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A Master of Art & Science

by Colleen O'Dea

There are no smiling lips, big teeth, or toothbrushes on the appointment cards for the Montclair, New Jersey, dental practice of Dr. Kenneth Davis ('65). Instead, during fall months anyway, there's a gorgeous overhead shot of trees, in every possible autumn shade from fiery yellow to burning red with some evergreens mixed in.

If that's not enough proof of Dr. Davis's artistic side, the oil paintings adorning his office walls signed by K Cantabene Davis or KC Davis clinches it.

Dr. Davis practices general dentistry two or three days a week and paints as often as he can. He squeezes in beekeeping on the side­producing 250 pounds of honey in 1999 that was given away under the name "Ken's Hives." Oh, and he's going to make time soon to get back to writing that children's book he started a year ago.

To Dr. Davis, there's nothing incongruent about what he does. The dentistry has allowed him to practice the artistry, and, more recently, the beekeeping.

"My grandparents were Italian immigrants," said Dr. Davis, who is married and has three daughters. "The orientation wasn't that you had the freedom to become an artist. I had to find something else that would allow me to have the freedom of artistic expression. Dentistry could do that because of its obvious orientations in art and science, and because if you can choose to earn less, you can work less and have more time for other things."

Dr. Davis has practiced dentistry for more than 30 years, and at the age of 59, he has decided it's time to pull back. He's in the process of selling his practice, which is located in a grand Victorian home off Montclair's main shopping area, so he won't have to worry about the paperwork anymore. But he plans to continue working as a dentist about two days a week for as long as he can.

"This will take the administrative burden off my shoulders, so I can take more time off," he said.
Painting is something Dr. Davis wanted to do well before he thought of dentistry. He spent his first undergraduate year at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point because of the scholarship and, at age 17, he "had no idea what I wanted to get into." Dr. Davis left because "it wasn't the right place for me at all," although he did serve six years in the Army Reserve and was honorably discharged in 1964.

"I've always painted," continues Dr. Davis, who is essentially
self-taught. "I've always drawn. I can't remember not doing it. When I was leaving West Point and making the decision about what I wanted to do in life, one of the reasons dentistry was attractive was that it seemed to me it would give me enough independence to paint."

Dr. Davis transferred to Rutgers University and from there, went on to dental school. He was president of his graduating class. After performing residencies at the state's two veterans' hospitals, he opened his practice in mid-1967.

But Dr. Davis kept painting. At first, he worked in a small basement room in his Cedar Grove home. He moved to Bernardsville four years ago, partly because of the large old barn on the property that is now his studio. On the second floor, which is dominated by two large windows and a windowed cupola, Dr. Davis typically works on two paintings at a time. He wears a white coat reminiscent of those at his office, only this one is splattered with color.

He has had his work exhibited at a few one-man shows, including one in the main lobby of the dental school in 1981. And he has sold some paintings. But Dr. Davis hasn't considered himself a serious artist, and that's where he wants to focus his attention.

"I'm ready to go public," he says enthusiastically. "I've sold several works in local galleries and off the walls of my office. I've never sold any in New York, but I'd like to. That's where my focus is now."

Currently, Dr. Davis's painting passion involves old doors.

"I took down about 40 doors in my barn, all kinds of doors," he said in discussing the renovations to the 6,000-square-foot building that, in addition to his studio, now includes an apartment for his
mother. "Painters can become too careful. They're more concerned with the product than the process. With these doors, I was free. I started painting with big brushes and bold colors."

The doors greet visitors on entering the barn. There are scenes from Italian villages, New York City, the Kentucky Derby, and the dentist's backyard. While the door panels can be constraining (they're old, so they're not flat), Dr. Davis uses them to his advantage: for instance, painting a clock tower on a door's center panel that juts out to give it a three-dimensional feel.

They're far different from the traditional landscapes and people on rectangular canvases that Dr. Davis used to paint.

"Now, I'm much more impressionistic," he said. "Instead of taking the old paint off the doors, I just cleaned them. On some, you can see the cracking (of the old paint) coming through. Not only is it a painting, it has a textured finish. I've even left the doorknobs on some. One is of a bathrobe hanging on the back of a door."

Dr. Davis said he tries to paint every day, but can go for weeks without picking up a brush. It depends on how busy he is­in the summer, when he's tending his hives, it's harder to find time­and whether he's "got something good going."

But Dr. Davis wants to make more time for it.

"As I move closer and closer to being a full-time painter, I move further and further from being a full-time dentist," he said.

The profession has been good to him, and Dr. Davis is proud of what he's done and respects his colleagues."It's extremely demanding and takes a tremendous amount of abilities in a lot of areas. I often say that if you can be a successful dentist, you could probably be a successful anything," he said. "It's a very sophisticated and competitive area of medicine. You can fall behind quickly if you don't keep up."

Still, the doors and the oils are calling, and Dr. Davis is now ready to give them most of his attention.

"Dentistry is less important to me now than it was. That's one
reason why I'm making the change. I've pretty much accomplished what I wanted to as a dentist."

 

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