Ad Code: 3
from Auction House Records.
Parasols by the Shore
© The Philip C. Curtis Charitable Trust for the Encouragement of Art, Philip J. Curtis and Janie Ellis, Co-Trustees
|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|PHILIP C. CURTIS|
Interview with Jessie Benton Evans, Scottsdale, Arizona, May 2000
"I grew up in Jackson, Michigan, a small town that did not believe in
art," says world-renowned Scottsdale painter, Philip C. Curtis.
"It was a terrible thing to be brought up without knowing that art
existed in a professional sense. When I went to Albion College,
with a good art teacher, I thought, 'this is wonderful'. I
couldn't get enough of art. I was fascinated by the whole idea. I
didn't even want to go home for vacations. I felt bitter about
going through high school without any contact with art."
was expected to become a lawyer like his father. "First, I wanted to
get married after high school--a childish, foolish idea, but we all go
through these things. I thought being a lawyer would provide a
living. Then I got free of all this. In law school, I
thought I was doing well when the ax fell on me. I had flunked a
percentage of my classes. I was flabbergasted--and
relieved. I knew I had to make a decision to move in the right
direction. I had to go on and get deeper into art."
the University of Michigan, I was told that the best place to study art
was Yale. I applied. Yale asked me to send work, and I
didn't have any work. I decided to go there and say, 'I'm
here.' It was fall. Yale's art classes were full. I
persisted and said, 'You must have room for one more'--the law business
coming out in me. They liked me, admitted me, and gave me a
scholarship. I worked hard and was well on my way."
One of Curtis's strongest influences while at Yale was the
Renaissance artist, Piero della Francesca, whose columnar figures have
an unusual combination of emotional intensity and classical stillness,
and seem to communicate more by never looking directly at each
other. "I liked his simplicity," says Curtis.
As part of
the Yale curriculum, Curtis spent his last college years in New York,
and was accepted for the WPA, which sponsored government art projects
during the depression. "The WPA started because President
Roosevelt liked to play poker," says Curtis. "One person's job was to
find poker players to keep the game going on schedule. A player
came back from New York saying he was amazed to find so many good
artists on relief. This started a discussion. Why not give
them paints and brushes to paint rather than shovels to toss dirt here
and there? This started the whole WPA project in New York.
I worked on a mural, then was asked if I'd like to go to Phoenix to
start an Arts Center. Since I'd gone to Yale, they thought they
were getting a bargain, as I knew artists throughout the country."
got in the program and away from art, in a sense," says Curtis, who
rallied business support in Phoenix and put on exhibitions. "Artists
came from New York and several major curators came out to talk.
In no time at all, we had something going that would not stop, and two
or three years into the program I was very pleased with it.
Everything was going fine, but I was running out of steam. My
burning desire was to get back to important things. I had also
married. I then put in a request for a commission to do a
mural. Since I was the only one to pass on it, I was hired.
I started it and got to thinking, 'there isn't going to be enough
money.' The next job l lined up was a curatorship. At
dinner with a curator my wife and I had befriended, I learned how much
a curator earned. It was terrible. The highest salary I
could hope for was $2500 a year and that was in the best museums in the
United States. Instead, the war started, and I worked on programs
for the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C." During
the War, Curtis painted "as much as possible, but more than that, I did
a lot of painting in my head, formulating what I wanted my art to say
and how to approach it."
"After the war, I thought I should
probably go back to New York. I knew a lot of people back there and I
could get a job with them. All of my friends were going into
Abstract Expressionism. Some of them dropped out later, but many
of them made a lot of money. It was the next wave. I started
Abstract Expressionism and found out I could do these things. It
was fun for a few weeks, then went into empty tracks. I knew what
I wanted to paint by then. I learned that if I went back to
Arizona, I'd have the going price for a job, so I went to Phoenix and
started the Museum. We had funds and the 1, 2, 3 attitude of how
to get plans into action. That helped me for a couple of years
and helped me in New York."
Curtis considers himself a
surrealist. "Arizona was my savior. I liked the bare quality of the
desert. I could choose my form of art, and it was
appreciated. I was free to do anything I pleased. I didn't
have to be in the one-track situation."
Friends with the early
painter, Lew Davis, and sculptor, Philip Sanderson, Curtis states, "I'm
glad I had them. They broadened my interest. I'd bet on those two."
lost my marriage because art predominated," says Curtis. "My life was
hard on my wife. She had a good voice, was on radio, and had to
keep adjusting her jobs as I moved from one place to another. I
regret this. I see the injustice. I wasn't trying to
deprive her of anything along that line. I was stronger then and
expected everyone else to do the same thing. Men and women have
to struggle to make progress together. My wife and I are better
friends now than when we were married."
fledgling Museum let Curtis only paint part time. "It's hard to get off
the merry-go-round," says Curtis. "Back in Phoenix, in 1961, just
setting out on my new life, twelve art-minded people formed the Curtis
Trust. The people doing this could afford more rather than less
of everything. They paid for me to live for three years and just
paint. I couldn't have done it myself. Then we had a show and
they set prices higher than I dared think of--but not very high.
I sold 24 paintings. The Trust's head man, Walter Bimson, asked,
'What do you want next?' I said, 'A New York gallery.' He
asked, 'Which one would you like?' 'Knoedler.' He called Knoedler
saying that a group of twelve had put up money for an artist, they were
ready for a New York gallery, and to come out and see the
paintings. Knoedler replied, 'We never do that.' He put
pressure on them, saying, 'I'll call you in 12 weeks.' They
came." The New York exhibit was a success. This event
started national and international recognition.
to discuss his paintings, says he "warms up to putting ideas into art
forms more than words." He remarks, "I create a visual statement
around experience, and I have a backlog of experience which I feel I
can use. I care about a lot of things--life, death."
paints meticulously detailed paintings on board, creating smooth,
luscious paint surfaces of rich colors, which are carefully glazed with
subtle hues to give a depth and flickering glow. His paintings
are almost illumined from within through his use of yellows, oranges
and reds, which have become "Curtis colors." One can see cubist
effects in his angled facades and false-fronted architecture, on which
he paints scenes as if they are memories, illusions, or dimensions of
personality. His enchanted bands and circus wagons are often
found in trackless sand, the desert space stretching far into the
horizon, as if offering the possibility of answered hope and
fulfillment somewhere in the infinite distance.
figures are in Victorian dress, idealized, elongated, their emotions
contained but intense. Certain faces appear repeatedly. Curtis
calls them "familiar friends by now. They become personal, and I am
pleased to find this out." Some are people from Curtis's life. In
paintings like Grandfather's Departure, Curtis's grandfather is seen
standing outside with his horse. The elderly man is seen through
a window from inside a house with empty chair and table set for a meal
he will never eat. "Everything was taken from him at the end but his
horses," says Curtis. "He spent his days caring for them, grooming
Curtis has said, "I treat the canvas as a stage and the people I
use belong to an acting company of mine. When I paint, I have it set in
my mind. If it sticks in my head, that's where it counts. It's kind of
a one-man band."
"I'm getting to feel the edge of my success,"
says Curtis. "I kept at it and it finally paid off. I had faith in more
things than I expected."
|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
in Jackson, Michigan, Philip Curtis became one of the early painters
from the East in Arizona, and some critics later referred to him as
Arizona's greatest painter. His landscape and figure paintings, many of
them full of whimsy, are called "magic realism" and with recognizable
forms but incongruous relationships, his paintings also have many
elements of surrealism.|
As a child, he had an accident at age 16
that determined much of his life. He fell through thin ice on a lake
and from that time suffered crippling arthritis. He had always shown an
interest in drawing, but planned to be a lawyer. He was educated at
Albion College and the University of Michigan Law School, but after the
first year, he realized he did not want to be a lawyer.
1932, he began formal training at the Yale School of Fine Arts where he
got a four-year certificate. But his studies there frustrated him
because they were so oriented towards the classical artists, and he
wanted to find out what was happening in art in today's world.
went to New York and got a job in the murals division of a Works
Progress Administration project. His WPA assignment was in Phoenix,
Arizona where he founded and served as Director of the Phoenix Art
Center, predecessor of the Phoenix Art Museum. In 1939, he went to Des
Moines, Iowa, to start a similar project there, and having become
interested in museum work, he took a museum administration course at
In 1947 at age 40, he returned to Arizona
to paint and settled for the remainder of his life in Scottsdale. The
climate was good for his arthritis, but he lacked funds, so in 1960,
Lewis J. Ruskin put together a group of ten persons who created the
Philip C. Curtis Trust through which $25,000 was loaned to the artist
to free him of any work except painting. This period of concentration
led to successful exhibitions and sales in New York and Europe as well
as in Arizona, and ever since, he has been well known in art circles.
Into his nineties, he continues to paint every day.
Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, Interview 1998. Project of Research Committee of the Phoenix Art Museum Docents
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