May Davenport knew something was amiss when her oil paintings – some as large as 4-feet-by-6-feet – began disappearing from her home’s walls. But the 93-year-old Los Altos Hills resident didn’t fully understand the significance of their absence until a dozen smiling faces greeted her within town hall’s lobby May 28.
“Hi, May,” they said softly, a small gallery of Davenport’s artwork behind them. “Hey, May.”
Surveying the room, Davenport’s eyes betrayed a hint of nervousness, but her smile shone big and bright.
With cake, a Hawaiian lei of purple orchids and a proclamation signed by Los Altos Hills Mayor Courtenay C. Corrigan, Davenport’s friends and family members honored her personal accomplishments and contributions to the town, her home since 1969.
“May is 93 years young and continues to promote literacy,” Corrigan said, reading the proclamation aloud.
“They had to put that in?” Davenport said, laughing.
Davenport was born in Hilo, Hawaii, the fifth of nine children. She was just 19 and attending a Honolulu business school when the bombs began falling on Pearl Harbor.
“At that time, not too many high buildings and everything,” Davenport said. “You look up and see little toy planes up there. And the radio went off and said, ‘Get off the street!’ Overnight, we had to darken all the windows.”
Scores of civilians evacuated Hawaii for the mainland following the attack, but Davenport remained in Honolulu and supported the war effort by serving as a typist preparing checks for the government. The work was her first introduction to publishing and printing. She would go on to write and illustrate children’s books and launch a nonprofit publishing company to support literacy.
In 1945, when Davenport made her own exodus for the mainland, she did so to study piano at the Juilliard School of Music. When Juilliard became too intense, she developed into a talented oil painter, eventually graduating from George Washington University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in drawing and painting. She studied at Columbia University, the Arts Students League in New York and the Chelsea School of Art in London.
“Just that beginning seems to inspire me of what type of person my mom was,” said Byron Davenport, her youngest son. “She really was a brave person to go out there on her own to do that, and she (was) determined to be an artist.”
Shining a light
Davenport met and married her husband, Robert, an economist, in 1949. The couple had two sons, Robin and Byron, and the young family traveled to India and Guyana as Robert, Stanford Research Institute’s senior economic consultant, served as an economic adviser to those countries. Davenport embraced her exotic surroundings and documented her experiences overseas with compositions illustrating the indigenous people she met and the villages she visited. The United States Information Service sponsored exhibits of her work in Calcutta and Georgetown.
A Feb. 23, 1968, edition of the Communist publication “Mirror” described a Davenport exhibit at the John F. Kennedy Library in Georgetown as “refreshing.”
“They are full of colour,” according to the review. “Flashes of orange, yellow and pink in almost every painting – and the enthusiasm that has gone into the work is contagious. … This exhibition is fun – you won’t feel spiritually exhausted when you come out!”
Perhaps a similar assessment can be made of the sampling of oils currently on display at Los Altos Hills Town Hall, but members of the public are invited to decide for themselves; the paintings will remain in the lobby through Friday.
Mary Ann Malcolm and Jitze Couperus, Davenport’s fellow History Committee members, advocated for her recognition.
“Unfortunately, it’s loudmouths who get the publicity,” Couperus said. “There’s a lot of people who put in good, solid, many years, and they don’t get recognized. A lot of people see her and say, ‘Who’s she?’ She’s been doing this for years – good, solid stuff – and I guess there are a lot of people in this town who could do with a little light shining on them.”