Survival of the innerSPIRIT

2/26/2010
By Robin Davis

This is a true story of survival:

Once upon a time, in a land far away, lived a sad little boy, whose life was saved by unseen heroes; his mother’s strong faith and his love for creating art.

John Davis
John Davis was born May 15, 1955. He started working with ceramics when he was a very young boy. He learned from his grandmother who was a hobby ceramic artist.

John’s roots run deep in the small sleepy far west Texas town where he was born and raised. The same town where his father was born and raised, and where his father’s father settled as a young man. His grandpa was a cowboy, John’s dad delivered bread around the Big Bend area.

Our line of ceramic “innerSpirit Rattles” have been crazy popular for over 15 years. People have an uncanny emotional connection to them. The first thing people notice is their beauty. Then some mention their perfect palm size, or that they’re drawn to the tactile texture of their surface. Nearly everyone tells us that the gentle sound helps them stay focused and be mindful of the present moment.

But many are passionate about the rattles stirring a sense which can be neither seen nor heard; a sense of peace.

There’s no doubt in my mind this feeling is real. I believe there is a unique energy springing from our geography which maybe, just maybe might be held inside the thin shell of each handmade innerSpirit Rattle. Perhaps it’s a kind of aura that somehow seeps in, or maybe it’s a sticky essence picked up while being made by hand in our desolate and far flung part of Texas.

Big Bend is a rugged part of the world that has a way of reinforcing faith, dredging up an unknown inner strength, and of sparking a deep appreciation of even the smallest things.

We live in the rural Big Bend area, inside the massive Chihuahuan Desert. The surrounding land is under populated, vast and peaceful. We have mountains, but few trees. Some say the landscape looks like the surface of the moon.

Alpine, Texas is extraordinarily remote; 150 miles from the closest commercial airport, 250 from the next. You have to be very self-sufficient to live in such an isolated area. It helps to also be determined, resilient, and creative, not unlike the pioneers and the Buffalo Soldiers that helped establish this Wild West frontier.

John and Gary Lee Lots of people compare Alpine to the fictional Mayberry R.F.D. At six years old, John was as happy as Opie Taylor on the black John and Gary Leeand white TV show. John used to ride around the streets of town on the back of a gentle horse with his best friend (and cousin), Gary Lee. The horse would lie down on the ground to allow the boys to climb on top of his muscular back. But then Gary Lee was crushed and killed by a falling gas station sign. Those days are now a blur to John, but I’m told he was very sad for a long time.

But then things finally got better. But then things got worse. Much worse. John had just turned 13 when his dad was killed. John was with him. A drunken cowboy shot his father after he had told the man to leave the riding arena located on their land. His mom and little brother and sister were with John’s grandparents at a rodeo three hours away. John was alone.

He had to testify in the trial. The case was moved from Alpine to the dusty town of Ft. Stockton, 60 miles away, where the young man’s family had political connections. John’s mother, Faye Davis, was not allowed in the courtroom with John. Being on the stand must have been awful, but surely not as awful as when he was told his father’s killer would not be going to prison.

John Davis and his dad, Jiggs on a horseJohn said he was numb for a long time. Fortunately for him, he has a mother with a strong faith. She taught him and his siblings to have compassion for the man who the children saw as a monster who had robbed them of a father. Without even knowing it, John’s mother was a fierce hero. She empowered her young children with the only weapon powerful enough to slay their unseen demons; the power of forgiveness.

John’s mom, a school teacher, also infused her children with a persistent feeling of gratitude. She made sure they gave thanks daily for the family they still had, and for the life they were still blessed with.

John bought his first kiln with money he got as gifts when he graduated from high school in 1973. Not long after that, he bought his studio (where we still work out of today).

In 1992, the callousness of an arsonist left John with a burned carcass of his uninsured studio. The financial setback caused us to come close to bankruptcy. John and I were ashamed and embarrassed when our home and business were listed in our small town’s weekly newspaper announcing our property would be sold in an auction for back taxes. With two small children at home, and a  John and Faye 1956mortgage, those were dark days.ut John and I fought back. We were determined not to lose what we had worked so hard to accomplish. We experimented and taught ourselves how to mass produce our handmade goods. We hired help, and started selling wholesale.

We finally pulled out of our financial mess, and paid back our mountain of debts caused by the fire. Within a few years our determined efforts to produce large quantities by hand were so successful we were shipping selling to places like Coldwater Creek Catalog and the Smithsonian Museum Gift Shop.

John and I have been married now for almost 23 years. I am also John’s business partner. He is the artist, but I am the business manager. John does not like change. In 2007, I told him we had to make changes in our business to allow us to survive in the 21st century. As aging baby boomers with no 401K, lifelong income became our goal. My streamlining our production, discontinuing labor intensive lines, creating “systems”, and reducing unnecessary expenses made life very intense. John hated it. It did not feel at all artistic, and made him feel like he was compromising his art.

Emotions ran high. Our marriage suffered. But now, we are both very grateful that we started working to get our expenses down when we did. Because had we not, we might not have survived the economy of the last year and a half. But survive we did, and our business is much stronger because of the changes. Our relationship is on the mend as well.

We have 2 daughters. Our youngest, Hannah, 18, is in her first year of college. She has worked at the studio since she was a small girl. Michaela, 21, spent the year after high school serving in the AmeriCorps, and then was admitted into the art program at the University of Texas at Austin. She has since changed her major to special education, no doubt inspired by her and Hannah having volunteered for several summers at a camp for children with Muscular Dystrophy. Hannah is excited about being a team leader at this year’s camp.

John has a Masters of Education that he is grateful was of no use to him. I have a degree in biology that I have never used. We are lucky that jobs are hard to find in Alpine, so we had to make our own.

We currently have six employees, two who have been with us for more than ten years. During their off hours, John enjoys working with them on their own pottery. They had their first art show last November.

If none of the above can convince you of the special energy the Big Bend area has to impart, consider the mysterious orbs of light that skip and dance along the plains of our neighboring, Marfa, Texas. For over a hundred years, try as they might, scientists still can’t explain them.

We’ve had our website since 2002; www.JDavisStudio.com.

Our email address is info@JDavisStudio.com.

I say “our”, but John has never used a computer.

When people ask for his email address, he just smiles and says, “JDavisStudio@POBox246AlpineTX79831.”