Painting, for Clem Curtis, is as much about the paint as the subject. He generally shuns acrylics in favour of thick, slow-drying oils, and hates brushes altogether, using a palette knife instead.
It comes down to the colour, Curtis explained in his studio this week, and the texture. He mixes sand with paint to create interesting relief. Brushes make paintings too smooth, and he doesn’t like that.
Curtis’s life itself has been bumpy over the past few years, causing him to take a step away from exhibiting his work solo, but he’s newly sorted-out and back on the scene with his first show in five years, “More News From Nowhere,” opening Sunday at the Five Island Gallery in Tors Cove.
“Things got really complicated for a while, and my mom getting sick just took the legs out from under me,” Curtis explained. “I’ve been recouping and refocusing.”
Curtis has produced a series of oil, monotype and mixed-media art pieces for the exhibit, most of them large, and many in Curtis’s signature thick, textured painting style. His palette is dominated by blacks, creams, reds and greens.
Three of them, although he’s not a fan, are brush paintings: one of his daughter Olivia and her mother, another of a friend from downtown and another using sand.
Many of them are portraits — something other artists may find particularly challenging, but Curtis enjoys more than anything else.
“I’ve never had a problem with it. Some other people might say I did, but I didn’t feel like I did,” Curtis said with a laugh. “I just think the human face and eyes are the most interesting things I can think of. If I’m ever stuck for an idea or just don’t know what to do, I’ll do a portrait. It’s all about a feeling, and it’s the eyes.”
Curtis’s rough patch in life actually serves as inspiration when it comes to getting the right feeling in the faces of his paintings, resulting in eyes that are intense and brooding, particularly in a portrait he’s done of writer Joel Thomas Hynes. For the first time, Curtis said, he did small studies to get things into perspective before starting the larger works.
He’s also been finding himself going back to add extra touches to his work, something he’s never had to do before.
“Maybe it was that break,” he said. “I live, breathe, think, eat, everything art. I walk down the street, walk back up the street, and it’s always art. But if you’re not painting for a while, it just takes everything to get the gears going again.”
“Things got really complicated for a while, and my mom getting sick just took the legs out from under me. I’ve been recouping and refocusing.” - Clem Curtis
One of the largest pieces, “Black Venus and Bramble,” composed itself, he said, although it took months and wasn’t easy to complete. The piece features a statuette Curtis owns and photographed.
“I was going through my pictures and I thought, wait a minute — this is like a still life and a sculpture and a painting. (The painting) might look simple, but it was really hard to get balanced out and took a lot of work.”
Curtis got his artistic start in theatre set construction for the Resource Centre for the Arts at the LSPU Hall, and was later hired to do promotional murals on the walls below the Hall, giving him a love of large-scale work.
After taking a month-long painting class with artist Ilse Hughes, Curtis tried his hand at it and had success: he’s a two-time winner of the provincial Arts and Letters competition, and his work is featured in the provincial art bank at The Rooms, in the permanent collection of the City of St. John’s and in private collections.
He’s spent the past number of months working at St. Michael’s Printshop in downtown St. John’s, where he’s made dozens of monotypes, many of them included in and the inspiration for his “News From Nowhere” pieces.
“All these monotypes are done really, really fast, sometimes two or three a day,” he explained. “I think that if you do it fast and it works, it really looks alive and it’s got some movement in it.
“This brush crap is labour intensive, and I’m way too hyper for that. I can’t slow down and do it, and I envy the people that can sit down and be really calm and paint.”
Curtis is anxious to get on with new works, and has his next exhibit already planned. He hopes to take a short break after the current show and will jump right into the next.
“More News From Nowhere” opens Sunday with a reception at 3 p.m., and runs until Aug. 6.