As a boy growing up in the Appalachians, Davyd Whaley dreamed of becoming an artist.
With little access to the resources required to pursue that future, however, and immersed as he was in a cultural surrounding that had little or no tolerance for such impulses from a “sensitive” young man like him, it seemed like an impossible path for him to take. On the advice of a respected family friend, he enlisted in the Navy after high school, going on to a four-year tour of duty, business college, and a lucrative career as an electrical engineer.
It was a dream deferred, not lost. Still a young man, Whaley was able to retire early, thanks to good financial management. Then, while spending time in New York with his then-partner (later husband), television director Norman Buckley, he started taking classes at the Art Students’ League; encouraged by his teachers to paint full time, he finally returned to the track from which his life had been diverted all those years before.
Whaley went on to become a respected member of the L.A. art community. He was a resident artist at the Santa Fe Art Colony in DTLA and a member of the Los Angeles Art Association, splitting his time between being a full-time studio artist and teaching art classes. He also devoted himself to a deeply held belief in service, turning his gifts and resources toward helping others; he taught art to the underprivileged, counseled grieving families in hospitals, and taught terminally ill and war-scarred children to paint. In 2012, he was named Volunteer of the Year by the LA County Board of Supervisors.
Then, on Oct. 15, 2014, he took his own life.
“It was very sudden,” says Buckley. “He suffered for many years with mental illness, it had gotten better and worse over the years. It got better for a very long period of time, between 2008 and 2013. He had really thrown himself into painting full time, and his career really took off.”
Whaley’s passing came just as his artistic reputation was beginning to spread into the larger art world. At the time of his death he was largely unknown outside of his own circle, but in the years since, Buckley says his paintings have become sought after by collectors from around the world.
“I’ve sold most of his work,” he says, with a just a hint of sadness tempered by pride. “There’s hardly anything left.”
The loss of his husband was a tragedy that hit Buckley hard. “I think that one has a real choice when confronted with that kind of loss,” he says. “One response is to just go into self-pity and a tailspin, and the other is to try and find a pro-active way to try and deal with the loss.”
“I really grappled with what meaning there was in the relationship, and how he had really inspired me,” he continues. “I was looking for a way that I could do two things. One was to promote Davyd’s legacy as a painter, because I think his work speaks for itself. But I also wanted to do something that I knew would have meaning for him. With the success of his career at the end of his life, he made an enormous amount of money, and I felt the need to do something with it that would be something he would do.”
The solution was to create the Davyd Whaley Foundation, founded by Buckley in 2016 to serve what he perceived as “an unmet need within the L.A. art community” to provide support for artists to just do the work they wanted to do.
“A lot of grants are built around some particular project, or some set of criteria,” he says. “I just wanted to do something that would give the artists a block of money and they could decide what they wanted to do with it, they could decide how it would help them in their particular practice.”
With the help of now-Foundation Manager Anitra Kyees, Buckley built a non-profit organization that provides grants for deserving artists (“I have nothing to do with that part of it, we have an independent jury that comes in and evaluates the applications,” he stresses) and has steadily grown over the last three years.
“I think that the best part of my relationship with Davyd was the way he inspired me,” Buckley says. “This endeavor has given me a way to feel his energy around me, supporting me in finding a way to serve others.”
“We’ve been able to keep it really small,” he beams. “We have a very low overhead, so that most of the money that funnels through the foundation goes straight into the pockets of artists.”
At its recent third anniversary exhibition, held at the Castelli Art Space on Washington Boulevard, the Foundation mounted a showing of works from seven artists – several each from six who have been its beneficiaries and one from Davyd himself.
Whaley’s piece, a 2012 painting called “Surrender,” is a powerfully anatomical work, a prime reflection of his fascination with layered, multi-textural technique that exudes the conflicted energies both of a physical body and a mercurial mind. A fairly large-scale painting, it sat near the entrance to the exhibition offering a sort of blessing and benediction over the works of the fellow artists displayed throughout the rest of the show.
These included canvases by Phung Huynh and Laura Krifka, whose dramatic, provocative, subtly whimsical images of femininity echo influences from 20th century giants like Frida Kahlo and create a sort of dialogue with each other – and with the viewer – across the space; digitally manipulated images by Ryan Jeffrey that present generic urban scenes disrupted by the ominous blur of an encroaching technological future; paintings by Andrea Bersaglieri that capture the eloquent architecture of nature, and by Susanna Battis which transform the mundane architecture of man into surreal dreamscapes; and large installation pieces by Lorenzo Hurtado Segovia and Margaret Griffith that reinvent classical decorative arts with a contemporary twist informed by cultural, ethnic, and historical influences.
Curated by Foundation Director Nick Brown, the richness and diversity of that exhibition is testament to the power of both Whaley’s vision of serving art by serving other artists, and of Buckley’s commitment to carrying that vision forward in his husband’s name in the hope that future artists – no matter their means or their background – can benefit from it.
“One of the things Davyd really objected to,” Buckley reminisces, “was how the art world can be very cliquish, and very hard to break through. He really believed in the idea that art should be democratic, that people should have access to it regardless of class, regardless of the imprimatur of the art community. That idea, of really trying to encourage people to think of themselves as artists – that inspired me, too.”
As the Foundation enters into its fourth year, Buckley has reason to hope its mission is just beginning. “ I hope we will continue to grow,” he says. “I hope we can expand in larger and larger concentric circles. And to carry out that metaphor, Davyd is the stone in the middle of the lake. That certainly is my dream.”
For more information visit davydwhaleyfoundation.org.