A painter's blank canvas

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Devon Davison's words tumble out as he talks about his life, his dreams, the molecular differences between cotton fibers and polyester, and his plans for a vacant city firehouse at 43 S. Carey St. in Southwest Baltimore.

He plans to buy the century-old station, move in and set up a digital arts studio where local artists and neighborhood children can use computers for video, broadcasting and other creative projects. He also hopes to link with city schools to provide internships for students. In short, Davison wants to thrust himself into the life of the community and leave behind the comfortable anonymity he enjoyed for more than a dozen years in his Harlem Park neighborhood in West Baltimore.

"I'm de-cloaking. You know, like in Star Trek with the Klingons?" said Davison, a 57-year-old artist, actor and self-described "firecracker" born on the Fourth of July. "I'm getting older, and I just didn't want to disappear with the detritus. I wanted to make a statement."

Neighborhood artists and activists are pulling for him. Victory Outreach, at 2330 Hollins St., wrote a letter of support. Davison filmed a documentary about the church for recovering addicts. The City Council is set to pass a bill Monday authorizing the sale.

"This is a very positive step," said John Wesley, spokesman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, which controls the fire station. "This is a community that really could benefit from this kind of shot in the arm."

Built in 1906 for $24,156 - about $5,000 more than Davison will pay - the station housed Truck 13, once one of the city's busiest and most decorated units. It's around the corner from Hollins Market, and was a rock of stability in this ever-changing neighborhood until closing two years ago as part of Mayor Martin O'Malley's efforts to consolidate services and cut the city's budget.

Davison knew none of this the day he walked past the building last spring. He just knew he had to move out of his home in the 1400 block of Edmondson Ave. Unity United Methodist Church at 1433 Edmondson Ave. was buying up the block to make way for a 74-unit apartment complex. Luck smiled on him that day: A companion told him the city was selling the building.

"I ran back home, got on the phone and called the housing authority," said Davison.

The fire station was perfect. It is a huge building, with enough room upstairs to sleep a dozen firefighters. No matter that the three neighboring houses and the one townhouse across the street are vacant and sealed with cinder block.

Davison proposes spending about $20,000 to renovate the firehouse and turn it into a space where neighborhood children can get off the streets and into computers, animation or painting. He is also considering community access broadcasting over the Internet. He hopes to have everything up and running in April.

City Councilman Kwame Abayomi, who also wrote a letter of support, said Davison has been a stable member of his Harlem Park neighborhood, often helping at church events and teaching art classes.

"He's certainly unusual," said Abayomi, pastor of Unity United Methodist. "If he was a millionaire, we'd call him eccentric."

He has come to this point in life with no distractions. He has cobbled together an arts career with only brief stints in the 9-to-5 world.

One day finds him in dress-for-success mode - dark suit and polished shoes. Another day finds him in a FUBU sweatshirt and jeans. Then another day he might hole up in his three-story townhouse on Edmondson Avenue and paint until the isolation drives him into the street.

"I've had [neighbors] ask me, 'What's up with you, anyway?'" he said. "I say, 'I act a little bit.' And they say, 'Yeah, right.'"

But it's true. No major roles, mind you. Just small stuff, a shoeshine man in Liberty Heights, a dope fiend in The Corner, a dead body in The Wire, a new HBO television series that is to premiere soon.

His family moved to Baltimore from Georgiana, Ala., in the winter of 1949. In those days, black doctors, lawyers, nurses and funeral directors lived alongside laborers and domestics. The blocks of West Baltimore were filled with generous folks willing to pay a kid to scrub their steps or polish their brass. Davison said he earned 50 cents to $1 for such jobs, more than enough for a 10-cent ticket to a Saturday morning matinee at the Lincoln, Roosevelt or New Albert theater.

These days the largely self-taught artist paints canvas backgrounds of expensive sedans, bottles of champagne, skylines at night, and sells them to photographers. The works have provided the backdrop for thousands of photographs taken around the Inner Harbor, or outside the Lyric Opera House whenever a show with a decidedly African-American theme is in town.

Two works in progress, one of a Mercedes-Benz sedan, the other of bottles of Cristal champagne, are tacked up on the walls of his bedroom on Edmondson Avenue, where he sleeps surrounded by paint cans, brushes, air brush guns, and a console radio from the time when radios were furniture.

"This isn't me," he insists, hopping around the room and striking mock gangsta-rap poses. "I don't care about the cars. I don't care about the liquor. They're survival. That's what they are. They're survival."

Moving the canvases will be easy (because, he says, the molecular structure of polyester makes them easy to fold without wrinkling). Moving the rest of his life, the desks, the chairs, the equipment, the old Stieff upright that he has been told can be made to sing like a Steinway, will take muscle and ingenuity. Firefighters told him they used ladder trucks to move things in and out of the firehouse's second-story windows.

When he moves in, Davison will add his name to the list of more than a dozen artists, nonprofit agencies and businesses that have bought city firehouses. Last year, Maryland Institute College of Art announced plans to take over a station at 401 W. North Ave. that closed in 1997.

Earlier this week, Reggie Jenkins, a contractor and friend, checked out the concrete work Davison might need to be done around the firehouse.

"He's always talked about doing something, and now he's backing it up," said Jenkins, a member of Victory Outreach. "Whatever it is, it's going to be an unselfish act because that's the kind of dude he is."

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