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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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