Julyan Davis Goes From Painter to Pantser

Julyan Davis contemplates a different time.
Portrait by Clark Hodgin

British-born artist Julyan Davis has spent the past 30 years exhibiting in galleries and museums across the U.S. Many of his paintings capture the disintegrating architecture of the American South, and his debut novel, A History of Saints, strikes a kindred note: It’s a comedic requiem to an Asheville community he knew and loved. 

“I moved here,” he recalls, “because it was a certain type of place, and now it’s not quite the same. One of the things I was hoping was that the novel, with its comedy, would be a sort of consolation … a shared sadness.” The action takes place around 2008, when Asheville was nearing the end of a unique era — having, for decades, been a livable haven for creative, marginalized misfits and elaborate eccentrics.

In real life, to keep their Montford properties during the Recession, Davis and his neighbors maintained “homes full of interesting tenants.” (Davis ended up selling his house at a loss.) Indeed, the novel’s title comes from a Benito Mussolini quote: “The history of saints is mainly the history of insane people.” So inspired, Davis gives us fictional characters such as Angus, who lives off income from yard sales. Then Angus comes up with a madcap scheme: capturing Chihuahuas with the hopes of taking them to Mexico to have them trained into a circus act. 

Davis, an oil painter, created the illustrations for the cover and for each chapter.

“Writing it affected how I painted,” he says. “I went from [depicting] disappearing architecture to more narrative paintings, where I start with a setting and populate it with characters who do what they want. For my Murder Ballads series, for instance, I’d find a movie-like setting and figure out how to populate it with an incident and a character or two.

“When I’m finished painting, I look back and have no idea where that came from. It’s as though another person created it.”

He had a similar experience composing the storyline of his novel. 

“In the world of novelists, there are ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers.’ Pantsers are writers who don’t know the plot ahead of time, but just do it by the seat of their pants. I am definitely a pantser.”

A History of Saints, scheduled for release on Nov. 16, is available for preorder at smpbooks.com. Malaprop’s Bookstore and Blue Spiral 1 Gallery will co-host a book reading and signing for Julyan Davis on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 5pm, to be held at the gallery (38 Biltmore Ave., bluespiral1.com). Davis’ paintings appear in Blue Spiral 1’s current group exhibit Rooted in the South, running Nov. 5-Dec. 31. For more information, visit julyandavis.com.

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