Pete Davies walks into his small, cluttered apartment and flings his folder of drawings onto his cot. Dressed in faded old blue jeans, boots, and a stained button-down shirt , he slips off his cowboy hat, revealing his long, grease-ridden hair, flops down in his tattered chair in front of the television and lights a cigarette. Sculptures, paintings, drawings, and books lay strewn across the room, among numerous ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts. The coffee table in front of him is littered with prescription bottles. “I was able to buy this TV because I sold an art piece for four hundred dollars,” he says. He stands and begins to make his way across the room, directing me to follow. He leads me to a pile of artwork, pencils, and paint lying on a plastic table in the corner. “As a child, my dad worked at a paper company so he would bring home drawing paper all the time… I picked up my first pencil when I was six years old and fell in love. I just knew it was for me, to draw, right there when I was six and I’ve been drawing ever since,” he explains. I begin sifting through the stacks of prints. I am struck by the sheer number of them, each containing a unique and stunning image. Mr. Davies is clearly gifted. His artistic talent is readily apparent. His illness is not so easily recognizable.
Davies suffers from schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder that impacts the way a person feels, thinks, and behaves. It is a chronic debilitating condition that can make it difficult for a person to integrate into society. “The only way I can cope is with a small amount of vacation where I can mainly keep to myself - just away from people. I talk to very few people. I get to doing artwork in my mind and then I just sit and wonder what I should draw next, things like … .” His voice slurs and trails off prematurely, a side effect from the medication he takes on a daily basis to treat his illness. Davies is considered “disabled” and receives government assistance, which helps keep a roof over his head. This label does not prevent him from pursuing his passion. Davies has been traveling and selling his artwork for nearly twenty years.
Davies spends most days combing the downtown area for possible sales. He is well-known by the locals. He barters in whatever ways he can, trading artwork for meals, groceries, or you name it. “I’ll give you two prints to hang as artwork for a sandwich and a cup of tea” he says to a barista at Missoula’s local Liquid Planet. She agrees and busies herself preparing his meal, all the while griping that he drives a hard bargain. After filling his belly, Davies enters a nearby bar. He walks through, scanning the faces of those inside. A few familiar to him say “hello.” Others look at him with disdain or ignore his presence altogether. After a short time, he concludes that everyone is “too occupied” to be interested in his artwork. He explains that he is very good at sensing people and that he trusts his intuition when he solicits his artwork and responds accordingly. “Intuition is the second greatest gift I have,” he tells me.
Davies makes his way to the courthouse, where he can often be found standing in below freezing degree temperatures with his art folder in hand. He explains he likes to keep pens and paper on him, but sometimes focuses only on selling previously made prints. “I usually make about forty bucks, sometimes only twenty.” A young lady approaches and asks what he is selling. With many years of experience under his belt, Davies has perfected his sales pitch. He converses with the lady for several minutes, telling her jokes and describing his latest adventures, before she smiles and politely tells him she better get to work. As she turns to walk away, she comments on his artistic talent and tells him to keep up the good work. She does not buy a print. Davies doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s the typical life of a starving artist,” he says.
Though most of his efforts at selling his work are on the street, Davies has done some illustrating for books. He also participates in art shows and teaches art clinics at middle schools. “I have been teaching for the past six years. Actually, mostly we bring books in to get the kids inspired, and we will do exercises like ‘draw your favorite dream house’ or something like that.” Davies has also sold some of his prints for shirt designs that are sold in local businesses. Now that his life story is spreading among the community, his work is gaining even more attention. With the help of the state, he is currently looking into obtaining a grant which will allow him to open his own art studio. Perhaps his hard work and determination will finally pay off and he can rid himself of the label “starving artist.”