With his eyesight worsening, painter Julyan Davis broadens his creative focus to literature

Nov 23, 2021

Julyan Davis in his painting studio, alongside recent paintings with a religious motif.
Credit Matt Peiken | BPR News

Julyan Davis has evolved into a novelist in part through stubbornness but, as he sees it, also by necessity. Davis is far from blind, but degenerating eyesight has prompted visits over the past decade to ophthalmologists.

“An ophthalmologist some years ago, I guess he skipped the semester on diplomacy, but he said ‘What do you do for a living?’ I said I’m an artist, and he said ‘Oh that’s a shame.’” Davis recalled. “I said ‘What do you mean?’ and he said ‘Just down the road, it might be a problem with your eyes.’ So that kind of inspired me to focus on the writing, sort of as a backup career.”

Davis has earned his living and public profile over nearly 30 years in Asheville as a painter. His first published novel is titled “A History of Saints.” Davis is reading from his book Dec. 1 at Blue Spiral Gallery in Asheville, where he has presented his paintings for many years.

“There’s a tradition of very short-sighted writers, people like James Thurber,” he said. “He’s one of my favorite comedic writers. He was basically legally blind.”

Davis has written a quirky, absurdist comedy set in Asheville’s Montford Park. Davis arrived at this novel after years of writing poetry, short stories, a stage play, a screenplay—some of it finished, little of it seen by anyone.

The novel had its own starts and stops. It was born in the wake of the 2008 recession, when Davis rented out rooms in his house.

“I had a number of entertainingly eccentric tenants and my next-door neighbor similarly had such types,” Davis said. “There were two in particular that I thought would be quite remarkable to have together in one house and to see what would happen.”

These character archetypes inspired Davis to indulge a comedic voice. That’s rare in literature from this region, which tends toward the serious and dramatic. It’s even rarer in Davis’ vast portfolio of painting. Whether from his series of Murder Ballad paintings or his scenes from the American West, Davis bathes his landscapes in muted colors and focuses on subdued people eliciting discontent and despair.

Davis said he studied and channeled the voices of writers such as P.G. Wodehouse and Stephen Fry for his own novel’s narrator, an omniscient, 19th century British eye on modern-day Asheville.

“This is a sort of new age town and there’s not really a strong correlation between humor and new-age thinking, so I looked outside of Asheville,” Davis said. “The recession was hard for everybody and I am a great believer in comedy as a way to get through difficult things.”

A few years ago, Davis brought his novel to a flash-dating event with agents, organized by Asheville’s Flatiron Writers Room. After rejections there, he figured his novel would likely never find a publisher. That changed with a chance meeting at an art event, when Davis got into a conversation with a publisher at a small press.

“That’s the nice thing about having two creative outlets. They sort of balance each other.” he said.

Davis received hopeful news recently, that cataract surgery could improve his sight. In the meantime, he spends his mornings working on his next novel, then heads to his painting studio, where he’s in the midst of a new series with a religious motif.

“I do not want to paint paintings to where I feel they’re not to my own satisfaction,” he said. “The writing would provide that ability to keep being an artist and, for me, that’s what an artist is, it’s a person who has to keep grabbing the world by its lapel and saying ‘Look at this.’ It’s very important for me to have a voice and, if it happens that writing becomes that, that would be a great backup plan.”