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 Philip Campbell Curtis  (1907 - 2000)

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Lived/Active: Arizona/Michigan      Known for: surrealist genre, figure, and interior painting

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Ad Code: 3
Philip Campbell Curtis
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:
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."

Curtis 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."

"At 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."

"I 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."

"I 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."

Developing the 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.

Curtis, reticent 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."

Curtis 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.

Curtis's 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 them."

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:
Born 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.

In 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.

He 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 Harvard University.

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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