Photo: William Arnett, 1998

Asberry Davis

Holly Hill, South Carolina
1918 - 2006

Marooned

William Arnett

Asberry Davis was born in Hampton County, near the southern tip of South Carolina, less than fifty miles from the Adantic Ocean. Along that coast, extending from South Carolina down through Georgia, are the barrier islands, home of black peoples known as the Gullah, an isolated group that has long provided evidence of African cultural survivals in the New World. Davis found employment opportunities scarce in Hampton County, so he took the advice of friends and headed north. He had little education, virtually no travel money, and as he went further inland his coastal black dialect became increasingly difficult for whites to understand. (A documentary film about Davis would probably need to use subtitles.) The place he stopped lies near the Congaree Swamp, soupy terrain whose abundant traditional African American folklore was immortalized in literature in the early twentieth century.

Davis tried a number of jobs, but none suited him. He found the work unchallenging, the pay inadequate, and the employers seldom trustworthy. His aversion to or suspicion ofthe labor system resulted in an uncomplimentary nickname, "Slackmore," or "Slackmo," as it is pronounced in the community. Although Davis does not appreciate the nickname, he can smile about it. "I used to work in a sawmill. They the ones started to call me Slackmo. It's okay." Slackmo is a folk legend in the area, but few know his real name.

Lodging was cheap around the lumber camps, railroad yards, and construction sites where Davis sometimes found employment. But without a dependable income, Davis decided that he should find living accommodations where he could not be evicted. He located an isolated grove of trees located at the confluence of a rural road, a railroad track, and a creek, and he settled—or squatted—on the property. A winding dirt path some two hundred yards long became the only connection between Davis and the world outside his woods.

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That grove had long been a meeting ground, a de facto church, for former slaves—and sympathetic whites, it was said-and later for residents (of both races) of this rural community. Davis eventually took on the role of the grove's "pastor." He ministered to a group of devotees whose number dwindled over the years, until the church was destroyed by burglars. Davis stayed, however, and lived for over twenty years in an abandoned ice-cream wagon, the kind that, when functioning, shows up with ringing bells in neighborhoods full of children. That homestead was also destroyed in the summer of 1998 by would-be thieves who suspected that Davis had a stash of money hidden inside. (He did not.)

Ella Riley was a local woman whose husband was an employee of the nearby cement factory. After the husband died in the late 1960s, Davis, attempting to end his loneliness and hers, invited Mrs. Riley, twenty-seven years his senior, to move onto his land with him. Together they built for her a one-room residence of wood and cardboard in a cavelike arbor of trees. Ella Riley died in 1973. Davis found a suitable burial spot and, in accordance with her deathbed request, created a sort of mausoleum containing all of her worldly possessions carefully arranged within a rectangular, fenced enclosure. The structure measured approximately eighteen feet long, ten feet across, and over seven feet high. It was built with materials that also had belonged to Ella Riley: a section of picket fence (painted white with blue spots); chicken wire; four posts (painted white) with metal caps; and other fence components such as wood boards and rails, metal grills, and various decorative elements.

An inventory of Ella Riley's possessions in Asberry Davis's memorial assemblage includes the following: two metal lawn chairs; a metal bed frame (inverted); a lamp shade; a flower pot wrapped in aluminum foil; artificial flowers on a Styrofoam heart; a metal heater; iron pipes from the frame of a swing set; a broken bell; a large glass plate with a nail through the center; a metal ladle; a porcelain sugar dish; a teaketde and teacup; a plastic bird; a rake; a metal three-shelf wall case; a toy plastic ball; a metal bench; a plastic Ouija-like game called "Kaballah"; a dish rack; a steel grill; various metal pipes and tubes; eating utensils; and many other barely visible items.

Constructing Ella Riley's grave awakened Davis's creative urge. "Back then, I used to have thoughts in my mind about putting things together. Never did it, up until the woman died."

Asberry Davis is a small man, only a bit over five feet tall and weighing little more than a hundred pounds. Perhaps his lack of size contributed in some way to his inability to fit into the work force. It likely did contribute to his determination to be what used to be called a "rugged individualist," and he certainly succeeded at that. When his migration stalled outside Holly Hill, and he isolated himself in the nearby South Carolina forest, Davis became founder of a civilization of one. He evolved into a self-sufficient, unofficial dropout, and began to create, to redesign—purely for his own satisfaction, and in response to his gigantic pride—his finest work of art: himself, the man, the unique Asberry Davis. A unique man needs a unique environment, and Davis also decided to completely redesign his private homestead, surrounding and enclosing himself with things of his own manufacture.

First came the costume, the uniform. No longer required to dress according to community or professional codes, Davis started creating a wardrobe. With salvaged garments and fabrics, and with rubber from tires and hoses, and pieces of iron, steel, tin and aluminum foil, and anything that struck his fancy, Davis fashioned jackets, pants, hats, belts, bracelets, necklaces, capes, and other articles of apparel that may not yet have names. Material that could take enamel paint got painted. The colors were always the same—red, white, and black. His wardrobe's components, when not being worn, became sculptures, hanging or crouching among the limbs and trunks and stumps of his trees.

A man with a flamboyant uniform needs a participation sport, so Davis devised one. In fact, he designed several variations of a game that to onlookers must have resembled a fusion of tug of war and a medieval jousting tournament. The game combined the need for strength and ingenuity, along with an ability to employ guile in the service of survival. Davis constructed the equipment, honed the rules and rites, and provided the arena for the action. As both inventor and host, participant Davis enjoyed something more than a standard home-field advantage, and says he generally was the victor or the leader of the victorious team. The equipment and trappings of Davis's unnamed game, like his vehicles, costumes, and yard assemblages, would seem just as much at home in an art museum as in a display of sports paraphernaha.

Davis regularly retrieves cast-off farm and industrial equipment, or parts of former automobiles, or anything someone else did not want that might possess a subde beauty, or latent strength, or a flickering suggestion of the past. His place in the woods is scattered (some would say littered) with sculptures—on the ground in the open, or all but invisible in the undergrowth, or attached to fences or trees, or in a ditch. Where Mrs. Riley hved, in the darkest part of Asberry's jungle, there are monuments, invocations of memories, to where she slept, where she sat, and even, as one sculpture implies, to where she and Davis might have been intimate together.

Davis never learned to drive a car—he could not have afforded one anyway—but he had come north on a bicycle. That bicycle and its counless successors gave him the mobility to explore the cities, towns, and countryside, and the ability to gather thrown-away materials, mosdy of metal, to be converted into strange assemblage sculptures. Old bicycles, for example, wedded to shopping carts and wrapped in cloth strips, became, essentially, human-powered pickup trucks, spiritual/aesthetic warships for the transcendendy propertyless. And when they no longer functioned (for they also had to carry his loads), they became permanent sculptures hidden in the trees or in the tall grass.

Davis is a private man who likes to spend long periods of time in solitude, but he is not a hermit. He enjoys meeting and talking with people but prefers to dictate the terms of those encounters. He has erected a small roadside gathering place near his residence, so that he can preside over those who may come to hear him or converse with him. There are accommodations for two to four people at a time. Davis maintains the pulpit (a modified bicycle cart), the altar (a huge wheel from a farm machine), and the seating section (chairs and a stool), but hardly anyone ever shows up these days.

Davis continues to put things together and claims he will never give it up. "My mind is a good mind still," he says.