On a November day in 1961, Emma Lou Davis was returning home from an archaeology dig in her usual grunge attire: Shorts, heavy boots and work shirt. Her sweat-sculpted hair stuck out in all directions, her fingernails were grimy, face chapped from the desert wind. Driving along Sunset Boulevard toward her upscale Brentwood neighborhood, she suddenly spotted smoke.
She parked on her street—leaving her old dog, Grundoon, in her truck–and jogged past the emergency vehicles and flashing lights to find all that remained of her home and her years as an artist: a black smudge and a mailbox stuffed with bills.
If it had not been for the fire, you might be reading about her today in Hyperallergic and ARTnews. Collectors would be bartering her pieces. Her story would have been made into books and movies. Rock art expert David Whitley once said that Emma Lou lived “perhaps the most adventurous life that I have ever encountered.”
The fire destroyed most of her surviving work as a Taos modern sculptor (she once had a two-person show with the legendary Agnes Martin), sketches she made while working for Buckminster Fuller and her desert paintings made from the cockpit of her little airplane.
When your work is in ashes and you are 55-years-old and have fought alcoholism and authority all your life—what is next? In Emma Lou’s case (friends called her Davie), she turned to the task that had always consumed her: Escaping the hold of modern humanity. “Her life has been an inexorable march backward into the Pleistocene,” said her friend Naomi Wheelock.
But was there time to travel that distance? Would she get there?
Davie left behind a rollicking autobiography, The Angry Shaman, that was never published because of threatened lawsuits by colleagues who objected to the author’s opinions and her bawdy tales. Fortunately, archaeologist Russell Kaldenberg shared his copy. Kaldenberg–along with well-known California archaeologists Ron May and Breck Parkman–added priceless personal recollections to Davie’s story.
The Bear and the Wolf
Davie was born into an upper middle-class family in Indianapolis in 1905, and moved to New York when her father took a job on Wall Street. From age four or five, she identified as a wolf and then a bear. “Until I was 10, I did not identify as human,” she said. This was not just kids’ play, but something more like shape-shifting. Slipping into the skin of bear came as easily to her as would donning the skin of a 10,000-year-old human decades later. Around age 12, she also skated between genders, identifying for a time as a boy: “I am a free and sexy boy named Emma Lou,” she said.
Key to her emerging identity was a fascination with Indians (she gorged on illustrations by paleoartist Charles R. Knight), anatomy and sex. “I had a metal tiger who had balls and I loved them,” she wrote. Her mother told her about a French artist named Rosa Bonheur who painted and sculpted horses, and young Davie insisted on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art—an outing that would influence her life’s course.
Davie had to leave her wolf and bear behind when she left home to attend Vassar College. It was there that she had her first relationships with women and her friends started calling her Davie, a nickname that stuck. (She would marry three times and have relationships with men and women throughout her life.) She became involved in Socialist politics and women’s rights, and joined the Wobblies—the International Workers of the World.
Graduating in 1927, she went on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, spending hours with her drawing pad and lithograph crayon at the Philadelphia Zoo. She later became known for her neo-folk-art sculptures of animals and humans. (Her works are often attributed to Emma Lu Davis.)
She had a troubled relationship with people, calling them “jibbery, jabbery primates given to cruelty and tantrums.” Modern humans—men especially–needed to dominate and control. Her Southern gentry father (a chemist and a banker) often insulted her mother (a graduate in biology from Bryn Mawr who studied music in Paris). Davie’s outrage at the subjugation she witnessed would never leave her. Decades later, she’d be a pioneer in feminist archaeology–though she called her focus “female” not feminist.
Animals were free of domination, and Davie would be, also. Early Man (as the earliest North Americans were called) had the same appeal: Humans in a more natural, animal-like state. There was a lost world of animals and ancient humans “to long for and discover”, she said. This world was made up of colors and primary shapes, elemental forces and unspoiled animal and human nature. Davie was going to find it.
Into the Caucasus
In 1933, Buckminster Fuller invited her to work at his Dymaxion factory, where she mastered tools and the rudiments of abstraction. “Shape simply as shape,” she called it, deeming this “the most instructive six months of my life.” During WWII she worked as a draftsman and designer for Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach.
During the Depression she did PWPA jobs–the New Deal art project–including a post office mural in La Plata, Missouri, and two bas relief sculptures on the Social Security building in Washington, DC. (It’s now called the Wilbur J. Cohen Building.) Davie’s interest in cooperative artists’ groups–a precursor to her commune days in old age–spurred her travels to Russia and China to study artists there.
In China she stayed long enough to learn the language. In Russia, she lived on a farm commune and helped a women’s crew dig the Moscow subway. Living with peasants high in the Caucasus Mountains, walking across Siberia wearing goat-hair socks and sleeping in snow caves at 12,000 feet—Davie now qualified as a certified adventure hero.
After her return home, she focused on sculpting animals in wood and terra cotta, along with abstract and human shapes. She served a stint as artist-in-residence at Reed College in Portland, then taught at the University of North Carolina and studied lithography in Mexico with the Teller de Grafica, an influential printmaking collective.
Davie would go on to have works in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She appeared in a two-person show with Agnes Martin at the Museum of New Mexico in 1955, and was included in the first exhibition of collected Taos Modern works at the University of New Mexico’s Jonson Gallery in 1956—showing alongside Emil Bisttram, Andrew Dasburg, Agnes Martin and other legends.
All of this sounds like a standard “famous artist” bio. Yet few people today recall Davie-the-artist. We don’t know, for instance, how close she might have been to Agnes Martin and the other Taos artists. Most of the clues were destroyed along with her Brentwood house. She doesn’t say a lot about why she left art behind, just that she was “burned out”. She is well-remembered in archaeology circles (her second 23-year career) but lost to art history.
While digging snow caves and teaching at Reed, she was all the while fomenting rebellion. Like many rebels, she drank. And she tried to stop drinking again and again, making three circuits through Alcoholics Anonymous in her lifetime.
In the 1950s, she moved to New Mexico to try once again to detox from alcohol—along with cigarettes and a failed marriage to her first husband, Bob McGregor. She bought a ramshackle house in Taos Canyon and made adobe fireplaces for her neighbors, ornamenting them with human and animal figures. (Taos residents: Check your chimneys.) After her next husband, Clyde Baker, left her (he was 18 years her junior), she started exploring the surrounding desert and going out on digs with graduate students in archaeology. During her years in her second profession, she said, “I really never stopped being an artist.”
Her love of the desert was jump-started by the aerial view. While still living in LA, she had earned a pilot’s license, eventually buying her own WWII trainer plane. “Flying is the symbol of powers to ascend,” she wrote. “In a trance, the shaman flies.”
Training in a little Cessna, she did solo runs from Santa Monica to Tucson. She had a boyfriend there who was a potato farmer. She studied the colors of the desert over Gila Bend and the Kofa Mountains: Ultramarine, cobalt, cerulean, silver. “Enormous blocks and slabs had been littered around by some gigantic child. As the sun rose, the blocks took spectacular shapes as orange light moved up their faces.”
The cockpit radio murmured a comforting code–daa daadit ditt–as she made abstract drawings of arroyos and thunderstorms, one eye on the instrument panel. Below her, “a plateau older than the ice age was being carved into a 3D jigsaw puzzle with buttes and spires.” In the air, Davie was getting a feel for the Deep Time that would consume her the rest of her life.
Another view of the desert—this time from the ground—opened to her on the archaeology surveys she embarked on. Stringing orange surveyors’ tape around stakes in a Pleistocene Lake Valley in the afternoon, she found something like her childhood nirvana. It was “me and the other bears”, she said.
Her co-workers got used to seeing her doing field work naked. (“Any human not bare-assed and uncombed is in costume,” she wrote.) Former California state archaeologist for the BLM, Russell Kaldenberg remembers Davie riding a three-wheel motorized cycle through the Palen Dunes, naked.
She took basic anthropology courses at the University of New Mexico in 1957—doing her thesis on Native pottery design at Mesa Verde National Monument–then moved on to UCLA for her doctorate, awarded at age 59. The relatively new field of archaeology was then dominated by men, and Davie’s peers often attempted to thwart her, reawakening her childhood rage against paternal authority.
Rebelling against the experts, she began to craft her own vision of the profession. She mocked the “freeze-dried scholars” and their obsession with stone tools, saying: “The little obsidian doodads didn’t do that much for me. I chose to work with the climate, with the weather, with the earth itself.”
In 1965 she teamed up with Death Valley artist Sylvia Winslow and the two surveyed the giant ground figures, or geoglyphs, of the Panamint Valley in a small airplane. This early religious art portrayed mythical power animals and water serpents. Davie’s earlier travels in China and her study of Chinese iconography–along with her work on design plans at Douglas Aircraft–aided her in interpreting the figures.
The proper practice of archaeology–in Davie’s view–was nothing less than shamanism. “It was clear to me that the scientist must become the psychic,” she said. Between jobs she called herself an “unemployed lady shaman”. She abandoned the prevailing mechanistic paradigm for something more mystical. (Imagine if Agnes Pelton had become an archaeologist.) Using psychedelics and exploring trance states, she traveled through genders and species to open “some upper world of intense perception.”
When she located a promising Pleistocene scraper or arrowhead, she sang to it “like an Eskimo sculptor with a fresh block of ivory singing: ‘Who are you? Who lives in there?”
Davie was walking boldly into New Age territory here: Marianne Williamson meets Early Man. She inevitably suffered ridicule from her peers. Her radical views could not obscure her scientific cred, however, and in 1966 she landed a prestigious job as curator at the Museum of Man (now called the Museum of Us) in San Diego. She was eventually fired because her bosses were fed up with her growing obsession with the Pleistocene Lakes country. Saying goodbye to the academics, she turned her focus to “the most creative thing I’d ever undertaken.” That thing was the Pleistocene shoreline of China Lake.
Early Man at China Lake
In 1969, two brothers named Dick and Bill Fagnant walked into the Museum of Man in San Diego with a shoebox full of sandblasted obsidian points and other artifacts they’d found on the China Lake base. Davie, working as curator at the time, opened the box and inhaled in surprise. Here were mammoth teeth from a creature that went extinct 10,000 years ago.
The Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake–on the northwestern edge of the Mojave Desert, abutting Death Valley–preserves almost a million acres of desert rock art and artifacts in an area larger than Rhode Island. Its off-limits status has protected the artifacts from looting and destruction. What caught Davie’s attention was the ancient system of lakes where saber-toothed cats, mammoths and Early Man once roamed. At the end of her life, she’d say that everything important to her could be found here on an extinct lake on the California desert.
The Fagnant brothers’ shoebox ultimately drew her into the biggest ongoing battle in archaeology: When did humans first arrive in the Americas? One camp–the “Clovis blockheads” as Davie called them–put the time stamp at about 13,000 years ago. To enter the ring, you tried to push back this date. When Davie saw the items in the shoebox, she applied for an Antiquities Permit, the pass that would admit her to the competition and to the sanctified grounds of the Naval Weapons Station.
Not long after, on a cold day just before Christmas—when most people her age were shopping for the holidays–she was walking back and forth in the wind on a protected bombing range in the desert. She followed the faint stain of the ancient shoreline, using her shaman skills to connect with the former residents. She was not interested in the prevailing myth of mighty male Elephant Hunters. She was looking for all the People of the Marsh, as she called them. The net-setters and egg-gatherers, the men and the women.
She concentrated on moving back and forth in time as she taught her students: Imagine the “muddy gumbo” of peat and marshes in a wetter era when humans foraged here, then flash to the dry desert present. Back and forth, back and forth. (The method earned her the nickname “The Sherlock of Shorelines”.) “The last of the saber tooth cats and the first of the humans drifted in and out of this valley as transients during an uneasy time,” she wrote. The humans’ uneasiness–then as now–was due to a changing climate. “A challenging existence was everybody’s lot.”
In the afternoon light Davie saw it: A brown toe-bone, almost metallic in its antiquity. Could it be one of the large extinct animals? Then she found the tool, a chipped scraper. The juxtaposition of bones and scraper told her this was a mammoth butchering site. “People!” she shouted to her teammates. When she found this tool—suggesting human presence far before the prevailing date for Early Man in California–her childhood dream of “lost worlds” was fulfilled. The incineration of her life’s artwork was nothing compared to this victory. “I’m hatching a completely new model of New World prehistory,” she said.
Setting back the date for Early Man to as much as 40,000 years, as Davie did, was the equivalent of a major show at MOMA in the art world. A coup. The glory was brief and the rebukes harsh. The Museum of Man dissed her; colleagues began calling her Crazy Old Lady Davis. Her scholarly articles were rejected (though she published more than 70 during her career). She was criticized for being too personal in her academic papers, for her writing style–which at times resembles Ursula Le Guin. The message from the men: “Muzzle this gal.”
At the time she was fashioning new models of prehistory, Davie also was experimenting with new models of human society. She’d always been uneasy in marriage and relationships, and as an aging woman she founded a commune in an old Scripps family mansion in Balboa Park. There she staged legendary hot tub parties with academics, students and Sexual Freedom League swingers in attendance, along with occasional police visits. It might sound like a schtick—an attempt to appear outrageous–but Davie was after something deeper. San Diego archaeologist Ron May attended the parties and says Davie used the nudity and free love the way she did all things: “to break barriers and open minds. Davie saw herself as the leader of her own social experiment,” he says.
There was always a yearning human behind the brazen show. Davey admitted she felt old and out of place at the swingers’ events. (She attended her first Sexual Freedom League meeting with her arm in a sling after a breast biopsy.) “Like myself,” she wrote, explaining her reasons for attending the event, “everybody is lonely and everybody needs love.”
Friends throughout her lifetime saw past the bravado. One of many accomplished professionals who admired Davie is Palm Springs anthropologist Lowell Bean. He was a penniless young man when he went for his first interview at the Palm Springs Art Museum (as it is now called) for a curator job. Davie gave him a pep talk and bought him a suit. In a tribute written after her death, Bean praised her “brilliant scientific mind” and said: “She was a source of affection, friendship and encouragement.”
In 1981, at age 75, Davie got a call from oceanographer Sylvia Earle inviting her to become one of the first women ever admitted to the venerable Explorers Club, a Manhattan-based adventure society founded in 1904. The honor would be a lifetime zenith to most, but to Davie it was just an asterisk. That same year, she had a heart attack and a mastectomy.
As she grew more fragile, she became frantic to protect the Pleistocene Lakes and to expand on her research. (To this day, her China Lake Early Man dates have not been confirmed nor have they been disproven. Like so many other Early Man breakthroughs, the findings remain in limbo.) Davie started her own Great Basin Foundation and endowed it with her own wealth to continue the work on Early Man after her death. But the bequest was frittered away by the directors who used the money for real estate investments near the border.
Along with creating the Foundation, Davie began hammering out her autobiography with her friend Naomi Wheelock acting as editor. Davie wrote in the introduction: “This is the story of a bad-acting woman, a fighter, a non-conformist who broke loose.”
In 1982 a stroke left her bedridden, her left side paralyzed. When archaeologist Breck Parkman visited for an interview, he found her bedroom decorated with photos of bare-chested young men in the field.
Emma Lou Davis died in 1988 in San Diego, at age 82. When Ron May arrived at her memorial at the Museum of Man, he was astonished to see 200 or so weeping people—most of whom he had never met before. Davie made May and others feel as if each was the center of her universe. “We were her children, whom she called her thousand points of light,” he said. After the service the Points of Light met at Davie’s house for a party. She left specific instructions for a Mariachi band and a drink she invented called Kickapoo Joy Juice.
Her caretakers relayed that Davie had been afraid of death at the end, despite her fearless march into unknown realms. Her ashes were scattered over the ancient lakes of the Mojave. She did make it back to the Pleistocene after all–back to her bear and wolf, back to the People of the Marsh.
Thank you to California archaeologists Russell Kaldenberg, Ron May and Breck Parkman for your vivid and generous recollections of Emma Lou Davis. Thanks to archaeology curator Barbara Bane and history curator Elaine Wiley at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest. The museum holds extensive archives on Davie and her work at China Lake. Thanks to Christy Porter for help with the images. For more on Emma Lou Davis’ New Deal murals, see this video by Kelsey Gustin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoApwfSSyJI&ab_channel=GSA%28GeneralServicesAdministration%29