Mills man taps spirit world for unusual art inspiration

Ashley Hagen Walking down South Main in New York Mills, one might notice a little house with a white picket fence, flourishing garden and hanging gourds in the front yard. Interesting as the front-yard garden is, a closer look reve...

Ashley Hagen

Walking down South Main in New York Mills, one might notice a little house with a white picket fence, flourishing garden and hanging gourds in the front yard. Interesting as the front-yard garden is, a closer look reveals the garden is only a small part of the curious scene.

Roger Davis, a truck driver by trade, lives in the little house and what seems around every new turn in the yard is another element adding to the outdoor art gallery. Davis, described by some as a "character" (in the positive sense), grew up in New York Mills. He is an artist, although not so much in the traditional manner many may think, and says he's always had an unusually creative mind. His art may be different than anyone else's and the philosophical Davis states, "everyone has to find their own style, and this is mine."

His style is that of woodworking, painting, gardening and an appreciation for the spirituality aspects of the relationship between man and nature. The result of this unusual blend of creativity, ingenuity and spirituality is a yard full of folk art.


Standing in the front garden perched along the fence are examples of wooden stick people Davis creates. They stand with long faces - not sad long faces - and hold "cougar sticks" in their right hands. Design work of the clothes and tools seems almost primitive, but with that style Davis puts character into each piece of art.

Creating tribal people made of wood, or "spirit people" as Davis calls them, is a long and difficult process. Found only around swamps, diamond willow is easy to find but still challenging to obtain. With the mosquitoes as harsh as ever, swamps are not a real comfortable place to be trudging around looking for wood.

Once he finds the wood he wants Davis soaks the diamond willow branches in a large tub for hours to peel the bark off properly. To make a spirit person, Davis uses two branches which must match together almost perfectly. That's not easy. Only once in about 15 years has Davis found a nearly perfect fit.

The most boring part, Davis says, is the sanding. Because these branches have many knots and crevices, therefore must be done by hand, the sanding process takes many hours. Then there is still painting, making clothes, and choosing the best accessories.

Davis's ideas for his artwork date back to old Finnish heritage and the ideals he believes in. Finnish mythology consisted of many various indigenous nature spirits and gods. Although Davis is not big on religion, he believes much in the spirit world and has many theories of what the world will be like when all is gone and done. He states, "One theory I have is that the whole world is doomed, but my spirit people will live on forever."

Spirit people are not the only intriguing pieces of art around Davis's house and garden. Birdhouses hang from many trees and sit in numerous places among the grass. Not ordinary living spaces for birds, these houses are made of gourds, squash shaped vegetables, grown in Davis's back-yard garden. Like making spirit people, gourd birdhouses are also a rather long process.

With love and care, the plants must first grow. In a few rows of garden, Davis says he gets many gourds to grow in the back yard, so the number of specimens to work with is not a problem. The gourds must then be picked, froze, and dried. When they are dry, gourds are habituated in the oven at 250 degrees. A hole is drilled, just big enough for a bird, and the seeds are pounded out. According to an actual recipe on making gourd birdhouses, paraffin wax is supposed to be poured into the dried vegetable to prevent rotting. Davis skips the pouring wax step because he says it sounds harmful to the birds and he makes plenty of them to not care.

During the drying process, mold grows creating vibrant colors to some of the gourds. Though the mold makes the birdhouses look more original, it is quite harmful to one's health. Having put the gourds in his house one winter, Davis says is noticed some health problems arise as mold particles floated in his house's air. He is now on the look-out for better alternatives for this method.


Every artist has a unique style and Davis is no exception. Throughout his life, Davis wants to continue to use his creativity to bring beauty to NY Mills citizens with his artwork. He has big plans some day for making a spirit-people family of five.

In the front and back yard, his gardens will forever remain admirable because, unlike many people, Davis says, "I can weed forever."

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