ever-changing sunlight is no longer an obstacle, but rather an invitation to do his finest work. In a race with the elements and himself, he has increasingly improved his vision, style and intuitive response to his surroundings.
No matter what vocation you’re pursuing, any serious professional is always seeking respect, and Eric is no different. At first, he said he felt like an outsider encroaching on someone else’s turf. But slowly, he felt he earned the locals’ acceptance and respect. At the top of California, in Crescent City, he sought to look up an old friend, surfing legend, Greg Noll, with whom he had previously worked.
It was Noll who taught him something he would never forget. “He told me, ‘I’ve been shaping boards my whole life, but you have to do each one with integrity; you can’t just put something out there,’” Eric recalled. “That was part of the surfer mentality.”
Although Eric and Noll were unable to reconnect because of the short time Eric was in town, he met another person who had been intimately involved in the restoration of the more than 100-year-old Santa Monica Pier before retiring and settling in Crescent City.
“I bet you never painted the Santa Monica pier,” the man said, challenging Eric.
“This salty, old, gruff sea dog didn’t want to give me the time of the day until he saw my painting of the pier that I pulled up on my phone,” Eric said, smiling and clearly savoring the memory.
Although the plein air ethic is a “natural” pursuit, free of electronic and studio enhancements, Eric, the artist and fine arts degree holder from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., has used technology as well to create interest in and sales of his work.
After sharing photos on his phone of his first pier-scape – at what seems like that long-ago luncheon in Huntington Beach – he immediately got a bid for $100. It eventually sold that weekend for $159.50. Prices have since escalated.
Another time, upon his return from Pismo Beach after capturing the pier on a gloomy day and posting it on Facebook, he was receiving online bids by the time he reached Ventura.
Ironically, No. 50 in the pier series was the Huntington Beach pier, which had eluded him earlier. It was only natural that he should return to the city and complete the loop, where his pier odyssey had started.
“I was saving that one for last,” Eric admitted. “All of the work has maintained a level that I’m proud of.”
Indeed, many of Eric’s pier-and wave-scapes have been purchased by those who want to recapture a memory of a coastal town where they grew up. Others have served as memorial tributes to the passing of a loved one.
“You put your heart into something, and somebody else takes that love and puts it to a new use,” Eric said.
With the pier series now complete, the pier-less Eric won’t be standing still. He’ll be attending a big gathering of the College Art Association in February in New York City to promote his folding art horse. In collaboration with Marlin Heckman, longtime University of La Verne librarian, he’s planning to publish a book of his pier series. Then there is his series of notecards to expand further into retail shops up and down the coast.
“There is a lifetime of opportunity and inspiration in California,” Eric said.
But who’s to say how long California can contain this native son.
His career is cresting at just the right time.