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Portrait of an artist
Like his renowned oil paintings, Thomas 
Pelham Curtis' life reveals many layers

By WILLY THORN

November 2004

A solo exhibition of portrait artist Thomas Pelham Curtis’ work is on display at the Ciao Cafe in Whitefish Bay through December.


We lead many lives," Thomas Pelham Curtis explains, racing through his history.

A bachelor’s degree in architecture from Harvard under Bauhaus mainstay Walter Gropius. Advanced degrees in drawing at Washington’s Corcoran Institute, and oil painting at Cardinal Stritch. An advertising stint, years as an editorial cartoonist and decades in the military (he retired in 1987, a lieutenant colonel). Now, four days a week, he is a one-man high school art department. On the fifth, he is a globally renowned portraitist.

Dressed in jeans and a striped shirt, a blazer and tennis shoes, he sits across a table at Ciao CafŽ in Whitefish Bay cradling a bronze award he sculpted, and explained how, as a man of faith first and foremost, he attended an interfaith conference in the Middle East in hopes of furthering peace and understanding.

His family line is steeped in history: He is a direct descendant of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland, and can trace his lineage to Charlemagne. His family came over on the Mayflower. He was born in New York and raised on the Maryland side of Washington. He attended Sidwell Friends School (alma mater, of amongst others, Chelsea Clinton), and Harvard, where he joined the literary Signet Society, and "made a terrible mistake," he says. "I joined the Harvard Lampoon. We had a castle where we’d meet every week. There was a huge fire and all the alcohol you could drink. It was a baronial hall with a full banquet. It looked like something from the Middle Ages É that corrupted me. I became a cartoonist.

"I also joined ROTC, graduated as second lieutenant and did two years active duty," he says. "I signed on for an indefinite tour of duty through Germany, and was stationed (for three years) in Heidelberg."

He requested out of active duty to try his hand at professional cartooning.

"In 1964, LBJ won in a landslide," he says. "In 1965 the Bay of Tonkin hit. And there were no more requests out. I had good timing."

When he retired from the service three decades later, he left with the Armed Forces Reserve Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Army Reserve Component Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and the National Defense Service Medal.

But in 1965, he went to Washington, D.C., and lived with his parents. "My father stockpiled strategic materials, my mother was a portraitist - and I did cartoons," he says. "But there were no jobs.

"Three and half years later, the Milwaukee Sentinel hired me on. I packed up and drove the 13 hours to Milwaukee. It was the first time I’d been there. I stayed at the downtown YMCA - that MU now has - then got an apartment on the lake, just off Brady Street. Milwaukee reminds me a little of Maine, where we used to escape the heat and humidity of D.C. summers. I also served in Germany, so the German culture is very familiar."

Curtis spent 14 years as the cartoonist for the Milwaukee Sentinel, doing free-lance work for the National Review.

"Those days I was just working in black and white, pen and ink and oil," he says. "In 1972 I was married. We moved to Whitefish Bay. I was not ready for the lake," he shudders. "It was bitter cold."

He parted ways with the Sentinel in 1984, tried advertising briefly, then moved to Menomonee Falls with his wife and five children to teach art history at Brookfield Academy.

"But there was no art program. Literally, none," he says. "I taught for free to interested students on my lunch break. Now I teach a full seven hours a day. Though, I keep Fridays free for portraiture."

It was a natural extension. In political cartoons "you end up doing portraits anyway," he says. "I don’t distort the face, like draw Khomeini with fangs. I don’t particularly like Ted Kennedy, but I make him look like himself. I ridicule ideas, but not people.

"I began to develop a style in the hopes É of a great project," he says. "I wanted to paint the 12 greatest conservatives, before they died," in the tradition of Rembrandt Peale’s American Revolution works.

Washington’s Heritage Foundation commissioned the set, which turned into 14 paintings, including Whittaker Chambers, Milton Friedman, Barry Goldwater, Frank Myer and Ronald Reagan.

"It took me two years, at seven paintings per year," says Curtis, the past president of the American Portraitist Society. "Most still hang there."

Curtis begins the process by interviewing the subject "at home or their office; in their own environs," he says. "I take dozens of photographs; as many as 50. I get the basic pose. A single photo lies; it distorts. So I take several to get the proportions of the face and some (for) detail work," like hands and clothes.

"I do several sketches and make notes," he says, "especially on eye-coloring."

He uses bigger canvases, because "they allow more opportunity," and sketches in pencil at about 80 percent life size. Then it’s basic colors, establishment of dark and light zones, a detailed likeness and fleshed-out detail. He spends hours on hands.

"In any painting, look at the hands," he says. "If they look like a bunch of bananas, it is not a good painting."

He works strictly in oil, "to get that wonderful blending. The necessary modulation and subtle gradation is difficult if the paint is always drying on you," he says. "I leave the little bumps up; make it rough to give it texture. To bring focus, I add detail, then leave the rest fuzzy."

Bold coloration distinguishes Curtis’ work. Vibrant color springs forth; one color per painting, never the same twice: a bright saffron orange Buddhist’s robe, a deep emerald green evening gown, smoky brown graveyard trees, a yellow ochre skin tone for Jerusalem’s western wall, soft dioxizine purple concrete chunks in a Lake Michigan revetment, a cadmium scarlet red dignitary’s sash, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s dark cool robe, soft black, with shimmering ultramarine blue folds.

"The color is determined by the person," he says. "I don’t set out with it in mind," just emphasize it.

Finally, Curtis makes slight corrections. "I keep it for over a month to get bits and pieces, bits and pieces. It’s surprising how much we don’t see," he says. "Then I bring it to the client for any changes they want. ‘Get rid of my double chin. Make my hair darker.’ I always frame it if I can."

A series of satirical cartoons, along with a half-dozen political panels and 24 paintings - mostly portraits: Reagan, the Duke of Seville, Milwaukee County Chief District Court Judge Michael Sullivan, multiple members of the Curtis family - are on display at Ciao CafŽ, his first solo exhibition.

Curtis says he has no plans to return to political cartoons. With portraiture, "the subject is much freer," he says. "I can do President Ronald Reagan. Or I can do my daughter holding a ferret and my dad with a bottle of Baileys."