Artist, tinkerer and mad scientist Joe Davis stands with his iconic sculpture Galaxy: Earth Sphere at Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Davis's non-traditional work has not always been welcomed as public art. His zany artistic interpretations have gotten him kicked out of countless schools and cited for a municipal trash-dumping violation. Such opposition has not deterred the scientific artist, however, whose expressions range from minuscule DNA encoding to broadcasting sounds in space.
"Artists have to open up a window on the world, because art must describe everything," Davis says. "Since all of our dreams will come true, somebody had better have some good ones."
Davis begins the day with his ’79 pickup truck. When Davis's finances get tight, as they often do for the unsupported artist, he sometimes ends up sleeping in his truck. Luckily Davis is fond of such machines—much of his technical training for the work he does came from his work as a motorcycle mechanic in his late 20s.
In response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Davis, who grew up in Mississippi, designed a 106-foot-tall piece that is both a work of art and an act of defiance. Here, bolts of lighting spark from a 1/10th scale model of the sculpture dubbed Call Me Ishmael.
"The hurricane is like Moby Dick, and this sculpture is like Ahab grabbing onto the storm and hurling energy back into the sky," Davis says.
Davis puffs on a cigarette at his Cambridge home.
Davis displays the colorful disks he calls polytractors, which he invented to create multisided shapes like hexagons and octagons.
A selection of Joe Davis's colorful “prayer flags,” which are printed with the code for the genetic markers of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.
Davis displays a molecular model of his Riddle of Life, a strand of synthesized DNA in which he encoded the message: “I am the riddle of life; know me and you will know yourself.”
Davis has spent 25 years working to devise sophisticated ways of encoding information in biologically secure carriers. He has coded everything from a Goethe poem to a map of the Milky Way into synthetic DNA, which he then inserts into the genome of living bacteria like E. coli. His vision is to archive everything there is to know about humans so that it might be safeguarded long after our species has disappeared.
Part free-spirited artist and part mad scientist, Davis is a maverick in both circles.
A workbench at Davis’s home is jammed with dozens of tools, parts and electronic works in progress.
Davis has been embraced as a genius by some and dismissed as crazy by others. But in the world of scientific art, Davis is a pioneer and a legend. He has spent the last few decades as a "research affiliate" at MIT and has also worked as an "artist-scientist" at Harvard Medical School, where he has a lab in the Longwood Medical Area.
Davis sits in front of his stone and steel self-portrait on MIT’s campus. The sculpture includes nose cones taken from heat-seeking missiles and a spine made from a propane manifold.
After losing the lower half of his leg in a motorcycle accident, Davis fashioned himself a peg leg out of an aluminum baseball bat, pieces of a pair of lamps, and a rubber stopper of the variety usually used to plug flasks in the laboratory. Despite many of his works being "out there," this exemplifies the practical side of his creative, constructive mind.
For more on Joe Davis, check out the feature article "A Scientific Method to His Madness" in the April 2013 issue of DISCOVER.