The Deep Blue Ridge: Former prison inmate carves life’s story in wood for all to see

Roger Trenton Davis is now 77 years old and still smiles at life despite over 40 years of freedom being ripped away from him

Vinton – One Vinton man is hoping his story of hardships and hard-time inspires others to persevere and he does so by telling his story through wood.

“I see things in wood in art,” he said. “My hands for some reason have to continually move. I think it is a creative instinct.”

Roger Trenton Davis, 77, is a cement mason by day, but he carves intricate wooden art with various scraps of wood on his own time.

Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)

“What you are looking at are pieces of my spirit,” Davis said, pointing to his different works of art throughout his living room. “There are so many things that are involved. Feelings and emotions. It is all in you. My art reflects all those emotions they are all named for a specific incident or time in my life that I think is very important. Even the hard times, through my art, wasn’t so hard through my mind. It was a way for me to be free.”

Davis grew up in the mountains in Wytheville.

Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)

“Nature was basically my teacher,” he said. “Hunger was constant, but striving to not be hungry was constant also. Basically, as a youngster growing up, my gifts were guns and ammunition. I had to hunt to get food to feed the family.”

That is when he learned a particular skill as a child.

“When I wanted a toy or something to play with, well you take a knife and carve something,” Davis said. “That was the way the old folks used to do it. I was really intrigued by that.”

During that chapter in his life, Davis said it was challenging at that point in our history, especially growing up without a father.

“My father was killed when I was 8 years old,” Davis said. “The Klan killed him. He left my mom pregnant in 1953. You could imagine what life was like for a woman with seven kids and one on the way. No job. No means of support or anything.”

He said that loss had a major impact on their entire family.

“They found him on the side of the highway. He lived 13 days before he passed away,” Davis said. “That was a time that changed all of our lives and that way of thinking. How do you go on from here to adulthood without that strong man in your life to teach you what you need to do to survive.”

Davis said his saving grace was that he had a wonderful mother.

Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)

“My grace was that I had a mom that was more man than about any man I have ever met,” Davis said. “I saw her go out and chop wood to keep us warm. She would carry water from the spring to get us something to drink. My childhood was hard, but it was filled with complete fascination. I hope one day that I can be the man that she was woman and man because she made sure eight babies grew up to be men and women.”

Fast forward through life, Davis found himself in another unexpected chapter that would change his life forever.

“In 1972, I was arrested for eight ounces of marijuana and sentenced to 40 years in prison and a $20,000 fine in Wytheville, Virginia,” Davis said. “I am still trying to figure out why I was singled out. At that time, I was outspoken, and I got along with everyone no matter what color they were. I didn’t disrespect anyone, and I didn’t allow anyone to disrespect me. Around that time, drugs were popular, and everyone was doing them. So-called slavery and segregation were over, so I enjoyed life. I jumped out there and enjoyed them myself. It just seems like I was the only one that was made an example out of because of the color of my skin.”

Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)

Davis said he entered the prison system as a naïve hippie, but he soon learned he needed to survive even more.

“From age 8, I had to be defensive,” Davis said. “I made sure that I was going to be alright and not let anyone take my life from me without a struggle. I think my dad struggled, but he struggled too late to stay alive. With me, I have been defensive since then as far as letting anyone hurt me. That led me to martial arts, and so I did what I needed to do to survive in prison.”

While in prison, Davis met several artists and that is when the art of carving wood re-entered his life.

“They convinced me that you have a lot of time and to do something positive with it,” Davis said. “Do something for real and take nothing and make something out of it. "

Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)
Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)
Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)

One artist, in particular, was a man he called Rockman.

“He would take a piece of slate and grind it up on the sidewalk,” he said. “And then he would paint it up with a toothpick. He taught me there is nothing that is not useful. Stuff we throw away are treasures. All you have to do is knock the rough edges off of it and put your signature on it. I found so much relief in just sitting with a razor blade and a piece of wood and creating things around me. It made the time obsolete.”

Davis did put his signature on things despite having limited resources.

“I had a little Bic shaver,” Davis said. “That is what we used to cut with. I would go to the commissary, and I would buy 20 or 30 of those Bics because the blades didn’t last long. The amount of product we had to work with, we didn’t have much, so you had to take pride in each piece of wood that you got. I would get it from the garden that I worked in. I was trying to free my spirit and my behind from confinement. I knew I wasn’t going to walk out the door until time was up. So, I found something to take my mind off everything around me that was negative.”

Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)
Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)

Carving wood grew more and more therapeutic to Davis.

“When I carved these, there was no prison, loneliness or anything,” he said. “I knew I was going to walk out the door, so I found something to take my mind off everything negative around me. "

While inside, Davis also found himself mentoring several young men over her decades behind bars.

“My knowledge has been instilled in me for a purpose,” he said. “All of my suffering has not been for nothing. It has been for this moment here. We are going to enjoy life. And that is what I try to do every day is enjoy life.”

Carving wood is symbolic to Davis.

“Every piece of chip or splinter I carved off a piece of wood was like a piece of me, and it was irrelevant and that I was able to cut off and perfect myself,” Davis said. “I was able to knock all of my rough edges off. And here they are in these containers. These are my rough edges.”

Davis has two adult children. As a free man in 2023, he also works as a prison pre-entry consultant for people entering the prison system.

“I am able to mentor, educate and help these people prepare for what life is going to be like inside,” he said. “Forty-seven years is how long I spent in captivity and that includes prison, on bond, on parole. It took a lot of practice and desire to be better than what the prison system said I was. I read manuals and guidelines when I went in. I was an educated black man.”

Despite all the pain Davis suffered, he said he doesn’t judge anyone by the color of their skin.

“I don’t judge people by the color of their skin or how much they weigh,” he said. “How tall or short they are. I judge them by their heart. A person’s heart. That is what it comes from. I can look in your eyes and see what your heart is about, and it is a beautiful feeling. You respect that person’s personality, and you live with it.”

He hopes that through his wooden pieces and through his testimony, he can inspire others.

Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)
Roger Trenton Davis (WSLS)

“There is so much in life to smile about and to rejoice about and there is so much ugly you can adopt and accept and wallow in it. I choose not to,” Davis said. “I smiled and laughed a lot when I was in prison because there was a lot to smile and laugh about. You don’t let hardship be detrimental to the point where your instincts leave you torn to pieces. I am hoping someone would see this and say, ‘This is what human beings can withstand.’ If I can do that to anybody, then my life has been well-spent!”

In addition to being an advocate for prison reform, Davis is also an advocate for legislative bills to legalize marijuana to help prevent what happened to him from happening to someone else.

About the Author:

Japhanie Gray joined 10 News as an anchor in March 2022.