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Life-Work

Local artist Clayton Curtis and his figures in black and white.

 

A woman on the train checks her face in a pocket mirror. Boston slides by behind her through the window; the man in the nearby seat chats on his cell phone. Simple acts repeated countless times by ordinary people, so mundane most of us would barely notice.

To Clayton Curtis, however, such images are grist for his creative mill.

His woodcut prints are alive with people going about their business--the vibrant figures in action evidence of his lifelong study of the human body.

Take, for example, the print of a woman sitting cross-legged on a bench, a lit cigarette casually held out to the side. To commuters, the brick building behind her is recognizable as the Lynn stop on the train line to Boston. The figure is natural, relaxed, and the picture is full of ordinary details carefully rendered, like the trash on the ground or the open window behind her.

Trains and subways are a rich source of inspiration for Curtis, who says he travels with his notebook and is “always working.” He goes home and turns his notebook work into compositions.

Other prints come from memory.

He explains one piece hanging in his studio of a woman at a counter with customers lined up behind her, “I always liked sub shops, and Sam’s Subs was the first sub shop in Lynn.”

Of the subject of the print he says, “I remember her distinctly … she was between 38 or 40, had dark hair, with dark, set in eyes, and worked there day and night. It smelled like onions in there, and I imagined she would go home and smell like onions.”

Curtis, who worked for 19 years for Swampscott Public Schools, began his education at the Vesper George School of Art, then switched to the BU School of Fine Arts, continuing there into the graduate school.

For further study, he attended summer sessions at the Skowhegan School of Sculpture, studying with many accomplished artists, including Edward Hopper and William Zarek

Thus launched, Curtis then taught at various art schools and colleges, and had a gallery in both New York and Newbury Street representing him.

The economic slump of the early 80’s forced him to readjust. Galleries were hit particularly hard, with many going out of business. Curtis looked for more regular work, and was hired by Dick Baldacci, the former head of the Art Department at Swampscott High School, in 1982 as art director of the Swampscott School System. This position put Curtis in charge of the arts, including music, in all the grades. After Baldacci retired, Curtis began to teach art regularly at the high school.

Although while teaching he found it difficult to pursue his own work, Curtis says that he “always loved teaching.” His retirement in 2001 brought the opportunity to return to making art full time.

Since his “retirement,” he works every day in his large Swampscott studio, which is filled with natural light, as well as work he’s done over the years.

Curtis began wood cutting 8 years ago or so. Wood cutting he says, “gave me an opportunity to make up compositions in the winter” when it was too cold to sit outside and do oils or pastels or watercolors.

“Wood cuts are all black and white there is no gray, no half-tone … you make lines closer together to create the illusion of it.” The black is left when you take white out; in contrast, with pen and ink, the black fills in the white paper.

A print of a mother on a bench, child in her lap and stroller to the side, is a study in lines, lines of the slats of the bench and the light between them, the lines on the floor, lines of light behind them. Yet, within those lines, mother and child are rounded into each other.

His studio also contains a dark room, where Curtis developed his own black and white film photographs. Some examples hang on one wall. They are portraits, and the subtle tones evoke a feeling of ambiguity that is often missing from digital images. Curtis agrees that something is lost with the transition from film to digital. Looking at these photos one also notices that his penchant for working in black and white has been part of his work for a long time.

What advice does the former teacher offer to young artists?

“Do it but don’t count on making a living at it,” he says. In addition to his teaching, not only has Curtis taken on commercial work, he has also lettered signs, and detailed motorcycles. He explains that he once had a specialty in pin striping British Triumphs.

Where can you see Curtis’s work?

Curtis shows regularly in the area. He is a member of the Marblehead Art Association, and his work can often be found in the Gaga Gallery on Humphrey Street.

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