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Constance Alexander: Unique coffin sculpture exhibit pieces together the Davis family puzzle

Stories of tragedy were hushed up in the Davis family. Roy B. Davis, Jr. heard them in whispered fragments from his mother, Marguerite Schroeder Davis. She revealed information regarding the mystery around the murder of Rollie Davis, her husband’s father, at a July 4th baseball game in Perryville, and his mother Fannie Helm’s suicide in Cincinnati in the early 1900s.

Orphaned before he was six years old, Roy B. Davis, Sr., grew up under the guardianship of his maternal grandfather Marcus Helm and his aunt Jenny in Junction City.

“My father didn’t want to talk about his parents,” the younger Davis said. “I think he didn’t want to put us through the agony he experienced. He talked to my mother and she told us what she knew with emphasis on how it all affected him.”

Until he died many years later, the elder Davis kept private the telegram sent from Cincinnati to Junction City announcing his mother’s demise. “Come at once. Fannie is dead” was all it said. There was no mention of him, the youngest of four boys whom his mother took with her when, after the scandal of divorce, she married a man thirteen years younger than she and they moved to Ohio.

When Alice Jane Davis died in 1992, a trove of letters and legal papers surfaced as Roy Jr. sorted through his sister’s house and settled her estate. The divorce decree from Boyle County chronicled a history of alcohol abuse and family violence at the hands of Rollie Davis. Several letters Roy Sr. had written to Marguerite during their courtship shared his childhood memories of Fannie’s young husband, who was even more abusive than Rollie had been.

More pieces of the family puzzle began to fit together as Roy Jr. began to understand his father’s gentle and secretive nature and explored the concept of transgenerational grief – the idea that unresolved grief can be inherited by later generations.

“It became apparent to me that these people who had died long before I was born had had a tremendous impact on my life and personality,” he said. “I entered two years of psychotherapy to rid myself of the depression I had struggled with most of my life.”

In an effort to honor those people and lay the legacy of grief to rest, Davis created a series of half-sized coffins containing memorabilia that tell the family stories. An artist, he used insights gained from therapy to depict the emotional history of his family. Seven of these coffin sculptures will be on exhibit at Murray State University’s Wrather Museum, Gallery B, from October 1 – 26.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray. She can be reached at constancealexander@twc.com. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

Rollie and Fannie are showcased, along with Roy Sr. and Marguerite, as well as other relatives with tragic tales to tell.

Inspired by the intersection of art and commerce, Roy B. Davis, Jr. founded Bert & Bud’s Vintage Coffins, an online business that designs and builds one-of-a-kind coffins and crematory urns for customers from coast to coast.

Now 82 and experiencing the erosion of his once-precise and colorful memory, Roy B. Davis Jr. can no longer reel off details of his family history. He spent years tracing his family roots but now recalls nothing of that quest. When he looks at a lifetime of artistic work – including paintings, ceramics, woodworking, drawings, photography, and collage – he admires the work but has no recollection of doing it.

The exhibit at the Wrather Museum means a lot to him, however. “I like getting the story out to people,” he said.

His own legacy, passed on to sons Andrew J. Davis and Noah C. Davis, combines creativity, a passion for making functional and beautifully crafted things, and a sense of humor. The quality of the work and the unique tagline — “Don’t be caught dead without one” – continues to attract customers with son Andy now running the business from Berkeley, California.

Artist and arts administrator, Roy B. Davis Jr. is a graduate of University of Dayton and Pratt Institute. He was born in Junction City and lived in various places around central Kentucky and Louisville until the family moved to Ohio in the mid-1950s. He has lived in Murray since 1987.

The Wrather Museum, on the Murray State University campus, is opened Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information contact Dr. Jeff McLaughlin at smclaughlin1@murraystate.edu or 270-809-4295.

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