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By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Artist
May 28th, 2019

From Disney to Monroe, Jay Davis has evolved in his artistic journey. Whether he’s creating by hand or wielding his computer skills, Davis believes it’s important to balance the influence of life and imagination.


JAY N. DAVIS was the type of kid who carried a sketchbook with him everywhere. He knew from an early age that he wanted to be an artist, but when he graduated from River Oaks School in Monroe and headed to college, he majored in architecture instead. At the time, he was confident his parents would not support a decision to major in art, so he chose the path of least resistance. Architecture was a choice they could support, and it would allow him to be creative. Plus, it wasn’t too hard to sneak in an art elective every semester.

When Davis graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in architecture from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, he had just completed an internship at Architecture+ in Monroe. Working there was fun, and he was optimistic about a career in architecture. Unfortunately, his first real job at a firm in Dallas was not what he’d dreamed of. Davis found himself designing toilets, which he said was the opposite of fun.

Before diving headlong into a field he wasn’t sure he could love, Davis decided to go back to school to study computer graphics at Texas A&M University. Afterward, he was immediately hired by Disney where he enjoyed working in animation for 13 years. For his first assignment at Disney, he was as an assistant animator for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He also worked on Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Dinosaur, and other films, but his favorite was Meet the Robinsons. For this film, he was the supervising animator for Doris, the evil hat.

In 2007, Davis left Disney and moved to London where he worked on Hellboy II: The Golden Army and was responsible for animating the Golden Army robots. Seeing the art department’s work on this film inspired him to start painting. Soon after finishing his work on Hellboy II, Davis moved back to the states and lived in Los Angeles where he found a supportive community of artists. “They were such good people and friendly,” he said. They willingly offered help and advice when he needed it. In fact, Davis received some of the best art-related advice he’s ever gotten from an artist he met in an improv acting group there. Actor and artist Jeffrey Bowers, who learned painting from his dad, told Davis, “Just be kind to yourself. Don’t be critical. Say ‘yes’ to the things you’re putting on the canvas.”

As a perfectionist, Davis found this advice really helpful. “If you’re too critical, you can be paralyzed,” he said. Another important lesson he’s learned through art is to trust that the end result will be okay. Sometimes the middle stages of a project can be messy and discouraging, but most of the time, Davis said, “If it’s a good idea, you’re just not there yet.” Planning well and having a goal in mind also helps. These lessons have given Davis the perseverance to finish even the most intimidating projects.

While living in L.A. and honing his oil painting skills, Davis developed a relationship with Hyaena Gallery in Burbank. Hyaena carries dark, low-brow, underground, and outsider art—the kind of art Davis is drawn to and likes to collect. His own early work, which he described as “dark, erotic, surrealism,” fit their aesthetic and helped him secure his first exhibition. Through Hyaena, Davis made his first sale, a painting called “Devil at the Crossroads,” to a collector from New York.

Although his work has changed quite a bit since moving back to Louisiana, he’s still drawn to the darker side of art and life. “I like things to have a little darkness and mystery,” he said. “I like things that are beautiful but also a little terrifying.” There has to be a certain edginess and uniqueness to keep him interested. Since moving back in 2016, Davis’s work has grown more realistic, and he’s been especially inspired by Louisiana’s plants and animals. In fact, in December 2018, Arender Studio featured an exhibition of Davis’s work consisting solely of magnolias in various lights and stages of bloom.

Although Davis grew up around magnolias, several years away allowed him to see them with fresh eyes. “You move away, and you forget how cool they are,” he said. “There’s something nostalgic about them too.” The unique smell still brings back memories of throwing the seed pods at each other as a kid.

Now, as an adult, Davis enjoys the sights and smells of Louisiana while walking his dog Johnson around area parks, and he always carries a camera to capture the magnolias, mushrooms, flowers, and other things he finds interesting. “When I see something in nature that’s exciting,” he said, “there’s usually a pattern.” He’s captured fern fronds unfurling, millipedes curled under logs, mushrooms lodged step-style on tree trunks, and thousands of magnolia blooms. Another flower he’s found interesting enough to render in art is the spider lily with its downward arc of petals and its upward arc of stamens. “They’re so weird and intricate,” he said.

Even in his earlier, darker work, spirals were a prominent feature. Since his college days, he’s loved fractals, Fibonacci spirals, and the Golden Mean. For this reason, he also enjoys spirals in nature and in other artists’ work. For example, he’s a fan of filmmaker and animator Tim Burton’s work and local artist Doug Kennedy’s Mojo paintings. Given his long-standing interest in spiral geometry, it’s not surprising that the crisscrossing and spiraling patterns on the seed pods of magnolias have featured prominently in his magnolia series. His attention to detail in this series is evident in the carefully formed spirals on each tiny stamen. He attributes this level of precision partly to a botanical illustration course he took while living briefly in Austin, Texas. But precision has been important to much of his work—not only in the realm of fine art, but also in drafting, designing, illustration, and animation.

“If it’s not perfect, I’m not gonna show it,” Davis said. He has high standards for what he makes and what he likes. “There’s a bar it’s gotta rise to,” he said. At the same time, he admitted there are times when looseness is called for, rather than precision. According to Davis, “perfection is whatever the piece of art needs.” With regard to his creative process, making something perfect requires multiple steps that start with planning and sketching. In the beginning, he converts an idea to a thumbnail sketch, but he also compares the work to one or more references, and takes care to ensure the elements of composition and design are working. Getting the darks and lights right is key, which is why Davis sometimes uses indirect painting. It’s important to him that the work looks good from across the room as well as up close, and the darks and lights have a powerful effect on how a piece looks from a distance.

For Davis, another key to creating successful pieces is using his imagination. While the early work Davis created in L.A. was driven largely by imagination, his more recent work here in Louisiana has been driven largely by photographic reference. But he wants to express his personal, artistic voice more, and as a result, he’s started working more from imagination again in preparation for his next exhibition at the Levee Gallery in August. “I need to make sure there’s enough weirdness in it to keep me happy,” he said.

In addition to creating work with a dose of weirdness, Davis has been known to sneak hidden elements into his work just as he snuck art classes past his parents in college. He’s a bit of a prankster, and seeing what he can get past the viewer is fun. It’s something he’s done off and on since college. At LSU, he created a t-shirt design that was voted on by the student chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The design, which contained 28 hidden images, won the competition and was printed before anyone noticed. At that point, Davis said some people were pretty upset. “It was juvenile,” he said, “but it still tickles me.”

On several other occasions early in Davis’s career, attempts were made to censor works he created that involved nudity. In his first job as an architect in Dallas, Davis created a t-shirt design that featured nudes floating in the air. Although the firm as a whole rejected the design, one “maverick partner,” as Davis called him, fronted the money to have the design printed anyway. In another similar incident, administration at Texas A&M tried to stop printing on a another student-voted t-shirt design, but Davis had already collected the money, so he obscured the Texas A&M logo and printed the shirts anyway.

Davis definitely has a history of creating controversial work, but someone has always loved and supported what he’s doing. In fact, he said times have even changed at Texas A&M where his infamous t-shirt design now lives on in the form of a trophy awarded during the annual Immersive Visualization Competition. Of course, he admitted that having a former roommate who is now head of the department may have had something to do with the change of heart, but Davis isn’t aware of any complaints about the awards.

Although he likes to test the limits of what’s culturally acceptable at times, he said he hasn’t hidden any surprises in his recent work and finds other ways to mix things up. In addition to drawing and painting by hand these days, Davis still uses his animation skills. His most recent gig was for the video game State of Decay 2, an open-world zombie survival game. His experience with Disney and his work on Hellboy II, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Huntsman: Winter’s War have also equipped him with the skills needed to teach animation, which he does online through Animation Mentor.

According to Davis, there are more similarities in 2-dimensional art and animation than we might imagine. “You have to be a pretty good traditional drawer to be an animator,” he said. “It’s easy to forget that drawing is important, but it’s super important.” In fact, Davis frequently uses 2-D drawing on a tablet to make his 3-D animation better. “It’s more immediate,” he said. While studying computer-generated animation in school, Davis’s drawing skills gave him an advantage. He already had a strong foundation in drawing, so the hardest part was learning the computer software.

Davis defines animation as the presentation of drawings over time. The movement, speed, arcs, and flow add another dimension—another layer of art. But the two go hand in hand. Whether he’s creating by hand or wielding his computer skills, Davis believes it’s important to balance the influence of life and imagination. This is a balance he continually aims to strike. Although he admits he hasn’t figured everything out yet, he said a good massage usually helps.

Davis defines animation as the presentation of drawings over time. The movement, speed, arcs, and flow add another dimension—another layer of art. But the two go hand in hand. Whether he’s creating by hand or wielding his computer skills, Davis believes it’s important to balance the influence of life and imagination. This is a balance he continually aims to strike. Although he admits he hasn’t figured everything out yet, he said a good massage usually helps.