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In His 'Murder Ballad' Series, Painter Julyan Davis Evokes Plaintive Music Of The South

Matt Peiken | BPR News

Julyan Davis is a British native who moved to the American southeast 30 years ago on a hunch, that he would find the paintings he wanted to make in the people of these hills and hollers.

“Where I grew up, it’s very manicured. I was always sort of drawn to a more gritty landscape, and the South particularly interested me,” Davis said. “The south has a great tradition of photography, but in painting, there wasn’t really that, so I felt my work filled a niche. It was sort of discovering the beauty and melancholy of places that were generally falling down. It was the vanishing South, really.”

Davis is prolific. Stacks of his large-scale paintings fill his expansive corner studio in a vast Woodfin warehouse. There’s a body of scenic landscapes set in the scenery here -- those, galleries are happy to show and sell. Then there are the paintings with people in them -- the homage to Edward Hopper so apparent in the expressions, gestures and surroundings and bleak color pallet that combine to tell a story.

Davis calls one ongoing series his Murder Ballad Paintings, inspired by old, plaintive music and lyrics of the South. In his studio, Davis is hosting a Sept. 24 performance of the Brooklyn musical duo Charming Disaster, with his Murder Ballad Paintings as the backdrop. Mars Hill University’s Weizenblatt Gallery is exhibiting those paintings Sept. 25 through Oct. 18. A performance to accompany that exhibition is Oct. 8. 

“I would just come up with a painting, almost like a location scout for the movies. I’d find these evocative locations, set a scene and go looking through these ballads and find a line in a song that would connect to that painting,” Davis said. “I’m seeking a mood, a kind of fatalism, really. Obviously they’re paintings, but to me it’s much more a poetic response, continuing the poetry that belongs to the ballads, but only in a visual form.”

Credit Julyan Davis
"They’re paintings, but to me it’s much more a poetic response, continuing the poetry that belongs to the ballads, but only in a visual form.” -- Julyan Davis about his Murder Ballad paintings.

Davis lived in Alabama and Georgia before moving to Asheville in 2001. He wanted to explore the mountains, connect Appalachian music to his heritage and bring them to life on canvas. He found ballads such as “The Banks of the Ohio,” “Young Hunting,” and “The Cruel Sister,” many from the Scottish borders of the 16th and 17th centuries, most of the composers unknown but preserved by Joe Penland, Sheila Kay Adams and other storyteller musicians of Madison County.

While the imagery in these paintings evokes a bygone century of the Appalchias, look closely and you’ll see hints of their deliberately contemporary setting -- a rundown car, a plastic mail container, graffiti. 

“They’ve moved more away from specific songs and more towards a kind of painting that will evoke the mood I seek in the viewer, so they’re becoming more and more mysterious,” he said. “The drama that lies behind the Murder Ballads or the paintings of the Civil War is the fuel that makes a picture compelling. People can feel it. As a painter, I have to just pick a single moment, that moment of reflection after an incident.”

The Greenville Museum of Art exhibited Davis’ Murder Ballad Paintings in 2012, but shows for that series have since been few and far between. Davis hasn’t made things easier for himself, choosing to keep and add to these works rather sell them piecemeal.

"As a painter, I have to just pick a single moment, that moment of reflection after an incident.” -- Julyan Davis.
Credit Julyan Davis

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“I suppose I’m a bit hoarder of this work that’s sort of personal to me,” Davis said. “It’s just to keep building the show, so it becomes larger and larger. That allows me to evolve as and when I need to.”

Davis is collaborating with the poet Glenis Redmond on a new series of paintings evoking the Catholic Stations of the Cross. He’s also looking for an agent to shop a comic novel he’s authored, titled “A History of Saints.”

“If it’s a novel or story about ideas, I would certainly lean toward writing. And if it’s a matter of mood, I’d lean more towards painting,” Davis said. “I have an awful lot of ideas. I just pay attention to the ones that keep coming back.”

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.
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