Idaho Arts Quarterly Spring 2006Fonny Davidson: Portrait of a Western Landscape Artist
By Bingo BarnesIdaho Arts Quarterly Spring 2006

Artists played a key role in the opening of the West to American expansion. The paintings they brought back to the east were filled with grand skies, open plains and majestic mountains. Before the age of photography, these were the only images that represented this new territory, the frontier. Today, art doesn’t play the same role as it once did, inspiring populations to go see a fresh land for themselves. Landscape painters have become a rare and endangered species. Those artists still around today continue to document the landscapes of western regions, but more often than not, they are chronicling the disappearance of those lands.


Boise artist Fonny Davidson is one such artist. His work, while rooted in an earlier time, documents changes to the surrounding land have occurred over during his life. Davidson’s is a body of work that took a lifetime to create, and only when compared to other works–taken out of their chronological time frame–can one appreciate the true value of returning to the same spot, year after year, to paint the same land that has been there for millennia.

Davidson’s ties to this region are deep. He was born in Wenatchee, Washington, where his mother’s family dates back to the mid-1800s, about the time that part of the country was first settled by westerners. His father, born in 1877, was a blacksmith on the western side of Lolo Pass in Idaho and repaired and prepped wagons making the difficult journey across the border. During the 1940s, Davidson grew up on a farm in Marsing, Idaho, but moved around the northwest for many years. After returning to Idaho in 1965, he attended Northwest Nazarene College, where he received degree in English, teaching and art. After teaching English in the public system for 10 years, he also worked as a commercial fisherman, where two months of hard labor allowed him to make enough money to paint at home the rest of the year. Davidson says that he has been focusing on art as his full-time career for the past 22 or 23 years.

When he undertook his art career in the 1960s, Davidson says there wasn’t any art scene to speak of in the region, “But I was too young and naïve to know that.” He had been accepted in to several masters programs, but decided not to attend, preferring to strike out on his own. He is not one to go to a lot of workshops either, but he gives nods to many artists who have influenced his works. He credits his main influence, Del Gish, whom he considers a mentor. “He gave me my foundation and taught me to paint,” Davidson says.

Davidson wasn’t always a painter. While he began his career with painting, he also dabbled in ceramics and then sculpture before returning to painting in the early 1980s. Over the years, his sculptures have graced the grounds of Northwest Nazarene, and some of his works were in the running for the front of Boise City Hall. Today his garden in a West Boise neighborhood contains some of his metal works and inside his studio there are several wood models for larger works.

Fonny Davidson in Studio“I try to do something art-related every day,” he says. But that may not always involve painting. “There’s a certain amount of mental fermentation that needs to happen. There’s something to be said for taking a vacation, too.”

For many years, his preferred method of painting was en plein air, a French expression meaning “in the open air.” He still continues to do quite a bit of plein air paintings, often packing his paints, easel, brushes and materials–in plein air boxes he made himself–to a specific location, sometimes the same places he has painted many times. Davidson’s skill comes from a 40 years of experience, and at times he can finish one or two works in a day.