Constance Alexander: Unique Casket Sculpture Exhibit Puts The Davis Family Puzzle Together



Stories of tragedy were hushed up in the Davis family. Roy B. Davis, Jr. heard them in whispered fragments from his mother, Marguerite Schroeder Davis. She has revealed information regarding the mystery surrounding the murder of Rollie Davis, her husband’s father, during a baseball game on July 4 in Perryville, and the suicide of her mother Fannie Helm in Cincinnati in the early 1900s.

Orphaned before the age of six, Roy B. Davis, Sr., grew up under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather Marcus Helm and his aunt Jenny in Junction City.

“My dad didn’t want to talk about his parents,” said young Davis. “I think he didn’t want to put us through the agony he went through. He spoke to my mom and she told us what she knew with a focus on how it all affected him.

Until his death many years later, the elder Davis withheld the telegram sent from Cincinnati to Junction City announcing the death of his mother. “Come on right away. Fannie is dead ”was all he said. There was no mention of him, the youngest of four boys his mother took with her when, after the divorce scandal, she married a man thirteen years younger than her and they moved into the ‘Ohio.

When Alice Jane Davis died in 1992, a wealth of letters and legal documents surfaced as Roy Jr. sorted through his sister’s house and settled her estate. The Boyle County Divorce Judgment told a story of alcohol abuse and domestic violence at the hands of Rollie Davis. Several letters Roy Sr. had written to Marguerite during their courtship shared his childhood memories of Fannie’s young husband, who was even more violent than Rollie had been.

More and more pieces of the family puzzle began to come together as Roy Jr. began to understand his father’s gentle and secretive nature and explored the concept of transgenerational grief – the idea that unresolved grief can be inherited by future generations.

“It became obvious to me that these people who died long before I was born had a huge impact on my life and my personality,” he said. “I started two years of psychotherapy to get rid of the depression I had struggled with for most of my life.”

In an effort to honor these people and end the legacy of grief, Davis has created a series of half-sized caskets containing mementos that tell family stories. An artist, he used the knowledge gained through therapy to describe his family’s emotional history. Seven of these coffin sculptures will be on display at Murray State University’s Wrather Museum, Gallery B, from October 1 to 26.

Rollie and Fannie are featured, along with Roy Sr. and Marguerite, along with other parents with tragic stories to tell.

Inspired by the intersection of art and commerce, Roy B. Davis, Jr. founded Bert & Bud’s Vintage Coffins, an online business that designs and manufactures unique caskets and crematorium urns for customers from an ocean to the other.

Now 82 years old and facing the erosion of his once precise and colorful memory, Roy B. Davis Jr. can no longer recount the details of his family history. He has spent years tracing his family roots but no longer remembers this quest. When he looks at a lifetime of artistic work – including paintings, ceramics, woodworking, drawings, photography and collage – he admires the work but has no memory of having done it.

The exhibition at the Wrather Museum, however, means a lot to him. “I like to let people know about the story,” he said.

His own heritage, passed down to his sons Andrew J. Davis and Noah C. Davis, combines creativity, a passion for making things that are functional and beautifully designed, and a sense of humor. The quality of the work and the unique slogan – “Don’t be surprised without one” – continues to attract customers with his son Andy who now runs the company in Berkeley, California.

Artist and arts administrator, Roy B. Davis Jr. is a graduate of the University of Dayton and the Pratt Institute. He was born in Junction City and lived in various locations in central Kentucky and Louisville until the family moved to Ohio in the mid-1950s. He has lived in Murray since 1987.

The Wrather Museum, on the Murray State University campus, is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. For more information, contact Dr. Jeff McLaughlin at [email protected] or 270-809- 4295.


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