Dickinson College Homepage Dickinson Magazine This issue of the Dickinson Magazine was mailed on Monday, January 3, 2005
From This Issue
Volume 82 • Number 3
Winter 2005

Storm Chaser
Ward Davenny finds inspiration in extreme weather
By David Smith
Limitless horizons unravel where natural light falls from the rafters of an old Carlisle factory roof and lands inside painted-white brick walls.

Gaze into the large charcoal-on-paper drawings that hang in Ward Davenny’s studio in the Goodyear Building on Carlisle’s West Louther Street. See the approaching storm. Feel the wind. Hear the thunder.

Davenny did many years ago. The associate professor of art remembers the day. He was a boy in Cleveland digging in his back yard, making tactile discoveries in the dirt.

“I found what had been kind of a dump from who knows how long ago,” he says. “There were pieces of old silverware and jewelry and watches and doll parts. There was this whole treasure, and I remember being totally absorbed by this cache of stuff.

“All of a sudden I looked up and realized something was very different. One of those dark, black-cloud storms was coming in off Lake Erie. The poplar trees were beginning to really wave in the wind. The whole light had changed. I felt like the whole world had changed.”

In a way it had. Davenny, now 53, is more than an ordinary chaser of storms. In his latest series of large-scale drawings—which will debut at The Trout Gallery in March as part of his multimedia exhibit “Wind Wheels: Serious Weather of the Midwest”—he reveals the power, wonder and almost limitless proportions of formidable atmospheric phenomena. Think tornadoes; then think again.

Think of towering, changing, threatening mountains of cloud, landscapes of air with bright peaks, cellar-dark canyons and swirling gray eddies bursting over the horizon, overtaking the senses, overwhelming a flat, mostly featureless landscape.

“Even when I go out and do the storm chasing, the actual tornado that I might see is oftentimes less evocative,” Davenny says. “It’s what comes before—the dread, the anticipation—that I prefer. It’s just so awe-inspiring.”

Air, light and space have always captivated Davenny, nurturing the Romantic landscape artist within him. He has found inspiration in his memories. In his 1998 pastel Industrial Landscape, fire and smoke concoct a stygian mix not unlike the industrial Cleveland to which his family moved in 1954 from his native Hartford, Conn. His charcoal-on-paper Carlisle Rooftop from 1999 delivers light and shadow in another familiar setting.

Memory is like the gathering storm.

“I think when you have a visual memory and you try to take that memory apart,” Davenny says, “you can’t quite focus in on some particular area of that memory. It remains a large, fluid, shifting kind of thing, depending on where we place ourselves.”

He forges an artistic world where figures are overwhelmed by their surroundings, where weather’s fury comes in sharp relief that, despite its two-dimensional medium, invites people to step inside.

In the storms he has put to paper, Davenny seeks “to make sense out of all this energy coming down and slamming into the earth, all becoming focused on one point.”

Davenny plays energetic electronic dance music—not sounds of wind and rain—while he draws. He gains added inspiration through the wide artistic world he has been able to embrace at Dickinson, where he has taught with an engaging multidisciplinary approach since 1992.

“I teach painting, lithography, etching, woodcut, drawing, figure drawing—it’s really unusual for someone at a school to teach all that,” Davenny says with warm smile that accentuates his Paul Newman-like good looks.

“It’s actually fun when I teach here,” he explains, “because as you teach it gets you involved and starts you thinking in that particular medium. It’s broadened my interests. It’s given me incentive.”

As he thumbs through a stack of striking color photographs he took of Midwestern weather systems, he stresses the importance of a distinct horizon line and gauges the artistic potential in each image.

“I’ve frequently used a photograph as the starting point,” Davenny says. Sometimes, the photograph is a completed image. Other times, a single photograph can serve as a springboard for dozens of drawings.

Davenny, a father of three whose eldest daughter, Maya ’00, is a graduate student in adolescent psychology, has received two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. He taught at the University of Connecticut and the University of Hawaii before coming to Dickinson.

Music formed the perfect backdrop for his artistic development. His namesake father, a concert pianist who died in 2002, directed the Hartford School of Music, then the Cleveland Institute of Music, before embarking on a 30-year career as a professor at Yale School of Music.

“I spent a lot of time having to sit at concerts,” remembers Davenny, who received his M.F.A. from Yale in 1982. “If you’re going to be a good boy and sit still, you have to internalize something. The music gave me a comfortable” place to go.

Since beginning his current focus on extreme weather in 1999 he has discovered that no two storm-chasing trips have been alike. “The second time [in 2001] it was just utterly, totally, mind-blowingly different,” Davenny says. “What can happen is so varied—dust storms, microbursts, multiple tornadoes, incredible hail storms, what they call the mothership kind of clouds.”

The “Wind Wheels” exhibition will include innovative use of videos and photographs, all adding to the boundless mystery swirling in the clouds. And if viewers can’t keep their eyes in one place, even as they look into Davenny’s drawings, that’s just as it should be.

“It’s so vast out there,” Davenny says. “If you turn around, or look up, or look slightly in another direction, it’s entirely different, and you just can’t take it all in.”


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