FLINT, Michigan—This is all the work of one man, Stefan Davidek.
To add another piece of art to the collection contained in the 2,400 square feet of this exhibit would require a figurative shoe horn, putting viewers on their knees to see the works fitted in the few inches of space along the floor.
As it is, this retrospective is wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling. It chronicles the work of a talented native son, a Flintstone of the art world. Born in Flint in 1924, Davidek began taking art classes at age 7 or 8. His aunt Mary would take the boy by streetcar to a studio in the upstairs space over Reo Samon’s garage attached to the Samon Building where the Flint Institute of Art was housed in the early 1930s. “It was magic,” he would later tell an interviewer. One could say it began there, a passion of drawing, painting, and silkscreen. Davidek raised his family by painting, though in his case it was in producing decorative painting on interior walls in homes, churches, and area businesses. That was the continuation of a heritage that began generations ago in the Davidek family in Europe and one that continues to this day with family members carrying on the business.
Much of what the viewer will see in this exhibition at Buckham Gallery in Flint is work Davidek would sit down to in the evenings after a day applying paint to walls. Before now, some of it may never have been seen except by the eyes of the family, still wet on the easel. Some pieces have been rescued from storage in various locations, a barn and even the trash, the canvas now stretched over a frame to become part of this revelation of his life’s work.
The exhibit comes less than a year after Davidek’s death on Dec. 14, 2016. It is a tribute and remembrance of the prominent artist who won the Founder’s Award from the Detroit Institute of Arts, taught at both the Flint Institute of Arts and Wayne State University, and created murals throughout Genesee County.
Davidek was born and raised in Flint in the area along Industrial Avenue across from Buick City. His upbringing influenced his work and can be recognized in several drawings here. At age 15, Davidek won a scholarship, the result, he believes because his subjects were reflected from his childhood, the factories of Flint rather than re-inventions of classical paintings. “I wasn’t trying to copy calendar art or old master paintings. I remember doing drawings of the Buick factory and Industrial Avenue and the coney island corner in downtown Flint. I was interested in making drawings of what I saw,” he said in a video interview produced by John Kotarski in 1990.
As a child, his parents drove the family to Mexico where they met world-famous painter Diego Rivera. The three-week trip influenced Davidek greatly, creating works reminiscent of Rivera’s frescos that adorn the walls of the Detroit Institute of Art. Davidek witnessed Rivera painting the frescos at the DIA. His early pieces exhibit talent well beyond normal for his teenage years.
Michael Melet, owner of the former Vogue Stores in Flint and a member of the board of directors at Buckham was stunned at the Davidek exhibit. “He’s a man that not only did different mediums but did them so well. There’s no weakness hanging in that gallery,” says Melet. “I’m not sure I can think of anybody with the broad stroke and talent that Stefan had. I not sure that anybody knew until they walked into that retrospective that he did so many different things.”
Buckham Gallery director Lynn Penning agrees. “It’s very rare to see an exhibit that shows the breadth and scope of his work. I’ve never been to an exhibit that had such a range from his youth to his final years that he created art.” Penning is impressed with Davidek’s early work. “His drawing skills were phenomenal at a young age and I think his drawing skills were foundational to everything he created.”
“I always referred to him as the godfather of Flint art,” says painter John Dempsey, a retired associate professor of art at Mott Community College. “He was not only a good artist but an educated one,” says Dempsey of the artist schooled at Cranbrook Academy of Art and the Art Students League in New York, both renowned and elite art institutes. Dempsey rates the calibre of Davidek’s work as being an “11” on a scale of 1 to 10. Dempsey is also particularly impressed with Davidek’s early drawings and sees Davidek’s work as being a career that unfolded over time. “It shows the dynamic of his work. It shows that he was constantly changing and questioning and improving,” he says. “His work shows that he was thinking about a lot and responding to a lot with his work. His work is of the moment, but it’s history too. It’s not just artwork but it’s historical as well. It brings a lot of context of the time it was created. It makes the work richer,” says Dempsey.
Patrons to the exhibit will see early pencil, chalk and ink drawings and watercolor, oil and acrylic paintings. The viewer will see large paintings of interstate bridges situated within the interchanges in downtown Flint. There are colorful abstracts in oil and watercolor mock-ups of murals design to be applied to area churches. There are several silkscreen works that became his mainstream in later years along with portraits and figure paintings that reflect the macular degeneration he suffered at the end of his career.
Davidek’s son Mark Davidek of Mt. Morris Township offered a tour of his father’s work at Buckham Gallery recently, filling the some of the gaps of information not offered in the exhibit due to a lack of tags on individual pieces in the exhibit. The younger Davidek has a strong likeness to his father and is dressed in white painter’s overalls spattered with colors of recent decorative painting jobs, much the same as his father might have looked years ago. He wears a smile as he talks about his father and speaks with a soft voice. “He treated everyone as best as anyone could. He enjoyed having company,” says Davidek. “I think he painted everyday,” he says of his father’s passion. Davidek says his father’s art came second only to his devotion to his family. “This was his secret love affair.”
The exhibit will be a the Buckham Gallery
, 134 W. Second St. in Flint (near Buckham Alley), through November 4, Thursday through Saturday, noon to 5:30 pm.