Features & Columns

Gallery 85 in Santana Row

Forty-Niner Vernon Davis shows off his art and encourages young artists at Gallery 85
Vernon Davis MAN OF THE HOUR: Vernon Davis, resplendent in pink, drew everyone's eye at the opening of his Gallery 85 on Monday. Photograph by Geoffrey Smith II

This week, San Francisco 49ers tight-end Vernon Davis opened Gallery 85 in Santana Row to an overcapacity crowd of athletes, businessmen, city officials and VIPs. Located on Olsen, a few blocks in from Winchester, the former bank space will now be a full-blown art gallery showcasing work from Davis' own collection as well as that of local artists.

For the opening celebration, nearly 40 pieces eventually went up for auction, mostly paintings and a few sculptures. Davis' own works in the auction included several still-life pieces, abstract figurative works and portraits of friends, family and sports stars. Other participating artists included Bruni Sablan, Mark Gray, William Rhodes, Lorraine Lawson and others.

I wouldn't quite say Davis' painting talent equals his athletic ability, but during college he majored in studio art, and he currently heads the Vernon Davis Foundation for the Arts, an effort to help disadvantaged youth realize their artistic potential via grants and good old-fashioned mentorship. That is, he's not bankrolling athletic scholarships; he's helping artists instead.

Each year, a scholarship is awarded to provide tuition support for pursuing a university arts education, with this year's award going to Niyjale Cummings, originally from East Palo Alto. In the gallery, Cummings' mixed-media minisculptures of wire and found materials were on display right next to the other works.

The evening was a star-studded affair; seemingly every news crew from the Bay Area was there for the red carpet, while the line for the mere mortals stretched almost all the way to Winchester. Quarterback Alex Smith showed up, along with other teammates, as well as Niners owner Jed York.

The room was elbow-to-elbow for the duration. Photographers pointed their cameras and snapped shots every which direction, nonstop. Wearing a rumpled pair of Dockers, I had to audible my way through $1,000 dresses, bespoke masterpieces and wedding rings seemingly as big as golf balls.

Cummings eventually took the podium, speaking along with city officials, arts leaders and Davis himself. He declared that winning the scholarship has given him a new sense of confidence, direction and self-esteem, things he never had before.

"I never would have thought Mr. Vernon Davis would be a painter," said Cummings. "I never would have thought he would like my artwork. I'm nobody from East Palo Alto. Nobody knows who I am. I used to Google myself and nothing would show up."

Continuing, Cummings recalled that, initially, all his friends thought he was crazy for wanting to be an artist. "I come from a family where all my relatives played football," he said. "When I started doing art, it was a new thing, and I was even doubting myself about doing it. I did it when I was younger, and nobody understood it. I did it in high school; nobody understood it. When I won the scholarship, everyone was like, 'Whoa, you can actually do something now.'"

As the evening wore on, hardly anyone crammed into the space seemed to pay that much attention to the art. One piece, a vase, even went crashing to the floor, after someone bumped its pedestal. I didn't ask if it was intentional grounding.

All in all, everyone appeared sincere in their applause for a worthy cause, acknowledging that the state of California must do something to get music and arts education back into elementary schools. It was great to hear a bunch of left-brain businessfolk actually applaud such a concept.

In that sense, the event was inspiring. Although Santana Row isn't all that unusual, providing the same upscale shopping one can find in any major city anywhere, Gallery 85 is quite distinctive.

One rarely sees a high-profile athlete who is also an artist, let alone someone with the will to financially support creative types. When I grew up, athletes did not do that. Instead, they beat up the creative types. And speaking as someone from a dysfunctional family who was probably saved from potential criminal paths by a lifelong arts and music education, I can only share everyone else's applause.