The cloud maker

Andy Davis tried everything but art to make a living, until he took up sculpting and found success

Andy Davis’ story is one of those tales that, like a sculpture, takes a while to come together. The AJC had known of Davis for months before I got around to contacting the McDonough artist. A series of emails commenced, then a few phone calls, and finally a face-to-face between two Davises: Andy the artist, Mark the reporter (No, we’re not related. No one in my family is that talented.).

Watching Andy Davis work, listening to him weave his life story into his art, was a privilege. I’ll never look the same way at clouds.

Mark Davis joined the AJC in 2003 after working in Philadelphia, Tampa and his native North Carolina. A graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Davis has reported on heroes, bums and creatures that walk, swim, crawl and fly. And, yes, people who hear voices in the night.

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.

NEXT WEEK: Born to middle-aged parents, AJC staffer Mandi Albright knew math was not in her favor.

Young Andy Davis is riding in a Mercury station wagon, one of those bulbous things from the late 1950s with the faux wood siding. Mom drives as the central Florida’s landscape slides past, alternating shades of dun and green. The sky is postcard blue.

And there!

Andy looks toward heaven, where slight, white scrawls streak across the sky. They look like faint chalk marks on an immense writing board. He doesn’t know it, because he’s only 5, but they’re trails left by high-flying jets.

Instead, the kid reaches into his limited knowledge of this world and comes up with a definitive answer.

“Look!” he yells. “The cloud maker!”

What else could it be but some celestial figure, gliding across the sky? He’s like Santa Claus, doing his work when no one is watching.Those faint trails are his tracks, proof that the cloud maker exists, and he’s been busy in that vast Florida sky.

When his teacher asks the class what each student would like to be when grown, Andy doesn’t hesitate: “Cloud maker,” he replies.

“Cloud maker?” the teacher asks. “God makes the clouds.”

Andy is polite, but firm. He explains the cloud maker's path across the sky. The teacher gently explains. No, son, those are vapor trails, left by jets.

Andy is crushed, but not fully convinced. The boy who’ll become the man who’ll become a successful artist never lets that fantasy dissipate. Clouds come in all shapes, all colors; they are, he thinks, a reflection of the world over which they glide — a place where storms break loose and people run for shelter and where, when the tempest subsides, all is peaceful again.

Davis, working recently in his McDonough studio, nods at a painting. At first glance, it’s nothing more than a depiction of clouds, big and billowing. But a closer look shows that some lines form the bodies of three women – heavenly Furies, perhaps, waiting in the sky for any passersby.

“In essence,” he says, “I thought I could become the cloud maker.

“And that’s what I do.”

But becoming the cloud maker wasn’t so simple, or quick. Davis had to contend with a learning disability, childhood torments, a family life that bore no resemblance to those happy households depicted on 1960s TV.

And there was The Voice. It came twice. Davis isn’t sure it won’t come back.

2. A success hard earned

Andy Scott Davis is 51, and he looks it. His hands are scuffed from working in clay, and he’s missing part of his right index finger, a reminder of a long-ago industrial accident. He has his mother’s eyes, startlingly blue, and the barrel body of a football player. No surprise there: His dad was a halfback for Florida State.

After stints selling cars, roofing, dealing in diamonds, cleaning awnings and repairing mufflers, Davis is a full-time artist. He is, by any measure, a success.

His signature work so far is a life-size bronze statue of Ray Charles. It’s the centerpiece of Ray Charles Plaza in Albany, the famed performer’s birthplace. Completed in 2007, the statue appears to have caught the musician in the middle of a song.

Davis recently unveiled a statue of Patrick Henry in McDonough. It’s the county seat of Henry, named for the man who achieved a permanent place in history textbooks with his “liberty or death” speech. Davis gets to smile at it every day when he drives home from his studio.

He works in a rehabbed cotton gin just south of downtown McDonough, maybe 40 minutes from Atlanta. It’s an old building, brick and battered, where mules once pulled wagons of cotton waiting to be ginned and loaded on trains. Today, it has gargoyles on the roof and tiki torches on the walls. Twin sliding doors feature a painting of the hands that figure so prominently in “The Creation of Adam,” Michelangelo’s timeless depiction of God giving life to man.

Davis came from Ocala, Fla., arriving in the Atlanta area when he was 5. His father, Donald Davis, brought his family back to Atlanta, where he’d been a star football player at Sylvan High School. He got a job working nights as a pressman for the Atlanta Constitution. They settled in Forest Park.

It was a hell of a change. In Ocala, the world stretched away, green and inviting, in all directions.

Forest Park? It was a house on a cul de sac — and, the Davises discovered, near the end of the runway at Hartsfield International Airport.

When the family pulled up at the new house, a jet neared on its final approach to the airport. The jet’s engines roared. Andy was convinced a monster was nearby — Godzilla, maybe; Godzilla screamed like that.

The jet drew closer. The air vibrated. In the yard was a discarded appliance box. Andy dove into it as the jet thundered over. Andy burrowed in — the rabbit refusing to come out while a predator’s shadow passed.

It was, Davis knows now, a hint of life to come.

3. A target for bullies

There was something about Andy. Other kids knew. It’s one of those things youngsters develop early, a sixth sense alerting the pack when someone is different.

He doodled, for one thing. While the others in class stuck their heads in books, the kid would grab a pencil, slide a piece of paper on his desk and start drawing. He usually drew people; the human form fascinated him then and now.

It didn’t take long for the bullies to notice.

They were mostly boys, but a girl sometimes joined in. They’d wait in a patch of woods in the subdivision where the Davises lived, hiding in the shadows. Andy only had to get snatched a couple of times to stay away; on his way home from school, he’d take the long way.

Still, that didn’t always work. The bullies waited, and watched.

Once, they made Andy remove his underwear. Walk, they commanded. No one could tell he wasn't fully clothed, but the boy felt his face flame, felt shame.

Another time, they forced him to the basement of one kid's home. They forced him to remove his clothes. Walk, they commanded again. If you yell, we'll beat you up.

Davis reaches for a lump of clay, as he recalls the events, crushes it, smooths it flat. Years later, he had a chance to whip a couple of those guys. He beat the hell out of both. Still…

He picks at the clay with a nervous, angry energy.

“You never forget that.”

He also stuttered. When called on in class, Andy would try to answer, but couldn’t get the words out.

He’s managed to tame the stutter, mostly — but it occasionally creeps up on him. He sometimes stops mid-sentence, struggling with a word. When the moment passes, the word comes out, just as it should.

Dyslexia may have been the worst. Back then, few people knew about a cognitive condition that jumbles letters like alphabet soup. Teachers couldn’t figure out why Andy struggled so with reading and math.

But on his own, he learned to cope. And, perhaps, his dyslexia was a gift in disguise.

One day when Andy was 8, a teacher removed him from class and took him to a separate classroom, where he joined a handful of other kids struggling in school. She handed them paper. Each sheet contained a random squiggle the students were told to incorporate into a drawing.

Andy’s design was a single line forming twin loops. It looked like a cartoonish pair of eyeglasses. He thought a moment, then bent to the paper. In each loop he created heavy-lidded eyes. He encircled that with an oval, a human head. He gave the head a nose and mouth, then drew a shirt and tie to go with it. “JOHN F. KENNEDY” he wrote. When the period was up, he handed it to his teacher.

She stared.

“Come with me.”

That didn’t sound good. Things looked even worse when their steps led to the principal’s office. He took a chair outside. On the other side of the principal’s closed door, he could hear her talking.

You've got a kid out there who can't read, can't do math, the teacher said. But look at what he did with this.

At that moment, everyone — teachers, administrators, Andy himself — knew the kid was possessed of a gift.

“That day changed my life,” says Davis, who still has that picture, now frayed and worn on the edges. “That saved my life.”

* * *

He was a hard-headed child, and Diane Davis means that literally. A half-century later, she still remembers.

Bam! She heard a sound in the baby's room. Bam! Andy sat in the crib, butting his head against it. Bam! The crib, on wheels, crept across the hardwood floor each time the infant smacked his head against the bed. Bam! Bam! It coasted to a stop at the bedroom wall.

“He was,” the Conyers resident says, “a curious kid.”

When he was 4, maybe 6, Andy pulled out paper drinking cups from a bathroom dispenser. Most youngsters would have stopped there. Instead, he crimped shut their openings, then stuck a toothpick in the bottom of each. Andy got busy with yellow and black markers.

“Suddenly, I had a room full of bumblebees.”

An artist herself, she didn’t say a word when he took contact paper and cut them in different shapes, then stuck them to his bedroom wall. She was mum when he painted around the shapes, creating a kaleidoscope pattern of colors in his room. On the wall.

And, she insists, she did nothing when he grabbed tubes of acrylic paint, pointed them at the ceiling and squeezed. On this memory, they disagree.

She made it a point not to tell her boy what he could not do. “When I was growing up,” says Diane Davis, “people told me I couldn’t make a living as an artist.

“I made sure not to tell him that.”

She wishes she’d done some things differently — stayed sober, for one. “Even when I was in the room,” says Diane Davis, “I was absent.”

Her son wishes the same thing. “She’d drink until she passed out,” he says. “Then I’d put mama to bed.”

His dad? Like so many people who work nights, his schedule didn’t allow him much time with others.

“He was usually at work. And when he wasn’t working, he was sleeping.”

Those weren’t the best of times. His parents weren’t quiet fighters; when they disagreed, the house rocked with yells and accusations. Davis, by then a young teen, would open his bedroom window and jump out. He’d run across the street to a neighbor’s unlocked car. The seats were large and comfortable: better to sleep in a quiet car than tremble in an echoing house.

Diane and Donald Davis eventually divorced. She remarried and is a widow now. She never bothered changing her name.

“Why would I want to have a different name than the one my children have?” she asks.

The son smiles. “That’s my mom.”

4. Hidden talent revealed

When Andy was 10, a fifth-grade teacher's son was killed in a traffic accident. The teacher took some time off work, and when he returned, he pulled Andy aside. I'd like to commission a picture, he said.

Commission? Andy didn’t know what the word meant. He wanted to pay Andy to do a likeness of his late son. He handed Andy a photo of the dead boy.

Money? For art? He ran home, so excited that he took a shortcut through the trees where bullies prowled.

It took two weeks. When he gave the image to the teacher, the man burst into tears.

“I didn’t understand, as a young boy, why art would affect people in such a manner,” Davis says. “I understand it now.”


Some days Gerri Davis would awake to see a truck dropping the remains of a Rolls Royce in her yard. Another day, it might be a Cord. And all those hand-painted signs advertising local businesses? Well, their neighbors were tolerant folks.

Andy Davis’ wife of nearly 30 years, Gerri Davis, smiles now when she recalls the heaps her husband hauled to their home.

Sitting in the kitchen of their home outside McDonough, Gerri Davis wears a loving, indulgent expression, the face women reserve for their men’s foolishness.

Smiling has not always been so easy. She was 19 when they married. She never faltered in her belief that her husband would look after the family, even when her parents did.

“He was trying to find his way,” she recalls.

He brokered Rolls Royces, a car that had fascinated him since one parked beside the family wagon years earlier in Forest Park. “Mom,” he’d asked. “What kind of car is that?”

“It’s a Rolls Royce Thundercloud,” Diane Davis had replied. Well, she was close. The English automaker never produced a Thunder Cloud, but it did make the Silver Cloud. A cloud! It was a sign.

He was barely out of his teens when Davis bought subscriptions to East Coast newspapers solely for their used-car ads. He sought pre-war Rolls Royces. Once he bought a 1929 Rolls for $2,700 and immediately resold it for $6,000. He turned around and plowed that money into more Rollses. Gerri Davis would look out her window and shrug.

The car brokering led to a sales job for an Atlanta car dealer. Other positions followed. He got a job tending a smoldering kettle that produced tar for buildings’ roofs. He worked for a lawn-service company. He repaired and sold copying machines. When he discovered there was money to be made selling gems, Davis learned all about diamonds and sold them.

His wife watched and fretted. Their kids, a daughter and son, were getting older, and that job-hopping would make any spouse nervous. Still, she remained convinced that her man would keep them fed and clothed.

Eighteen years ago, that faith was tested.

5. An unexpected path

Gerris was asleep, dawn a few hours away that summer morning in 1997. She felt her husband’s hand on her arm. Gerri opened her eyes.

“I want to be an artist,” Andy Davis told his wife. “I really feel like this is what I need to do.”

She said nothing for a moment. Gerri had marveled at his sand sculptures, done for fun in the white sands of Panama City Beach. Once, he did a miniature version of the White House complete with portico; another time, he created a sandy Silver Cloud, fat-fendered and fine. His sketches were beautiful, too.

But an artist? Andy was 34. He had no formal training.

Davis started slowly, working his passion while keeping a job. He started sculpting with clay; automobiles were his first subjects, no surprise there. But it was a bust of Margaret Mitchell that put him on track. He sold the idea to the Margaret Mitchell House, then delivered on his promise — free of charge. Until then, he’d never done a bust.

“His passion was certainly palpable,” recalls Mary Rose Taylor, the founder and former executive director of the Margaret Mitchell House. “You couldn’t help but share in the excitement of someone who was experiencing that for the first time.”

Now, an Andy Davis piece runs from $3,000 up. Ray Charles, part of a $1.5 million project, fetched $140,000. Patrick Henry was worth $88,000.

6. Startling intrusion

Davis picks up a piece of clay about the size of a golf ball. He breaks off a bit of the clay, works it into a rod shape. He reattaches it to the larger chunk. He makes a second rod, nearly identical to the first, then creates a third. Suddenly, that chunk of clay begin to look like a miniature hand.

He recalls the first time he heard The Voice. Yes, in capital letters. It was that big a deal, that frightening.

He first heard it before sunrise on Christmas Eve 1995. He was working long hours in his latest enterprise, cleaning awnings. It was hard work, and he worried about keeping everything together — the business, the household, the family. And, perhaps, the work wasn’t what he really wanted to do.

He was in bed when he heard it. The Voice was coming from downstairs. But it was his voice.

Davis attaches a thumb to the small hand.

“I couldn’t make out the words,” he says. “It frightened me no end.”

Was the voice of God? The voice of madness? Who knew? But when the sun finally came, Davis rose and called a friend from church. They met at the church parking lot and talked for an hour. His buddy promised to get Andy help.

Evalin Hanshew, a Jonesboro psychologist, agreed to open her office that day. When she did, Hanshew met a man laboring under acute stress — so much, she told him, that Davis had imagined a voice that wasn’t there.

No, he wasn’t crazy. Yes, he was under a lot of pressure.

“He was on the verge of panicking,” Hanshew says. “He was just overwhelmed.”

The talk worked. Davis resumed his life, with one ear listening in case The Voice returned.

It did.

That was in 2007. This time, Davis was in his studio — worried about work, about a “rough patch” in his marriage. It was midnight when he heard The Voice. This time, Davis knew what to do: He called Hanshew, who met with him again. Davis described his life, his fears. It was, Hanshew realized, the same problem: too much stress for one person.

“I suggested he keep a journal,” she says. “And he’s turning it into a kind of memoir.”

The events of five decades – the successes and setbacks, those damn bullies, and yes, The Voice – are filling the pages of a notebook. Davis keeps it handy.

He also keeps Hanshew’s phone number nearby. Just in case

“That woman, she saved my life.”

Davis stares at his hand, in which rests a clump of clay.

“Man, I just made a human hand,” he says, “and crushed it!”

7. Making clouds

A flawless sky stretches across Georgia, a limitless canvas for a cloud maker. Davis sits in his studio.

Kyle Hillock’s face is captured in broad swaths of clay. He’s wearing his favorite cap, turned sideways. His hair falls in a careless cascade across his forehead. His eyes? They come last. Eyes bestow life.

Kyle was a junior at a Houston County high school when he ran a stop light in 2012. A tractor-trailer hit his car, a Mustang, and killed him. His grieving dad contacted Davis. Please, he said, make a bust of my son.

On a warm May morning, Davis is keeping his end of the deal, creating a clay bust that will be the basis of a cast. The final product will be bronze.

Davis, who’s done some of the work already, places sculpting tools to his left. On his right is a MacBook Pro laptop. It contains images of Kyle, photos by friends and family and a fair number of “selfies,” taken by the teen. From these different angles will emerge a true depiction of the kid.

Davis daubs on a wad of clay no larger than a quarter near the right temple and begins flattening it. “I always see the parents’ images come out in the clay first,” he says. Only later, he says, will the child reveal himself.

Davis takes a pointed tool and carves a fine line around the right eye socket. “People,” he says, “come here for help more than you can imagine.”

There’s his letter carrier, who knocked on his door one mangy morning six years ago and asked if Davis could do a bust of his daughter. Like Kyle, she was killed in a car wreck. He did it. The man broke out in tears.

More clay, this time a small slice to the cheek. Kyle was, after all, just a kid; in some ways, he still had baby fat. Davis compares a selfie to his bust, nods.

There’s something about art, he thinks. “’Kids come here. They want to play in the clay.”

A quick slice near the eye, more clay at the temple. Davis moves more quickly and struggles not to stutter.

“Why don’t more people follow their dreams?” he asks. “We’d have more skateboarders, more mountain climbers, more writers. There’d be more love-makers.

“Can you imagine if Monet allowed the world to tell him what to do?” he asks. “Or Henry Ford? Bill Gates?

“Hell! What if the Wright brothers hadn’t followed their dreams?”

With the middle finger of his right hand, Davis smooths a glop of clay near the bust’s nose. In a quick gesture, he flattens the tip of the nose just slightly.

Parents, Davis notes, have brought their children to work with him. Some are gifted, others need the gift of his time. Art, he says, is hands-on therapy.

He takes a stick shaped like a thin spatula and widens an eye socket. “This young man, he’s one of my clouds,” he says. “Ray Charles is one of my clouds.”

With his left hand, Andy creates a cleft in the chin, adds some clay. Then he slices the smallest cleft in the lower lip. Suddenly, the resemblance to the boy on the computer is uncanny.

Davis grabs his laptop with his right hand and reaches for a narrow-tipped tool with his left. He holds the computer beside the bust, slicing here, adding clay there. The lips get a little fuller. He adds a roll of clay to the upper left eye socket — an eyelid, now awaiting an eye.

Yes, the eye. Davis places clay in the socket. He forms what appears to be a marble with a slightly flattened surface – an implied iris, the circle of color in an eye. Using an X-Acto knife, he slices a cuneiform shape into the clay. He works that until it is nearly perfectly round – Kyle’s pupil.

For a moment, it appears as if young Mr. Hillock is about to tell Davis to chill out, dude.

And, over the Georgia landscape, faint and white, is the first hint of a cloud.