At first glance, it’s easy to forget that Lowell Davis is a world-famous artist. Clad in button-up plaid and blue jeans, hand accessorized by a pipe packed with Prince Albert tobacco, this approachable man can often be found relaxing on his front porch in Red Oak II.
He doesn’t sound like city folk, either. Noticing a visitor’s approach through the muddy muck of a recent rain, he says that “around here, we take off our shoes and roll up our pant legs.” Because – despite the fame and fortune – he still thinks of himself as a hillbilly.
I live in the middle of my art, in the middle of my dreams,” says Lowell. “Very few people are fortunate enough to be able to do that.”
Lowell’s world is much different today than it was during the so-called glory days. He doesn’t really paint any longer — his arthritis is too bad — and his trips in first class to visit collectors aren’t on the agenda. The accompanying fortune is long gone. Yet he says he’s never been happier. “I live in the middle of my art, in the middle of my dreams,” says Lowell. “Very few people are fortunate enough to be able to do that.”
The dream he is referring to is Red Oak II. Located just outside Carthage, Red Oak II became one of Lowell’s pet projects more than 30 years ago. It’s a collection of more than 40 vintage buildings that comprise a real, but fake, town. But to appreciate this place, one must first know about the man behind it.
Red Oak II at a glance
The early days
Lowell Davis spent much of his growing-up years in the town of Red Oak. Not II, mind you. Just Red Oak. Located approximately 30 miles from Carthage, it was where Lowell was born. “Both sides of my ancestors pioneered it,” says Lowell, who notes that six sets of his grandparents and great-grandparents lived there. “It had a lot of meaning to me.”
After graduating from high school in Carthage, Lowell joined the Air Force and spent the next few years in Europe and Africa. When he returned to the U.S., he landed in the Dallas/Forth Worth area where he worked nearly 15 years as an art director for a magazine called “Sex to Sexty.” It was one of the things he did before he got religion, he says. “I did all the covers for it for years.”
During that time, Lowell’s career as an artist really took off. But something was missing. “All that 13 years, all I could think about was getting me a farm back in Missouri,” says Lowell. “There’s something about the Ozarks. The name itself turns me on.”
Lowell eventually made it back to Missouri, where he bought FoxFire farm located near Carthage. Things, however, had changed in the nearly 20 years he’d been gone. “When I came back, all these country schools and country churches were falling down,” he says. “And the general stores and all these little businesses that scattered the countryside, they were gone.”
He decided that something had to be done to preserve what was left before things disappeared for good. So he grabbed his camera and began capturing all he could find, including old family farms. “Then I started feelings sorry for them,” he says of the farms’ buildings. “(So I started) picking them up and moving them over to my farm.”
After relocating a handful of chicken houses, privies and corn cribs – and starting a farm museum – Lowell realized that something would have to change. And by the early 1980s, he had the resources to make it happen. “I started making money and I didn’t really know what to do with it,” says Lowell.
It was time to expand.
The reality of Red Oak II
Looking next door, Lowell saw something only an artist can appreciate: a blank canvas. Well, actually, it was a cornfield – but offered a dangerously promising opportunity. With recollections of the original Red Oak in his mind, Lowell set out to recreate the town where he had so many memories as a child.
“Actually, the first (building) was the feed store down here,” he recalls. “Then the schoolhouse came in. Then the general store. Then I just kinda went wild from there.” That “wild” translates into the relocation of more than 40 buildings, the farthest one coming all the way from Vinita, Oklahoma. “My art material was what somebody else threw away,” he notes, affectionately calling the buildings “basket cases,” things that wouldn’t have survived today if left in their previous locations.
At one time, many parts of Red Oak II operated just like a real town. The general store sold cold soda pop, candy and other items one would expect to find in a shop of yesteryear. The Black Hen Café served up meals every day, the schoolhouse was open to visitors and guests could attend church on Sundays. While the project may have been considered unusual by some, Lowell says he doesn’t remember anyone asking him why he was doing it. But “they didn’t let their kids run around with my kids,” he jokes.
The town ultimately cost Lowell a lot. There were the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the buildings, but also the emotional – and financial – toll of divorce.
Those were some of the darkest days of Lowell’s life. Many of the buildings in the town were sold, and it was during this period when he “had a bad hair day” and torched his studio. When asked what really caused him to do that, he notes that “whenever a man does something really stupid, crazy, unheard of, there’s a woman somewhere involved.”
But in Lowell’s case, a woman also helped turn his life around. On a trip to the Philippines, Lowell met his current wife Rose, who relocated to Red Oak II 15 years ago. Together they live in the Belle Starr House, named for the notorious woman outlaw. In fact, part of the house was where she was born – and the other half is an exact replica of where she was killed.
Although Lowell doesn’t advertise, visitors are always welcome at Red Oak II. In fact, he loves it when they show up. “There’s just something in the air that has a magic to it,” he says. “My biggest compliment is when someone says ‘It’s enchanting’ or ‘It’s mystical’ or something because it is. I don’t know what causes it, it just happens.”
The artist behind the town
Lowell Davis rose to fame in the 1970s. An initial contract eventually led his bucolic art – at the time, consisting of figurines and paintings – to be sold at more than 2,000 gift shops in the United States and Canada. His sought-after scenes of rural life brought appreciation and depth to the Ozarks, the inspiration for which was often pulled from his own life. “I have the advantage that my work has soul and people can relate to it,” he remarks.
Although he doesn’t know for sure, Lowell estimates that he’s done between 3,000 and 4,000 paintings. That’s in addition to his 450 figurines, many of which were produced in Scotland. At one time, he also became a children’s author, writing and illustrating a book on Big Jack and Goldie, two chickens from his flock. Why did he do this? “There’s nothing real in kids’ lives (today),” says Lowell, noting how time and technology has altered youngsters’ experiences. One real thing, ironically, is Red Oak II. “They can come here and see the animals and the buildings.”
Those days of fame aren’t something that Lowell wishes to see again. “It’s a curse to be rich and famous,” he says. “And I found out what it’s like to be cursed when I was rich. ‘Cause you didn’t know who your friends were. The fame part is the worst. I’m a recluse because I don’t want to open the door to somebody.” The door he refers to isn’t physical. “I’m talking about opening the door to friendship.”
Today, tomorrow and the future
These days, Lowell spends much of his time at Red Oak II. He’s still creating, but now instead of paintings and sculptures, he concentrates on outdoor signs. Many of them can be seen around the Carthage area, although others may start showing up elsewhere as his work continues.
Walking out behind his house, Lowell gestures to the town’s cemetery. No, there’s no one buried there. At least not yet.
“Someday it’ll be a real cemetery,” says Lowell, pointing to a stone in the middle of the hill. “See that brown stone up there, that finger? That’s mine. Where would you be buried if you were me?”
Want to visit?
Red Oak II (County Loop 122, Kafir Rd., Carthage; 417-237-0808) is located approximately five minutes outside of Carthage. The town is always open to visitors, although one should keep in mind that many of the homes are privately owned and courtesy to residents is appreciated.
By the way, Lowell says he doesn’t have a favorite building at Red Oak II. “It’s kinda like, which is your favorite kid?” he says. “I love ‘em all, you know.”