Mr. Davis explained to an enthralled audience that he did not much care for writing, preferring to illustrate scripts and ideas that others, particularly the great Harvey Kurtzman, brought to him. He was present for the opening of the exhibit, which is curated by my old friend, the excellent cartoonist Patrick Dean, one week ago. At 88 and a little hard of hearing, Davis has lost a spring or two in his step, but he's the epitome of the southern gentleman, absolutely gracious and kind and free in his compliments to the many creators with whom he has worked over the years.
The exhibit is entitled "Beyond the Bulldog" in part because, in Athens, Davis is probably better known for all of his iconic paintings and illustrations of UGA's Hairy Dawg - many hundreds of 'em - than he is for his movie posters, Time or TV Guide covers. Now, Patrick gave a very good speech before the large crowd at the Georgia Museum of Art, and one of his points got me thinking. He noted that Davis gave more character to Hairy Dawg than just about any other mascot in sports, and that's certainly true. You know more about Hairy's "personality" - such as it is - from any two drawings of the big bulldog than any representations of other college's little stars. But that got me thinking that one of the real signs of genius to Davis is that he gave character and life to everybody else's mascots as well. Sure, they're almost always twisted and mangled and crushed underneath Hairy's huge, mud-covered cleats, but if you want to know who Vanderbilt's Wacky Mr. Commodore is - I have no idea what the character's really called; we just named him that after suffering through that school's sub-minor league baseball pregame shenanigans one warm October evening in Nashville - he's present in Davis's drawings of him, and not from anything that Vanderbilt University has ever commissioned. I don't know whether it even ever occurred to Davis that he was defining Florida's gator as an overweight blob with halitosis as he drew Hairy stepping on him, but for untold thousands of UGA faithful, that's all that gator is. Now that's genius.
The day before, UGA had treated its fans to a predictably poor first quarter against Ole Miss before we woke up and remembered that we were meant to win the game. It was a big win, and a great second half, but the scare wasn't appreciated in the Davis household. "They shouldn't do that to an old man," he said with a smile.
Well, okay, I've possibly undermined the intent of the exhibit by talking so much about Hairy Dawg here, but when you look at the mud on the soldiers' boots in original Frontline Combat pages, or see those incredibly detailed mobs of people that he draws like nobody else, you'll see all this incredible work coming from the same perspective. Whatever he draws, be it a mascot, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, Gerald Ford, or Alfred E. Neuman, it's inspiring and amazing.
This exhibit is appearing at the Georgia Museum of Art, on the campus of the University of Georgia, through January 6. Admission is free, although a small donation is requested. Copies of Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture are available in the museum gift shop.
(And, of course, while you're in Athens, you'll need something to eat! Stop by our food blog to get some recommendations about good meals in the Classic City.)