The Classic City of Athens, Georgia has a handful of landmarks, places and people you can’t miss. The Arch. That cannon downtown. Ort. The Tree That Owns Itself. And Michael Davenport.
If you’ve ever been downtown or on Atlanta Highway and you spot an impeccably-dressed, middle-aged black man with short curls, no arms, a hook and a slim mustache on a local street corner, turning blank canvases into intricate bulldawgs with his mouth, you’ve seen Michael Davenport at work. It’s a safe bet that there isn’t anyone in town who could even come close to being mistaken for Michael. They say that everyone has a doppelganger, but it’s hard to imagine another Michael Davenport out there. The man is one of a kind.
Sitting outside on a hard plastic lawn chair, cats snaking around our legs, the slowly-spinning planet causing the early Autumn sun to shine through the lightly swaying branches, catching wafts of Michael’s subtle Sport cologne, watching a talented painter with no arms create college-themed artwork with his mouth, while he simultaneously answered all of my questions, it was impossible not to be blown away with an overpowering sense of awe. As would anyone else who possessed even a semblance of curiosity, I was entranced by the details of Michael Davenport’s story. This guy is walking, painting, stooping, designing, drinking a giant Mountain Dew, and telling a long and complex story…all at the same time. As I began to interview Michael, he was laying out the basic framework of a bulldog, and as the interview went on, I was able to slowly watch him add the familiar canine features and Athenian flourishes that transform a “bulldog” into a “bulldawg.”
Most of us can’t even walk and chew gum at the same time. Michael paints, composes, and tells you a gripping story without missing a beat. He was a multi-taker long before it became cool. He had to be.
If you’ve ever been in downtown Athens for a game day and have wandered the streets, you’ve seen him at work. Heck, if you’ve ever been in downtown Athens and you have working eyes, you’ve seen him at work. Michael Davenport is the “mouth painter,” “the painter with no arms,” “The bulldawg painter.” A wonder of the Athenian world. A motivational speaker who practices what he preaches. A contented man doing what he loves and making a living at it.
Michael’s story is the stuff of after-school specials, a heart-warming tale of nature’s dealing a terrible blow to a young man, who then sunk into a lengthy depression, fueled by booze and drugs, and then lifted himself out of it, with the help of the Almighty. Through the good times and the bad, one constant for Michael was art. He’s always drawn and painted. Some people play tennis. Others bake cookies. Michael creates. Back in his wayward hedonistic days he used to trade art for drugs. Now he sells his miniature masterpieces to a diverse clientele. As you read this, Davenport originals are adorning walls in Canada, China, a few Caribbean islands and all over the state of Georgia.
His work would be impressive enough as stand-alone art, but seeing him in action is a sight to behold. Watching Michael knock out a detailed piece without the use of either arm brings up the kind of feelings in the viewer which normally are reserved for the births of children, college graduation, or a good first date. There’s a familiar tingle that lets you know you’re in the presence of something unique.
It was April of 1979. Michael was a fairly average teenager, playing at his grandparents’ Winterville house, a familiar place he stayed every summer, and visited often during the other seasons. He was playing outside with the other boys in his family. He was doing the stupid stuff all thirteen-year-old boys do, having creative adventures with our peers, stretching our imaginations, making use of whatever props are available to us at the time. As a boy, Michael’s hero was Spider Man. Why not? He’s friendly. He’s neighborly. Swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper on a homemade web looks like a lot of fun. Michael saw a rope lying around in the yard. It looked like any other rope, though unbeknownst to Michael, it was laced with copper. The wind was blowing pretty strong that day. The conditions were perfect for Spider Man.
“My uncle Tony was around my age. He was playing with me. My grandparents were inside the house. I was being Spider Man. And I had this rope. So, naturally, I made a little lasso and tried to toss it around this lowest-hanging tree branch I saw.”
But Michael missed the branch and instead caught a wooden pole with a power box. It was an old power line, not exactly up to code.
“For a split second I had this weird, scary feeling, like somebody huge grabbed hold of me. I was paralyzed standing up.”
In moments like that, time slows way down. Events which later become clear all happen in a kind of hazy blur. Michael, barefoot, holding a copper wire attached to a live power line, was conducting electricity…a lot of electricity.
“I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know what it was, but something was definitely wrong. I even remember saying to myself, ‘Something’s wrong, Davenport.’ I tried to look up, but I couldn’t move.”
Michael smelled burning flesh…his own burning flesh. That’s when he realized what was happening.
“Even once I figured it out, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. The electricity was still coursing through me. My grandfather Diddy raised me to be a good Baptist. He always said, ‘Son, when you feel like you’re in danger, call on God.’ So, that’s what I did. I asked God to help me.”
The wind had picked up and was blowing the rope off of Michael and back on, swaying loosely in the breeze, the electrified rope unaware of the lives it was changing forever. Uncle Tony, who had on rubber-soled tennis shoes, when he realized what was happening to his nephew Michael, yelled to his father, “Oh, my God, the boy’s getting electrocuted.” Even after figuring out what was happening, Tony waited until he thought the wind had blown the rope off Michael, before jumping in and dragging the stiff body of Michael away from the current by the pant leg, inch by inch.
“The first time Tony grabbed me, he jumped back. He got a shock too, but Tony grabbing me broke the charge. I fell face-first to the ground. Tony ran around in circles. He got electrocuted too, but Tony wound up suffering mentally. For me, it was physical. People told me later that after I’d hit the ground I had this weird smile on my face.”
As he was adding the subtle contours of droopy bulldawg neck folds to his latest collegiate creation, Michael’s narration turned philosophical.
“I remember seeing a beautiful place. I remember the grass. The blue sky. A blue I’d never seen before. It was so pretty. I remember a voice telling me, ‘Son, it’s not your time yet. It’s not your time.’ Later my family said that I had been begging them to let me up, that I was telling them to stop fussing with me and let me see Jesus. By then the fire trucks and an ambulance had arrived.”
“I woke up a month later.”
Michael spent a good part of the latter part of 1979 in a coma.
“I had an out-of-body experience. A classic one. I saw everybody in that hospital room. They were all so sad, and I didn’t know why.”
As the rest of the country was celebrating the beginning of a new decade, Michael was returning to the planet Earth, and re-inhabiting his new body.
“The first thing I remember was the nurse coming in and pulling my oxygen mask off. She gave me some ice to chew. It felt like my hands were tied down. I tried to reach for the cup of ice. That’s when it hit me. It hit me hard. ‘Oh, my God. What’s going on?’”
“Days drifted by. I gave up. The doctors told me they had done all they could, that it was now up to me. They said I needed to have the willpower to make the best of the situation. Diddy was handicapped himself. He’d been crippled ever since I’d known him, after falling off a pulpwood truck. Odell “Diddy” Bonnett drove 60 miles right after his fall. Sixty miles! Can you imagine that? It turns out that his neck was broke. I wish that hadn’t happened to him, but it was helpful for me to have a role model, someone I already looked up to, to advise me how life was going to be.”
Odell Bonnett passed away as the new millennium was dawning, having spent the last twenty years of the 20th century imparting wisdom to his expansive brood. The man had fifteen children. His wife had a total of seventeen. Michael Davenport was Odell’s eldest grandson. Odell was strict and to-the-point, but underneath all that Odell Bonnett was an optimist. His own paralyzing accident had left him without the use of his limbs, but his brain and his heart had only grown stronger since. While Michael was laid up, still adjusting to his new circumstances, he used to tell young Michael, “If you’re not waking up in the morning feeling like you can take on the world, something’s wrong.”
It would take a number of years before Michael Davenport would take that advice to heart.
In all the classic stories, fairy tales and books we cherish the hero goes through a rough patch. Call it the “long, dark night of the soul.” Call it “the lowest of the low.” Call it what you will. It’s when the hero, long since haven fallen from initial grace, hits rock bottom, looks up at the heavens and decided to turn his life around. In this story, our hero, Michael Davenport, had a long, dark night of the soul in the standard American fashion. He drowned his sorrows in booze, numbed his senses with drugs, and generally avoided facing the bright light of reality face-on, as he would later attest. It’s an integral part of the motivational speeches he gives to kids who have recently gone through medical tragedies themselves and are just now beginning to realize that their lives have changed. As Michael preaches, with a strong support group, a little hope and a firm belief in the power of a loving God, those children can emulate him. Like Michael, they can do anything they set their minds to.
“I spent a long time in the hospital. Even when I got out, I had to go to outpatient treatment in Augusta every other week. Those skin graft treatments were rough. Being wrapped in those bandages. Lying under those heat lamps for 30 minutes. Having nurses pour iodine water on me. And then the spooky sound of the bandages being peeled off. It wasn’t easy. I was still a kid.”
When adults reminisce about childhood we tend to gloss over the highly-judgmental world of teenage socialization. We forget just how mean kids can be. As Michael was slowly discovering what his new life would be, the other kids were predictably eyeing him with fear and suspicion.
“I couldn’t play football anymore. I couldn’t just be a kid. Lord knows, my days as Spider Man were over.”
However, as with other heroic stories, our hero discovered a few helpful characters as he traveled his path.
“My neighbor, Tim Rittenbery, had always had a limp. When they put me in the Special Ed class, God teamed me up with Tim. At first, the teacher used to stand over my desk and write for me. I didn’t like that. One day Tim said, ‘Mike, you’re always chewing on your pencil. Why don’t you try to write with your mouth?”
At age 15, Michael began to use his mouth in the ways other children use their hands. He wrote with his mouth. He drew a little with his mouth, not yet realizing how big a role mouth drawing would play in his future.
“This probation officer used to come by our house. Leo, my brother, had gotten in a little trouble, and Sid Calloway, that’s the probation officer, took an interest in me. He saw that I was depressed and he used to take me out to Dairy Queen, ask me about school, stuff like that. Sid was an athlete. He got me into Tae-kwon-do. He knew that martial arts would help me with my balance, give me discipline and help me gain a sense of purpose.”
Tae-kwon-do and skateboarding helped Michael both to fit in with the other kids and to begin to master the new realities of the physical world. All kids need direction. Michael didn’t require much more than any other kid his age. He merely had a few more lessons to learn and a rough stretch of life to navigate.
“I was in seventh grade, in the cafeteria one day. I’d been writing with my mouth for a bit now. I was doodling around, drawing, to impress the other kids. I saw a newspaper article with a picture of a bulldog, so I drew that.”
Little did he know at the time that he would wind up drawing, literally, thousands more bulldogs over the years.
“I always start with the eyes.” When I ask him why, he pauses for a split second, cocks his head slightly, then launches back into sketching as he answers. “It reminds me of my grandfather, Odell Bonnett. He used to say, ‘You can tell a person by their eyes. Happy. Sad. Trying to hide something. You can see all of it in the eyes.’”
Michael specializes in college mascots, because that’s what the art-buying Athens seasonal visitors want. He’s done more than his fair share of other regional mascots, too: yellow jackets, tigers, gators, razorbacks, and all the mascots you would expect in this area of the country.
“I was at the karate dojo one day in the early 80s, taking tae-kwon-do. It was a great class. Herschel Walker used to train there, too. But it wasn’t Herschel who changed my life. It was Vince Dooley. Coach Dooley used to come to the karate place to talk with Herschel and the sensei. He saw a bulldawg picture I’d done and asked me what I was going to do with it. I said I was going to trash it. And he told me something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘No, no. You’ve got a God-given talent.’ He told me not to throw it away. In fact, he asked me if he could have it. It’s still, to this day, hanging in Vince Dooley’s house.”
Since then Michael, a largely self-taught artist, has sought the advice of many more classically-trained artists. The late, great Lamar Dodd taught him to be comfortable in his own skin, to accept his reality and to let things come to him.
“He taught me to do multiple things at once, to draw and talk at the same time.”
It’s a lesson I can personally attest that Michael Davenport not only heard, but took to heart. The man’s ability to comfortably multi-task, to easily handle five activities at the same time would make even a corporate vice president/new mother stop and stare in awestruck appreciation.
“Even when I was using drugs every day, I still always drew. I used to trade art for drugs all the time. Looking back from a place of sobriety, it’s obvious that I was doing drugs to fit in, trying to be someone I wasn’t. I was drawing, but I was drawing for the wrong reasons.”
The world of drug use is inhabited by many negative people, hundreds of sick souls actively searching for ways to drag good people down to their level. Michael’s “friends” at the time were no exception.
“I was 21 when I first started drinking and doing drugs. I feel bad for all the times I was high around my grandmother and grandfather. Drawing for dope is a 24-7 job. People used to pity me. And of course they did. I was pitying myself. I’d draw for dope. I’d do tae-kwon-do jump kicks for dope. I knew they were kind of making fun of me, but as long as they kept on giving me drugs, what did I care?”
From the ages of 21 through 32, Michael dwelled in a world of lies, self-delusion, and pity. Even when he was in the throes of his addiction, he did, however, continue to make his art.
“The only silver lining I can find is that it DID teach me the importance of the hustle. Still, it took me leaving my hometown to realize who I really was.”
Those negative people didn’t change. Michael did. He moved to Athens, and rededicated himself to his art and to life.
“I could have died. I thought I wanted to die. But God still loved me. He still had plans for me. That Michael Jackson song, ‘Man in the Mirror,’ that song hit me hard. I did like Michael said. I looked at the man in the mirror, and I didn’t like who I saw. So, I changed my ways.”
It’s a great song. When I asked him if his past ever dropped by to visit, Michael launched into a recent story. One afternoon, he was in the Publix parking lot, painting a proud, droopy bulldawg, as usual. A black Sharpie tucked in the corner of his mouth, bent over 45 degrees, putting the final touches on another collegiate masterpiece, one of Michael’s old drug “friends” pulled up and leaned out the window.
“He asked me if I wanted to trade the painting for crack…just like I used to do back when I knew him. I started to get mad. Instead of popping off on him, like I wanted to, I simply turned to him and said, ‘Man, I don’t know if you’re just thinking of me in the past or what, but get that nonsense away from me.’ It’s weird. You live in other people’s minds in the past tense. You’re in their lives as who you used to be, not who you are.”
Michael Davenport’s present tense began eleven years ago. He got sober and hasn’t looked back since. His main focus is emblazoning 16″ x 20″ canvasses with college mascots and popular icons of various Southeastern universities.
“I mainly do dawgs, but I’ll do whatever the people want. It’ll cost them a little more, but I’ll do an Auburn tiger. I’ll do an Alabama elephant. All the same size. Doctors and lawyers like the 16 by 20s. They’re not too big, and they fit neatly in their offices.”
Michael has regular customers, people who seek him out year after year, on their annual football-themed pilgrimages to Athens.
“I started with the markers mainly because when you paint in public, you’ve got to be quick. A bunch of paint and brushes would slow me down. When you work in public, the people are always in a hurry. I still dabble with paint sometimes. I did a painting of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse not too long ago. It’s hanging on someone’s wall in Canada right now.”
He does work at home once a week, but on most days Michael Davenport’s studio is the entire world. The inspiration he soaks up from being out among the people can’t be replicated in a solitary studio space.
Since 2006, when his beloved grandmother passed away, Michael has felt as if his foundation has eroded. Of course, he’s undaunted by the task ahead of him. That’s just his way. Even so, he misses his grandparents and asked to dedicate this interview to them.
“When I was little, my grandmother gave me a puppy for Christmas one year. I remember holding Husky up by the Christmas tree, smiling from ear to ear. She was so happy that she could make me that happy. Man, that was a great memory.”
Michael Davenport’s ambition is guiding his path these days. He wants people to see and enjoy his art on a grander scale. His goals aren’t fueled by ego or a desire for fame and fortune. He’s seen the effect his story and his work have on people, and he wants to share that feeling with the world.
“I’d like to go to New York. I’d like to be on TV. I want people to see my art. I want them to hear my story. I want them to be inspired.”
I’ll bet anyone ten dollars it’ll happen. Michael Davenport’s finely-honed work ethic, his immense talent, and his divinely-illuminated, inspirational story has the power to turn even the most depressed, jaded onlooker into an optimist of the highest order. Luckily for you, Michael lives right here. Even once he inevitably reaches the apex of his artistic career, his heart will always reside in Athens. If you’re feeling down, if life’s troubles are piling up on your shoulders and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, search out Michael. He’ll be on a busy street corner in town, drawing a bulldawg, telling anyone who cares to listen how a scared thirteen-year-old Georgia boy lost his arms, went through a period of darkness few of us can imagine, learned not only to adjust to his circumstances but to thrive, and how a little love, the help of the Almighty and an unwavering belief in yourself can lead anyone out of the darkness and into the light of a new day. – Bowen Craig