Jack Davis, 1940-2007

Pub date October 9, 2007
WriterJohn Law

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Jack Davis was a relentless and often unheralded advocate for underfunded, outflanked, and ignored artists, community groups, social movements, and others shunted aside by mainstream venues and the art establishment.

Davis died Sept. 23 at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia from injuries sustained in a car accident. He was born Nov. 16, 1940, in Phoenix, Ariz., and came to California to attend the University of Santa Clara and San Francisco State University in the late 1950s and ’60s. He studied theater arts in Northern California, then was one of the directors and founding actors of the South Coast Repertory in Orange County. He married Judith Watson and returned to San Francisco in 1968.

Well known in the underground art world that he helped pioneer, Davis was a pivotal figure in the growth and public awareness of hundreds of uniquely San Francisco creative projects. For nearly 20 years he was director of the SomArts Cultural Center, which provides classrooms and work space for community-based programs and theater and gallery access to nascent and established artists.

But his contributions went far beyond SomArts. He and Rene Yáñez helped found CELLspace, a unique community and cultural center in the Mission. Davis was an early supporter of Burning Man and hosted its parties, meetings, and large-scale events at SomArts. He also provided technical support and counsel for the Day of the Dead and other San Francisco street events.

Under his leadership SomArts hosted myriad edgy and unconventional troupes and shows. Davis hosted early events by Survival Research Laboratories, which essentially created the machine-and-fire art scene that is now renowned around the world. Davis would often need to run interference with the Fire Department and other authorities who were concerned about the SRL’s seemingly dangerous experimentation.

Davis assisted in the evolution of that scene at every step, recently providing support services so the Flaming Lotus Girls could bring their massive Serpent Mother project to the "Robodock" festival in Amsterdam last month. Other SomArts projects Davis facilitated include the offbeat Naughty Santa’s Black Market, the Queer Arts Festival, Balinese shadow theater, DadaFest, the SF Electronic Music Festival, and the SF Indie Fest.

Davis also helped win national recognition for the alt-art movement by working with Eric Val Reuther, a panelist for and consultant to the National Endowment for the Arts, to bring many worthwhile (and underfunded) groups to the attention of the NEA. Davis also cofounded the Neighborhood Arts Program National Organizing Committee and helped set up its West Coast office in San Francisco.

Among the community-based groups Davis helped establish were the Bayview Opera House, the Native American Cultural Center, the Mission Cultural Center, and the Western Addition Cultural Center. He helped create a theater at Lone Mountain College, was director of Intersection for the Arts, and organized the San Francisco Blues Festival with Tom Mazzolini. In the summer Davis and his son Hayden and their friend Ernie Rivera built stages and performance areas for street fairs and other events.

As director of Intersection for the Arts, Davis hosted many unknown performers who went on to acclaim in the larger world of theater, including Diane di Prima, Whoopi Goldberg, Bob Carroll, Ntozake Shange, Bill Irwin, Paul Dresher, and Rinde Eckert. Other groups Davis supported include the SF Mime Troupe, the Farm, the Pickle Family Circus, Make a Circus, and Dance Mission. Davis and George Coates were cofounders in the 1980s of the San Francisco International Theater Festival, which brought the early work of Spaulding Grey and others to the public’s attention.

"Jack was unflappable — nothing threw him," Coates once told me.

Davis lived on a houseboat — one of three he built over the years — with his daughter, Sarah, and his son-in-law, Shawn Lytle, in Mission Creek in San Francisco’s China Basin. As the longtime president of the Mission Creek Harbor Association, Davis fought developers and bureaucrats in a never-ending battle for the right of an organic, human-scale community to simply exist in this city. Many a weekend afternoon Davis could be found tinkering away on his or perhaps one of his neighbors’ boats. Due in great part to Davis’s efforts, Mission Creek remains one of San Francisco’s garden spots, even while surrounded by new development.

Davis was seen as a Buddha-like figure in the often-fractious world of community arts and politics. He was a bear of a man who exuded a preternatural calm. Composer, producer, and photographer Doug McKechnie noted once after a particularly rough MCHA meeting, "I was in awe of his ability to get things done with such grace, style, and simplicity. He could come into a crowd of bickering people, and they listened."

Davis was also instrumental in rejuvenating the Bay View Boat Club. "One day in 1984, Jack called me up and said, ‘Meet me at the Bay View Boat Club,’>" McKechnie said. "He showed me around the place and said, ‘I think this place has tremendous potential. Let’s join and see what we can do.’ Jack talked the club into having a special, one-year membership drive that allowed people who didn’t have a boat to join. We called everyone we knew, and before you could say ‘Bottle of beer’ the club had 200 new members, all of whom eventually got boats. Jack was elected commodore two years later and set the model for what is still one of the most astonishing, real, funky places in the world."

Davis is survived by his wife, Noriko Tanaka; ex-wife, Judith Davis; daughter, Sarah Coseby Davis; son-in-law, Shawn Lytle; son Arthur Fumiko Davis; daughter-in-law, Tesa Davis; grandchildren, Jordan Alexander Davis, Jacquelyn Rae Davis, and Olivia Davis Lytle; brother, Bill Davis; sister, Lynn Davis; and cousins, Patty Costello, Martha de la Cruz, and Amy de la Cruz. Jack’s mother, Jean Davis Mueller, age 94, resides in Scottsdale, Ariz. His son Hayden Carlos Davis died in 1999.

A celebration of Jack Davis’s life will be held Nov. 18 at the SomArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan, SF, from 3 to 8 p.m. The family is establishing a scholarship fund for Arthur Davis. For information visit www.somarts.org.

Jack Davis will be deeply missed by all who were touched by his calm, generosity, and soothing presence over his 40-year involvement in Bay Area arts. 2

Mike Noland and Charlie Gadeken contributed to this report.