Since he arrived in New York from Oklahoma in 1955 at the age of 17, Paul Davis’s ambition has been to make exciting graphic images, a task at which he is considered to be a master. Although his portraits and landscapes have illustrated everything from books to restaurant walls, it is for his theater-related images that Davis is most famous. The theater, with its allegiance to energy and ideas, gave free reign to Davis’s sense of humor, his critical intelligence, and his daring.
His landscapes are a hedge against loss. Davis, who was born in Centrahoma, Oklahoma, has a powerful feeling for the change in the landscape over his lifetime. “I’ve always had this thing about the vanishing West,” he says. “I wanted to erase a lot of what was happening.” Davis moved eight times in his first 11 years. “I kept losing my environment, having to start over each time,” Davis says. Drawing became his way of making a reality he could hold on to.
“I read The Saturday Evening Post and the women’s magazines and it seemed to me that those artists – Norman Rockwell, Stevan Dohanos, Jon Whitcomb, Al Buell, Coby Whitmore – were better than anything else.” By the time he was 15, Davis had decided on a career as a magazine illustrator. “The illustrators that interested me were those who cared more about painting, people like Fletcher Martin and Ben Stahl and Ben Shahn. There was something about them that was a lot more individual. I could see that it wasn’t mainstream. I thought, well, there’s a place for me.”
Each year Scholastic Magazine awarded 150 art school scholarships; in 1955, Davis was one of the recipients. His chose the School of Visual Arts in New York, which was still called the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. “It wasn’t very well known, but I had read about it in a comic book,” Davis said.
“It was hard work to come to New York to stay,” Davis says. “But I was fascinated by it all.” There followed a first marriage in 1959 to aspiring actress-singer Elise Hepburn, which produced his son John. In his third year of school, Davis had already sold a drawing to Playboy. By the time Davis joined forces with Joe Papp and the Public Theater in 1975 he had already built up more than a decade’s worth of magazine and book illustrations. In 1959, he became an assistant at Push Pin Studios. In 1963, Davis went solo. He also married, in 1965, former Push Pin colleague Myrna Mushkin, and their son Matthew was born in 1967.
To my eyes, Davis’s work said both excellence and entertainment. So, when I met him in the mid-eighties, I asked if he’d design some book jackets: for the diaries of the playwright Joe Orton, which I was editing, and for two early novels which were being reprinted. What began with a handshake is a collaboration that has lasted 20 years and has produced 11 book jackets and more than 40 illustrations at The New Yorker, where I have been the senior theater critic since 1992. Not long ago, Davis was talking to his sister, who had taken up painting. The trouble, she said, is that every time she paints a picture she’s so happy with it that it’s weeks before she paints another. “God, I wish I could feel that way,” he said. He extricated three Picasso-inspired studies of his wife. “Myrna remarked that as time goes by my portraits of her are getting more affectionate. I just go where they’re leading me. I just let them go where they’re going. I really enjoy that,” he said.
Excerpted from the essay for “Paul Davis: Show People,” Edizione Nuages, 2005.