Adventures of the Oklahoma Kid

Paul Davis, now 76, has spent his career pouring his far-reaching talent into a wide array of different projects, working as a painter, illustrator, and graphic designer
Paul Davis made this whale painting from wood, steel, and acrylics. It will be shown at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller later this summer. Morgan McGivern

When talking with young people, Paul Davis is quick to emphasize that becoming an artist isn’t so much about natural-born talent, but rather, how much you’re willing to apply yourself.

Looking at a handful of childhood drawings one recent morning, Mr. Davis acknowledged how far he’s come since the early stick-figure drawings of his youth. He also hoped to clear up any misconceptions.

“When people want to become artists, they think they have to have some magical quality already inside them,” Mr. Davis said in the living room of his house on Rector Street in Sag Harbor. “What they don’t generally understand is just how much nurturing and care that it takes.”

Never content to work in just one medium, Mr. Davis, now 76, has spent his career pouring his far-reaching talent into a wide array of different projects, working as a painter, illustrator, and graphic designer — often simultaneously.

He has lived in Sag Harbor, which he considers a refuge from the distraction of New York City, for nearly 50 years. “I think I can produce more work here than I can in the city. But it can get distracting here in the summer, too,” he said.

For decades, he has received international acclaim and attention, starting with a solo exhibition in Paris in 1968, a major museum retrospective in Japan, and then the 1977 grand opening of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, to name but a few. Locally, he created the enduring identity for the Hampton Classic Horse Show; his painting and trademark logo has graced the cover of its program for over four decades. In the mid-1990s, Guild Hall also awarded him a lifetime achievement award in visual arts.

More recently, he traveled to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he served as the keynote speaker of “Sarajevo 100,” a festival of posters and multimedia works, which was part of a series of events commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which led to the start of World War I.

For his Sarajevo submission, he never once picked up his paintbrush, relying only on technology. To create the poster, he used Photoshop and pictures of a painted wall in SoHo taken with his iPhone.

Later this summer, a benefit for Artists & Writers at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller in East Hampton will feature a recent whale painting, made of wood, steel, and acrylic paint. And come September, his portrait and cover design will appear on John Lahr’s 794-page interpretive biography of Tennessee Williams.

The flatness of the farmland in Bridgehampton, particularly when it was less developed, reminds him of the wide-open landscape of his childhood in Oklahoma. Born in 1938, Mr. Davis moved with his parents, Howard and Susan Davis, and siblings from small town to small town, following his father’s appointments in various parishes as a Methodist minister.

From ages 4 to 8, he communicated with his father, then stationed in Alaska during World War II, by sending drawings back and forth. Exposed to little formal artwork, he drew what he saw. Faces became an early, and lifelong, obsession.

“ ‘Have you sent any cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post?’ ” Mr. Davis recalled his grandfather prodding him when he was 10 or 11, adding, “ ‘I think you could do a whole lot better than the stuff they’re publishing.’ ”

“It was encouraging, but I didn’t take it totally seriously,” said Mr. Davis, who smiles easily. He wore a lemon yellow button-down shirt and khaki slacks. Circle-shaped wire eyeglasses framed his face, which has grown slimmer with age.

At Will Rogers High School, his art teacher nudged him in a similar direction. Still not taking the faraway possibility of someday becoming a professional artist altogether seriously, he entered his work in an art contest sponsored by Scholastic and won a three-year scholarship to the Cartoonists and Illustrators School on 23rd Street in New York. A year after his arrival in 1955, it was renamed the School of Visual Arts.

Starting at the age of 17, five days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Mr. Davis worked on perspective and figure drawing. “Initially, I really had trouble drawing the thing in front of me. I can see in those drawings the moment I became able to draw what I could see,” said Mr. Davis. “I began to see how it worked. It was an important year.”

In 1956, while he was still in college, Playboy published his first pencil drawing to accompany a short story by Herbert Gold. Shortly thereafter, he stopped going to class, finding a bounty of reliable, paid work as an illustrator.

By 1959, he was at Push Pin Studios, a graphic design and illustration studio, where he met his wife, Myrna. The couple married in 1965 at “the old Tavern on the Green, before it was fancy,” explained Ms. Davis. She has worked closely with Mr. Davis throughout his career and now jokingly refers to herself as his “executive muse.”

 They have one son, Matt Davis, a film editor, artist, and writer. Mr. Davis’s son from a previous marriage, John Davis, a teacher and athletic coach, died six years ago.

After renting a house on North Haven for a summer, the Davises were immediately drawn to Sag Harbor, purchasing their house in 1966. Then, as now, houses moved quickly. “There was an ad and we drove by,” recalled Ms. Davis. “We came back that night and said we’ll take it. We were the only people ever to see it.”

Though artists had flocked to nearby Springs, Sag Harbor held onto its working-class roots. “Sag Harbor was not fashionable. It was a kind of diamond in the rough,” said Ms. Davis. “The houses weren’t at all fixed up.”

In those days, he painted for hours at a stretch, often starting at noon and working well into the night. Growing up in the plains, Mr. Davis had spent a lot of time looking up at the open expanse of sky, where cloud formations changed hourly. They later appeared in his early representational work of American life, his trademark clouds and landscapes becoming widely imitated by other artists.

“You do things a certain way because of your limitations and people begin to see those as your style,” said Mr. Davis, who has always experimented with other styles, materials, and moods. “Picasso said he was not one of those bakers who makes the same little cakes and then turns them out for the rest of their lives,” said Mr. Davis. “It should be more of an adventure.”

He considers 1975 to 1991 to be among his “most productive and most visible” years. During this time, he met Joseph Papp, who founded the New York Shakespeare Festival (now the Public Theater), who commissioned more than 50 theater posters from Mr. Davis — from “Hamlet” to “For Colored Girls . . .” to “Three Penny Opera.” Most contained haunting, evocative images with very few credits. Mr. Papp wanted the posters to convey the experience of the play rather than crowding the art with too much text. During the 1980s, he also asked Mr. Davis to serve as the art director for the Public Theater.

In the late 1980s, he served as the founding art director of two new publications, Normal, a literary and arts magazine that ran for four years, and Wigwag, a general interest monthly magazine. From time to time, to help pay the bills, he took on various other projects — from designing logs and book jackets to working on television commercials and print advertisements.

Most days, Mr. Davis can be found in his studio in Sag Harbor, still painting.

Part of the fun is being unsure of how, exactly, it will all unfold. In examining his own work, he often wonders whether he could again replicate it.

“The emotions that go into the making of it are always expressed at the end somehow,” said Mr. Davis. Unless he’s genuinely enjoying himself, he finds his own work a bit flat. “The joy of making something is evident.” Looking at the work of other artists, he always searches for evidence of struggle, of pleasure.

Mostly, he lends himself over to the unknown.

“As Saul Steinberg once said to me, ‘If I knew exactly what was going to happen when I went to the studio, I wouldn’t bother going there,’ ” said Mr. Davis.