It would be safe to say that most people have heard the name Norman Rockwell, but how about Lowell Davis? This Missouri-born artist was often referred to as a master of rural art. Davis was born near Carthage, in the original Red Oak, Missouri. Growing up in a rural setting instilled a love for the simpler life in him. After building a successful career, he would return to the area to create his own testament, which he dubbed Red Oak II.
A Life of Art
Lowell’s life experiences affected every aspect of his art. While he was only a small child during the 1930s, it was this period that he longed for the most. To him, they seemed to be simpler times with different values. People were actually neighbors and knew those who lived nearby. Life was more manual, as most people had gardens, and canned their own supplies for the cold seasons. Many made their own clothes or at least repaired those that they owned.
Red Oak II Resident
After World War II, Davis witnessed the changing of the guard. More people moved from rural to urban settings. Cities grew and small farms diminished in number. Small Town USA became an endangered species. This change has continued into the present day, and the landscape is dotted with ghost towns. The construction of Red Oak II began in the late 1980s and was designed to capture a moment in time.
Route 66 Vicinity
Lowell’s choice for Red Oak II put it just a couple of miles from the path of Route 66. This classic “Mother Road” was one of the original highways to cross large sections of the United States. Like small-town life, the rural highways would fall victim to progress and be replaced with interstates. Davis pays homage to the route with the placement of a 1920s Phillips 66 Filling Station that he discovered in Avilla, Missouri. In fact, most of the buildings were moved from other small towns to their new home at Red Oak II.
An Artful Life
Davis kicked his art career into high gear in the 1970s. He hesitated to believe anyone would be interested in his style since it was based on those simpler times. Something about his rural depictions struck a chord with mainstream America. Before long, his pieces were in high demand. I remember my earliest introduction to his work from visits to the Ozarks. I, like many of his fans, found his pieces helped recall memories of their youths or even a lifestyle they never had an opportunity to experience firsthand.
As we explored Red Oak II, we found that we were not alone. In front of Lowell’s house, we spotted these two cats doing some exploring of their own. During his later years, Lowell would have been found sitting on the porch enjoying the views of his creation. It was not unusual for him to engage with visitors, as he found these conversations to be a great way to connect with the world beyond his driveway. The creation of his “ghost town” certainly provided plenty of opportunities for conversations, as it has drawn in visitors from all around the world.
Down Home Aura
Taking time to visit Red Oak II created a change in our pace. Since our goal is to provide as many trip options as we can, our timetable is usually running at an increased rate. On this particular trip, we were actually enjoying a vacation, but you know I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to share it with others. While visiting, we saw others also scoping out the site. Some preferred to just drive through along the circular route. There is ample parking for those who want to see things closer up and explore on foot. We felt that choosing to get out of the car offered a more personal feel to our visit.
The loop through Red Oak II is about a half-mile long of level gravel drive. It makes for an easy excursion, which offers up-close views of the various buildings and sculptures. We didn’t keep track, but I would estimate there are around two-dozen structures to see. Some are private property but are clearly marked as such. As we wandered around, the slower pace of country living began to return to us. During my youth, I would spend my summers about 50 miles from this site. Of course, it barely existed back then, so I would only see Lowell’s creations during visits to stores in towns around the region.
The idea that someone would assemble an entire town in the middle of nowhere is quite peculiar. Seeing all of these buildings makes you wonder what would inspire this eccentric decision. It is when you see Lowell’s art scattered among the spaces that you begin to understand. His style was one that drew from simpler times and a simpler life. Viewing his pieces evokes a feeling of small-town life. The messages are easily understood, but stand the test of time. It is an art that can appeal to the masses since it draws on the basic principles of everyday life.
Telling the Truth
Of course, Davis would also pepper in his own unique brand of humor. So many of his pieces bring a smile to the heart, as they are easy to relate to on a personal level. He can hide the humor as a simple testament in a piece that focuses on the thieving habit of crows. Everyone who sees it quickly understands his meaning, but each reaches the conclusion on their own level. Then as we moved down the way, we came upon a piece titled “Woman’s Work” that shows he could hit you over the head with his humor. Throughout his career, his art replicated real life.
While we were exploring Red Oak II, we found that the buildings were not the only pieces he brought to town. Scattered around the open spaces we found some eclectic finds that were a blend of real-life and fantasy creations. An old automobile shared a small field with a plane of his creation. Joining the pair is an old tractor that has become home to another one of his unusual sculptures. It seems that Davis was versed in creativity in a variety of mediums.
Keeping the Law
We found that not only did he pepper his sculptures with humor, but he found ways to include it in some of the structures, as well. We loved this old Marshall’s Office, and could even spot some of the necessary hardware that is stored inside. When we turned around, we spotted what was clearly an old jailhouse. Davis had taken the liberty of labeling it as a child daycare center. We were sure there are plenty of parents, like us, who find humor in this little inside joke.
New Friends at Red Oak II
We invite you to take the opportunity to slow your pace at Red Oak II. The homey life exudes from this place and you expect to see freshly baked pies sitting on the windowsills of the houses that dot the landscape. A visit to this unique attraction is a great addition to a Route 66 trip or even a visit to nearby Carthage, Missouri. We know you won’t find another place quite like this one, and we hope you appreciate it as much as we did. Who knows, you might even make some new friends during your visit. Travel safely!