Willis 'Bing' Davis 

The Indianapolis Museum of Art has more of a celebratory feel these days. Exhibit one: the new Star Studio, one of the institution’s concerted efforts to reach out and touch with art. This particular gallery has a mission “To engage visitors of all ages in the world of art by offering direct access to working artists, in the spirit of experimentation and fun.” In short, it’s a hands-on space, pairing a gallery exhibition with artmaking activities.

The current offering brings in an artist well-suited to such an intention. Willis “Bing” Davis, who has Indiana connections, having attended DePauw University in Green Castle, is an African-American artist living in Dayton, Ohio. Davis makes art that engages collectors worldwide, including known personages such as Bill Cosby and the elder Bush. What makes Davis’ work appealing to the likes of well-known Republicans as well as, say, Nelson Mandela? It may be the fact that Davis’ work is universally accessible — we all have ancestors — while being visually complex. His ceramics are earth-toned collages of clay with names like “Ancestral Spirit Bottle” and “Ancestral Libation Vessel.” His mixed-media drawings on stark black paper are colorfully patterned images that are also inspired by Davis’ African roots. But his “Anti-Police Brutality” masks reflect a more pointed commentary, and they’re perhaps the most aesthetically lovely of all.

Selections from these series, plus one central installation, comprise the smallish exhibition, which is accompanied by a brief film. As far as the participation part, certainly this doesn’t mean “touch the art” (the ceramic pieces are encased in glass), but rather, look at the art, and then go make something yourself in the next room, where trays of beads and mask-making materials await. For families especially, this is a fine activity; let’s hope connections are encouraged between the artmaking and the art that is intended to inspire it.

On the Shoulders of Ancestors: Willis “Bing” Davis continues at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road, through July 2. Call 317-920-2650 or visit www.ima-art.org for information.

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