Damon Davis: 2013 Riverfront Times MasterMind Award Winner

Damon Davis: 2013 Riverfront Times MasterMind Award Winner
Jennifer Silverberg

Imagine controlling the vibe of a room with your mind.

A headset records your brainwaves, and within minutes, you can alter the physical environment of the space directly with your thoughts. Are you in a good mood? The headset picks that up and projects happy images — like sunshine — onto the wall. Angry? The projector beams an image of a thunderstorm.

"Your brain is a muscle," says Damon Davis. "You learn how to control your emotions."

Davis calls the project The Mood Room, a concept he's been tinkering with since 2011 and hopes to roll out as an art installation within the year. And as improbable as the project sounds, it's just the sort of big idea that earns Davis the admiration of his peers and the St. Louis art scene at large.

Those in the St. Louis hip-hop community perhaps know Davis best as Loose Screwz, half of Scripts 'N Screwz, the experimental electronic duo he formed with his childhood best friend, Koby "Scripts" Rogers. Though recently Davis has carved another niche for himself — and an eclectic group of collaborators — with the FarFetched Collective, a record label that officially launched in January 2012 for "the people that can't fit in anywhere else."

"We are the guys they can't put in the box," says the 28-year-old Davis. "We meet because we all got the same idea about music, and that idea is, do something different. We're tired of hearing the same old shit."

For all his connection to music, Davis can't read notes and scales on the page — and doesn't want to. It would take away the mystery, he says. But he works really hard.

"That's what's special about him. Everything he touches, he takes very seriously," says Thelonius Kryptonite, a member of FarFetched. "You have to work on your music like a masterpiece."

Rogers, who has known Davis since middle school, describes him this way: "He is crazy. And I don't mean in the sense of a lunatic. I mean actually if he thinks of something, no matter how out there it might be, he actually tries to do it."

It's that can-do spirit that led Davis to the world of fashion. With another long-time buddy, Lenard Blair, Davis runs Civil-Ape, an art collective known for its bold T-shirts. (The clothes are available for purchase at www.civil-ape.com.)

"I kind of view him as the underground mayor of the arts community," says Andrew Gibson, director of the Freedom Arts & Education Center, a nonprofit group where Davis mentors students. "He knows everybody, and everybody knows him. And everybody wants to work with him."

It's all rather hard to believe for a kid who grew up on a dead-end street in East St. Louis, Illinois. Davis' mother worked as a church bookkeeper, and his father, a Vietnam veteran, was an electronic engineer. Davis attended middle school at the predominantly black Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis where he was known as the kid who could draw really well.

"I had a huge, vivid imagination," he says. "That became my identity. I was a nerd, too, but that don't get you love in the 'hood."

He wanted to be a scientist, which, he says, is not all that different from being an artist, anyway. ("You gotta believe in something that is not there already.")

Davis went on to attend Belleville's Althoff Catholic High School where a majority of the students were white.

"It was complete culture shock," recalls Davis, who says his family lived paycheck-to-paycheck. "Sixteen and they get Bimmers! I didn't understand. I hated my parents for sending me there."

"Now," he says, "I thank them. I can understand and relate to people, because I've been exposed to a bunch of different things. My upbringing made me a versatile person, so it makes me a versatile artist."

That exposure continued at Saint Louis University where he was one of the first students to get a certificate of visual communication, the closest thing to graphic-design degree when he graduated in 2007.

At SLU, too, he says, "I was amazed at how much money people could have and not even be aware of it. I was just intrigued by that — people who live right next to each other, but they live on completely different planets."

He is constantly inspired — and at the same time disappointed — by the intense disparities in the Cherokee Street neighborhood where he now lives with his girlfriend. Expensive houses adjacent to decaying ones. Coffee shops that sell sandwiches local kids can't afford.

"St. Louis is a microcosm of what is going on in the rest of the world," says Davis, who seamlessly transitions in conversation from impassioned commentary on gentrification to an abstract discussion of what he hopes his art can accomplish. "You see how bad it could get — and how good it could get if we turn it around."

His work expresses his frustrations with the inequality around him, sometimes in very straightforward ways. Davis' current pieces on display at Concrete Ocean Art Gallery highlight various images of greed. One audio-visual installation with a group of illustrations portrays a "food pyramid" of pigs, wolves and zombies representing society's main power structures. "People are animals," he says. Davis has titled the show Empire State.

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