How a Blue Devil Statue that Was Raising Hell in Small-Town Mississippi Escaped, After a Brief Abduction, to Durham | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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How a Blue Devil Statue that Was Raising Hell in Small-Town Mississippi Escaped, After a Brief Abduction, to Durham 

When John Steele Davis got word that the four-hundred-pound blue devil statue he made had been stolen from a park in the small town of Water Valley, Mississippi, he was on the other side of the Mississippi River, visiting friends in the Ozarks. This news was surprising enough, but neither Davis nor anyone else could have guessed that the statue, after becoming the focus of local controversy and intrigue, would end up in Durham, a city he had never visited.

The sixty-two-year-old craftsman, who grew up close to Water Valley, had been a blue-collar worker most of his life. In the early nineties, he decided to adapt the skills he'd learned on the job to become a self-taught artisan in a dizzying array of mediums. He's created furniture made from twisted wood scavenged in the wilderness and banjos with tensioners made from bullet casings and bicycle spokes (renowned North Carolina musician Jimbo Mathus owns one, according to Davis's friend, Billy Stevens). He's currently building himself a haybale home.

In 2015, Davis began work on a statue of Uncle Sam, but then he realized that by making a few alterations—a pitchfork and a tail—he could turn it into a blue devil, which is the mascot of Water Valley High School. Davis drew inspiration from stories he'd read when he was in high school, including The Devil and Tom Walker by Washington Irving, which was based on the German legend of Faust.

It's not uncommon for Davis to be inspired by things he's read, says Stevens, a longtime Durham County resident who first met Davis while studying music history in Oxford, Mississippi. Stevens describes Davis as an almost impossible juxtaposition of rural farmworker and worldly intellectual. Although he never graduated from college, Davis is well read and curious.

"People will call on John when you want something done in a kind of old-timey way," Stevens says. "You know, 'Call John Davis because he probably did it once with his grandfather when he was a kid.'" Stevens recalls that, when neighbors complained of a wild boar causing a nuisance in their yards, Davis took it as a chance to experiment with an ancient cooking technique. He shot and cleaned the boar himself and built an underground pit that he'd read about called an earth oven to roast the boar overnight.

Following the statue's completion, Davis received permission from Water Valley's Main Street Association to place it at a small park near the center of town, where it became something of a local celebrity. During the city's art crawl, people from all over the region came to see it, Davis says. On prom night, students from Water Valley High School took pictures with it.

But some vocal critics, informed by religious convictions, did not want a lifelike devil to become the face of their community. Davis recalls a contentious debate at the local arts council over whether the blue devil should have been moved after its initial showing at the town's art crawl.

With a stoic, slightly sad gaze and rich hues of silver and sapphire, the life-size statue is indeed difficult to ignore. In a town that has allowed beer only since 2007, the criticism wasn't all that surprising to the craftsman. But he hadn't anticipated that it would amount to anything.

"There was somebody in town that was putting a lot of pressure on anybody he could find with influence, and I had been asked by a few people to move the blue devil," Davis says, in his mellow Southern drawl, referring to a prominent local artist. "These people didn't have the authority, but they wanted it moved."

Then, while he was away in the Ozarks in May 2017, Davis received a call from Mickey Howley, a member of the Water Valley Main Street Association, who, as Davis remembers, asked, "John, what'd you do with your blue devil? I came into town this morning and saw that it was gone."

Davis immediately enlisted a group of friends to help search for the statue while he was away. Many of them, including Bill Becker, who reported the statue's disappearance to the police, thought that employees of the town's government were behind the disappearance, a rumor that quickly spread online. Davis claims that those suspicions were confirmed when he spoke on the phone with a high-ranking official in the town's government who admitted that he assisted in the abduction, along with several other government staff members, and apologized.

The morning after Becker filed a police report, the statue was quietly returned to the local police department—albeit in a damaged state, with a broken tail and hand and a hole in its back. Davis chose not to press any charges. Instead, he says, he asked the perpetrators to donate money to the library of the local Davidson Elementary School as compensation. An administrator at the school says she recalled discussing the payment last year, but could not verify that a donation was made.

Davis based his decision on the idea that one should not fight fire with fire. "I thought, 'Well, I'm just letting it all go,"' he says. "I had been in trouble before, when I was younger, and people had been merciful to me."

Though the theft occurred a year ago, officials at the Water Valley Police Department would not comment on the case, saying it was still under investigation.

When Davis talks about his blue devil, it's almost as if he sees it as a living, breathing creature, tormented by the town and exhausted by all of the spectacle. In some ways, his personification of the statue reflects his current disposition.

"It put me through a lot when that happened," Davis says. "I was pretty wound up, and I was fortunate that I was surrounded by some friends that advised me to calm down and take the high road."

But it was clearly time for the statue to find a new home. Davis remembered that the blue devil was also the mascot of Duke University. He transported the piece to Durham with the help of Billy Stevens—call him the devil's advocate.

Earlier this month, Davis drove through Duke's campus with the statue hoisted upright on the back of his pickup truck—"tied down kind of like Gulliver, so he wouldn't tip over," Davis says. The first stop was Duke's law school, which he was excited to visit because it was where Richard Nixon studied. Davis and his friends also took a picture of the blue devil in front of Cameron Stadium.

"Pretty much anybody who walked by stopped and looked at it," Stevens says. "It certainly attracted attention everywhere it went. It got a good tour of Duke."

Stevens, who knew Bull City Art & Frame Company co-owner Lewis Bowles through a business networking group, reached out about putting the statue on display in the shop's gallery. The custom frame shop at Brightleaf Square usually features the work of local artists, says gallery curator Michelle Draughon. But after hearing about the statue's history in Mississippi, the shop became increasingly interested in housing it.

"We just thought it was very appropriate to have something here that was synonymous with Duke," Draughon explains. "And also, personally, I was intrigued by the story that there was actually a high school somewhere else in the country that went by the name Blue Devils for their sports program. The more I heard about the backstory, the more fun it was."

The blue devil is on sale at the shop for a negotiable price of $14,850, which Draughon said was at Davis's discretion. As for the artist, he went back to Mississippi, leaving his dear friend behind for good. After a turbulent life and a long journey, Davis thinks it's time for the blue devil to rest.

"I'd like to have him outdoors, sitting up on a pedestal a little bit, where he could be seen in a public place, either on a street somewhere or maybe on the Duke campus," he says. "That's what I envisioned, but we'll just see how it turns out."

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