WILMINGTON — “Some people say the eyes are the window to the soul,” local artist Greyson Davis said. “Blah blah blah blah blah. The smile is where it’s at.”
An art teacher at GLOW Academy, Davis — a.k.a. Haji Pajamas, Haji P., HP Fangs or Happyfangs — is hoping to multiply grins of young artists in town. He has a new studio space in Designworx, which houses around a dozen artists and makers. Do Art is officially launching Saturday on 16th Street, located in The Cargo District.
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Its name derives from Davis’ answer to everything: “Bored? Do art! Broke? Do art! Brain fart? Do art!” he said.
He already has signed up seven kids — the youngest 7, the eldest 17 — and it’s only week one of being in his 200-square-foot shipping container.
A few months ago, Designworx was hosting a contest for four months of free studio space in the warehouse (which 20 years ago also used to be an open studio space for artists, before “coworking” had become a part of the entrepreneur lexicon). Followers on Instagram had to tag the name of a local maker they wanted to see join the dozen or so artists filling the space. The top five then went on to pitch their ideas to the Designworx team.
Davis said he envisioned a place that strengthened young artists’ skills and gave them the opportunity to explore the business side of being an artist — something he didn’t learn until later in his career.
“So much goes into it,” Davis said. “How to use their skills in a way that opens up tangible opportunities, giving them a place to display and sell their art, so that they can build confidence in their abilities and gain early experience of exposure.”
Davis has plenty of knowledge to pass on. Over the last decade, he has hosted multiple art shows, illustrated a children’s book, and collaborated on comics. He has public works on display in the community: Black Lives Do Matter in Jervay Freedom Park and billboards saying “SMILE,” accompanied by a toothy happy face.
As a child, Davis first picked up a marker — he uses acrylic paint pens as well — and began penning his signature cartoon style. He said kids always made fun of his “teeth being bigger than his head,” but he decided to lean into it rather than be offended by it. Today, those smiles — sometimes bespeckled with golden teeth — are integral to his creative output.
“It became my thing,” Davis said. “I want to encourage kids that their insecurities can become their superpowers. That what makes them different is their human art.”
As an adult, Davis worked in foster care and would use art as therapy to overcome personal mental health issues. It also created his platform of happy escape. He said he didn’t even consider pursuing it as a career until he was approached about teaching at the all-gender charter school, GLOW Academy, in 2017.
“I loved what I did in foster care,” he said, “but it’s a whole different thing when you get to make a career out of something you loved doing as a kid. I just want a fun space to create, look at and participate in art.”
The studio can host three students at a time.
One wall is aligned with Davis’ works — pop art featuring a school of colorful funky fish, a sudsy beer with “X” eyes, and a caterpillar with the phrase “Stay Hungry.” Street art is also apparent with graffitied paintings or phrases that look “tagged” including one that says “School House Shot.”
The latter he finished a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting. It’s designed in homage to the famous ‘70s and ‘80s cartoon “Schoolhouse Rocks.”
“I was real dicey on whether to hang it or not,” Davis admitted. “But as a teacher, I had to do it.”
The words are yellow and the black shading in the “O” represents bullet holes, he explained. A closer look reveals blood splatter and one of the letters represent a victim who survived.
“I was thinking about the one girl who pretended to be dead in Texas and she covered herself in another student’s blood to be safe — that’s what the ‘H’ is,” he said.
However, Davis refuses to believe his work is political. He is a part of Eighteen Forward, the group behind the art installation “Black Lives Do Matter,” which caused plenty of controversy in 2020 when it went before council to get erected and again in 2021 when they voted to keep it another year.
“I’m black and I’m a teacher,” Davis said. “I see these concerns as human.”
It’s not obvious when first looking at his work, but Davis’ depth goes beyond happy smiles. His subjects can be expressionless or riddled with “anxiety eyes” yet convey happiness nonetheless with their punch of color and upbeat vibrancy.
Davis said his students don’t have to be into cartoons, pop art or comic books to learn from him. He wants to help find their own niche. As a teacher, he assesses children’s interests first, honing in on their strengths and voices, and then explores mediums they prefer. Each lesson is hand-tailored to each child.
Do Art will host exhibits at the end of every month. Already, students’ creations can be seen peppering the shipping container’s outside perimeter in the main corridor of Designworx. Another wall inside his studio is also covered in student art and notes they’ve written to him.
One reads: “Mr. G, thank you for being kind to me! And thank you for caring! Love you – Piper.”
“I want it to look like your mom’s refrigerator,” he said of his studio. “Mom hangs up all the best work — work that is unrefined, absolutely pure and natural.”
Students who take classes from Davis and participate in art shows will be able to keep all proceeds from the sales. The teaching artist said his goal is to impart the importance of value.
“I want to show them the factors to take into account when pricing their work: the time, materials, talent, effort,” he said.
He said one of his students has sold a piece for $600.
He already has scheduled an exhibit for August to feature work from his art club students — pupils he began teaching in 6th grade, who are now becoming seniors at GLOW.
“They were the first members in my afterschool art club,” Davis said. “As time went by, it became less about drawing together and more about developing working artists.”
Under Davis’ tutelage, young artists have gone on to mentor other students, organized arts activities for families, as well as worked by Davis’ side on the Black Lives Do Matter mural installation. They also volunteered to help hang “State of the Art/Art of the State” at the Cameron Art Museum, in which Davis submitted a piece of art himself.
“Originally, I was like, ‘OK, I am going to show my technical skills as an artist, so people believe I’m actually a real artist,’” Davis said.
But as he began sussing out his museum debut, Davis said he was “bored to tears” trying to do serious figurative works. He leaned back into his pop-art sensibilities instead.
“I walked in with my painting and the curator was like, ‘Oh, my God. Is that a butt?’” Davis recalled.
As part of “State of the Art,” 700-plus artists could have their works assessed by one of three nationwide curators. Davis sat in with Dr. Maia Nuku from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, who said she was impressed Davis drew, in only 22 lines, a butt with a plume of air coming from it.
“I didn’t even realize that,” he said. “And my favorite number is 22.”
Nuku took selfies with Davis and his work to send to her children. Davis said the best feedback came from her apparent sheer delight when viewing it.
“She told me she runs into all these artists and doesn’t feel like anybody enjoys their work,” Davis recalled, “but told me, ‘You enjoy your art, that’s what’s most important.’”
Davis said his motto is producing fun art over fine art. It’s about bringing vivacity and exuberance to creation.
“Maturity levels are on super low and weirdo levels are turned all the way up high,” he said. “It’s pretty obnoxious, actually.”
A grand opening of Do Art will be held Saturday, June 25, 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. Art will be for sale and interested parties can learn about the program Davis is teaching to youth. Some of his students have also done paintings to be auctioned off at the grand opening.
All proceeds from this weekend will go back to funding the space; Davis’ first month of rent officially begins in September (the contest secured four months of free access). An important goal to launching the space, Davis said, is to find a way to also implement classes for marginalized families who face financial hardships.
“People are welcome to come in, kick it, look at art, or talk about their favorite Whitney Houston songs all day,” Davis said. “I’ll be available for meet and greets, high fives, juggling pigeons, all types of fun stuff!”
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