Michael Davis: An Open Letter To Debbie Allen
Next week, Milestones: African Americans in Comics, Pop Culture and Beyond opens at the Geppi Entertainment Museum. The show features unbelievable art from amazing artists and have been in the works for almost two years.
I was fortunate enough to be asked to curate a show on African American pop art by Missy Geppi, the president of the museum. I was and still am humbled to be chosen for such an honor. I immediately reached out to Tatiana EL-Khouri and John Jennings. Tatiana as co-curator John as adviser. I’ve known both Tatiana and John since the start of their careers. I was a mentor to Tatiana and I’ve advised John over the years and now he’s advising me.
Every now and then Tatiana or John will, out of nowhere, thank me for something or other I’ve frankly forgotten about. It’s always nice to hear and although I may have forgotten exactly what I did or said they are referring to they always remember me.
I’ve been in L.A. since 1994 and it seems I’ve been reminding myself since then to look up and thank Debbie Allen. Debbie’s former husband Win Wilford, then head of publicly at CBS Records, gave me my third professional job. I designed and illustrated an invitation for a Luther Vandross after party. The party followed Luther’s first performance as a solo act opening for Chaka Kahn.
Below is an edited version for ComicMix of a letter I sent to Debbie. I’ve taken out all my career highlights so as to focus not on what I’ve done but why I was able to do it and that was because of words of encouragement from people like her.
I’m sure many in emails, letters, and social media have told you how much of an inspiration you have been.
Although you may not have met them you have reached them as you reached me. In fact I can remember the very moment when you did. I was in your Mount Vernon home for a New Year’s Eve Party (81? 82?) sitting by myself in your kitchen.
I was a young artist at the start of my career attending a party filled with all sorts of successful people. An artist, (a broke ass one at that) was not, I felt a worthy enough occupation to roll with those I’d seen on TV or who’s music I’d heard on the radio.
You came into the kitchen, saw me sitting there and asked me why that was. I’d like to say I spent at least some time trying to avoid sharing my self-pity…nope.
I started to tell you how I was feeling but after a few (if that many) sentences you stopped me and said what to this day I’ve never forgotten; “Michael, Win and I invited you because you are a talented artist, we like you and know you will be a success. You belong here and would not be here if we thought otherwise.”
What you said next is what I hope will make you remember me. “I didn’t drive all the way to Queens to pick you up so you can sit in the kitchen.”
You and a driver who’s name I don’t remember drove to my apartment in Queens on New Year’s Eve to pick me up.
Your former husband Win, commissioned a number of paintings from me. One, a large watercolor of a proud 1930’s black man was the centerpiece in your Harlem brownstone even before the renovation was done.
I had no idea it was framed and displayed such as it was until I came to your new home to show Win sketches for a new commission. I was blown away.
“Debbie choose that spot.”
I’ve been blessed in my career thanks in no small part to you, Win and a handful of others.
I’ve wanted to reach out to you for years. Something always came up. Well, I’ve never been as busy as I am now. It’s Thanksgiving Debbie and I’m thankful for your part in my life and career. So, yes I’m busy but this thank you is just as important and long overdue.
I’d love to sit and catch up and if you like I’ll pick you up. I owe you a ride ;-)
From the very bottom my my long winded heart,
Win Wiford took an interest in me and because of that he and Debbie were my first and only patrons. One year, the sale of art to them was my only income.
Without that income who knows what decision I would have made as to my career choice? If Debbie had not spoken those words to me maybe my self-pity would have gotten the best of me and the next day I’m applying for some job I didn’t want doing something I didn’t love.
That didn’t happen and what did happen Debbie was a part of and for that I’ll be forever grateful.
WEDNESDAY MORNING: Mike Gold
THURSDAY MORNING: Dennis O’Neil