Until his death in 1990, Davis added each new president to the collection of 40 busts that has become his best-known work. The works are part of an exhibition called "The Treasure of Ulysses Davis" that opens Saturday at Atlanta's High Museum of Art.
Davis, a barber and self-taught woodcarver from Savannah, Ga., carved more than 300 wood figures, reliefs and pieces of furniture in his spare time between haircuts and in the evenings. Born in 1914, he started whittling as a child, and his works were nationally recognized by the late 1970s.
But most of them have seldom been seen outside his home state because Davis felt the collection, which he called his "treasure," should be seen together.
He sought to ensure this by asking that his family arrange for the King-Tisdell Cottage Foundation, an organization devoted to the preservation of African-American culture and history in Savannah, to acquire a majority of the collection after his death.
"He understood that the body of work was important as a teaching tool and as an indication of what an African-American man and someone without many resources could accomplish," said Susan Mitchell Crawley, curator of folk art at the High. "It was especially important to him that children see it."