Other Names: Virginia Rae McDonnough, Rae Davis (née McDonnough), Mrs. John Davis
Rae Davis grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey. She received a BA in English from Wellesley College, in 1949 and a MA in English from Columbia University in 1952. She moved to Boston, Massachusetts in 1953, where she was at first a typist for an insurance company, and a year later married John Davis. The couple lived in Boston for a time as John Davis worked on his Ph.D in Philosophy at Boston University, and then on his thesis while teaching at Emerson College. Rae Davis typed out her husband’s thesis after days working in the admissions department and at the telephone switchboard at Emerson College. She would work there until the fall of 1955, after which she held several other positions: as the research secretary for Bernard De Voto, an historian and writer; as the assistant of the Executive Secretary of the Planned Parenthood League; and as the Administrative Assistant of an Associate Dean at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Rae and John Davis moved to London, Ontario in 1957, where John took a position as a Professor of Philosophy at Western University. They would live in London for 30 years, before moving to Toronto, Ontario in 1987.
Rae Davis began to direct theatre productions in the late 1950s, getting her start with the University Drama Society at Western University. She soon began to write her own performance art pieces, the first being Simple Activities (1963), a work which was never formally produced for performance. Over the following years, Davis wrote many more pieces, and while not all were produced, among those that were performed were: Six Performance Pieces (Forest City Gallery, 1975; London Public Library and Art Museum, 1977; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1978); Ghiberti’s Doors (Forest City Gallery, London, Ontario, 1983); Vanishing Acts (London Regional Art Gallery, precursor to Museum London, 1986); and Cataract (915 Dupont Street, Toronto, 1992; Forest City Gallery, 1993). Described as a “woman pioneer” of performance art, Rae Davis’s early works included multiple performers and architectural elements, along with the integration of her own writing. Later, Davis’s works came to include installations, many employing multi-media and audio-visual elements. Such installations included: Getting What You See (1987); Surge, a work created with filmmaker Barbara Sternberg, and shown at three Canadian galleries between 1998-1999; Relic/Relique (1999); and SHKSPR GRDN (2001).
In 1966, Rae Davis was one of the founding members of London’s 20/20 Gallery, a privately run, not-for-profit gallery, along with her husband John, Geoffrey and Goldie Rans, Ross Woodman, and local artists Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers, Murray Favro, and Gerald Trottier. The gallery, which exhibited art of many disciplines, including painting, theatre, poetry, dance, film, and music, operated until 1970. In 1982, Davis held the office of President at London, Ontario’s Forest City Gallery, and in 1983 was both the gallery’s vice-president and the programmer for performance and dance.
In 2001, a retrospective of Rae Davis’s career, Unfoldings, was held at the Art Gallery of Windsor. Five years later in May 2006, Library and Archives Canada obtained her archives for their holdings. Davis’s works can be found in the collections of institutions such as Museum London and McIntosh Gallery, Western University.
Rae Davis passed away in June 2006. In 2018 a laneway close to Euclid Ave. in Toronto, Ontario (the street where Rae and John Davis had lived in that city) was named in her honour; it is now officially known as Rae Davis Lane.
Biography by Karly Boileau and Luvneet K. Rana
“Artist: Vtape” Vtape. https://www.vtape.org/artist?ai=1343.
Davis, Rae. Curriculum vitae. Curatorial Study Centre, McIntosh Gallery.
“Davis, Rae McDonough.” The Globe and Mail, June 17, 2006.
Enright, Michael. “Re(creating) long-lost art.” The Globe and Mail, February 15, 2002.
McKaskell, Robert. Rae Davis: Unfoldings. Windsor, Ontario: Art Gallery of Windsor, 2001.
Murray, Timothy. “A Brief Conceptual Description:.” Contact Zones: The Art of CD-ROM. https://contactzones.cit.cornell.edu/artists/davis.html.
Poole, Nancy Geddes. The Art of London, 1830-1980. London, Ontario: Blackpool Press, 1984.
Rans, Goldie. Being and Doing, Rae Davis: Work (1959 – 1986). London, Ontario: London Regional Art Gallery, 1986.
Robinson, Arianne. “Seventeen lanes were named in Toronto this week.” Signal Toronto. Last modified April 5, 2018. https://signaltoronto.com/seventeen-lanes-named-toronto-week/.
“Seaton Village Lane naming, Toronto lane naming.” Seaton Village’s Lane Naming Project. https://www.kleinosky.com/domains/svlanes/2601.php.
Sternberg, Barbara. “Lives Lived: Rae McDonough Davis.” The Globe and Mail, November 20, 2006.
Sternberg, Barbara. “Rae Davis: Four Decades of Invention by Barbara Sternberg.” The Official Website of Barbara Sternberg. http://www.barbarasternberg.com/Publications/caught%20in%20the%20act%20Rae%20Davis.htm.
Originally published in Mars, Tanya, and Johanna Householder (eds.). Caught in the Act: An Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women. Toronto, Ontario: YYZ Books, 2006.
Click here for information about works by Rae Davis
in McIntosh Gallery’s collection.