Whether trimming his clients’ hair or whittling reclaimed wood into intricate figurative sculptures, the barber and artist Ulysses Davis was invested in shaping the human form. During the course of his career, Davis produced over three hundred carvings that reflect the likenesses of biblical figures, mythical characters, and American presidents and prominently displayed the sculptures at his barbershop for public enjoyment.

A lifelong Georgian, Davis grew up in the south central town of Fitzgerald and demonstrated an early interest in whittling. At the age of ten, he began attempting elaborate designs after studying the black-and-white cells of an instructional filmstrip, amazed as animal and human figures began to take shape from ordinary wood remnants. It was during this time that Davis also developed his barbering skills, much to the delight of friends and neighborhood children. While cutting hair paid little—sometimes only a penny—his father eventually purchased real barber clippers to support his son’s burgeoning venture.

As a young man, Davis found employment in the treacherous industry of railroad blacksmithing. For nearly thirty years, he forge-welded axles in Millen and Savannah while raising ten children with his wife, Walter Elizabeth Willis, and occasionally whittling. His career concluded at the Seaboard Air Line Railroad as the marked rise of interstates and highways resulted in layoffs for railroad workers. While the loss of steady income was a family hardship, it nevertheless propelled Davis to open his own business. Seeing potential in an outbuilding behind the family residence, Davis transformed the space into a bustling barbershop and artist’s studio.

When Davis opened his shop in the 1950s, barbering was one of the few independent professions open to African Americans, especially in the American South. Strict Jim Crow laws—both written and unwritten—limited the ways African Americans moved through the public sphere, both personally and commercially. Barbershops, in addition to churches and beauty salons, were anchors within the black community, and Davis’s shop was no exception. In his spare moments, he retreated to a corner of the shop to sculpt, restore furniture, and even craft decorated door frames and windowpanes.

Wood was never difficult to procure; Davis scoured the surrounding land and streets for cast-off material. Friends would also contribute to his inventory, particularly those who worked at the local port; indeed, many of Davis’s most complex works, carved from mahogany and cedar, were once stacking lumber in ships. Though he favored a pocketknife, Davis’s experience on the railroad led him to hand-forge his own carving tools; his barber clippers even occasionally found a way into his practice. Davis often embellished his carvings with repurposed materials––pieces of broken necklaces, sequins from his wife’s evening gown––that he called “twinklets.” The eye-catching additions can be seen on Count Dracula in the form of small, pearl-like orbs accentuating the creature’s three eyes. In his interpretation of Bram Stoker’s vampire, Davis merges Dracula’s distinctive fangs with features gleaned from African sculptural elements, which he studied and incorporated into his work during the 1970s.

Davis rarely sold his creations––“I don’t do it to sell it. I do it because I like to whittle,” he once said––and felt his pieces were best experienced as a united whole in his barbershop, where they were carefully arranged in small niches and on sturdy shelves. The Savannah artist-educator Virginia Kiah was an advocate for his craft, placing Davis’s work in local shows and facilitating his inclusion in Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770-1976, a 1976 traveling exhibition that also featured works by Howard Finster and Mattie Lou O’Kelley. What transpired in the following decades was a testament to Davis’s genius and compelling subject matter: he was featured in the Corcoran Gallery’s groundbreaking 1982 exhibition Black Folk Art in America 1930-1980, the 1988 presentation Outside the Mainstream: Folk Art in our Time at the High Museum of Art, and, on numerous occasions, met with former and current presidents whose images he had sculpted.

Today, Davis’s art is held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the High Museum of Art, and the American Folk Art Museum. The majority of his oeuvre––238 pieces in total––is in the care of the Beach Institute African American Cultural Center in Savannah.