One of the paintings in Hester Curtis's Assimilation series. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar, August 11, 2010

Any artist, writer, musician, or photographer who wants to create his or her own style has thought about past works.  We are influenced by what our friends say and do, by the work of people we admire, by the masters.

When I look at Hester Curtis’s major work, Assimilation — a series of paintings — I know that I’m under her influence.  I know that I admire her work and find it truly amazing.

I interviewed Hester in 1986 and was thrilled to be able to find a copy of the clipping and photograph of that story for her son, Mark, who has a studio at the Art House in Craftsbury Common where Hester’s work is on display for the rest of the month of August.

She was so dramatic.  I asked Mark if he remembered at what point he realized how awesome his mother was, and he just shook his head and laughed.

I’m happy to say that she loved my original article.

“Bethany!” she said with that dramatic look that reminded me at times of Carol Burnett and one of her dramatic characters.  “You are the Queen of the Declarative Sentence!”

So I probably should get a tattoo with that description.  It’s pretty flattering, and I have certainly remembered it.  We might say I have assimilated the compliment and tried to live up to it.

I am posting here the article I wrote for the Chronicle last week about Hester and her son.  It was so enjoyable to talk to Mark about his mom and his own life and work.

I hope you will check out the story and the show and let me know what you think.

Also in art news — my friend and colleague Jennifer Hersey Cleveland’s Flower Porn photography show is still up at the Hangman Gallery in Hardwick and will appear after that at good ol’ Parker Pie.  Life is good.

Check out the Chronicle’s web site for a story by Joseph Gresser about changes at the Orleans County Fair.  It’s almost fair time, and you can find that story and  link to the fair’s web site there.

Curtis show puts reality together in an abstract way

by Bethany M. Dunbar, the Chronicle, August 4, 2010

CRAFTSBURY COMMON — Assimilation is not abstract art.  But the way these recognizable images are put together creates new meanings and ideas and definitely might generate some questions.

Assimilation is the centerpiece of works by East Craftsbury artist Hester Curtis which are hanging at the Art House in Craftsbury through August.  It’s worth a look.  I first saw this work when it was being created and had the advantage of getting to know the artist quite well.  At the time we were renting the farm where Hester Curtis lived from Al and Joan Fuller (Hester’s sister and brother-in-law).  Hester used to watch my kids sometimes if they got bored helping me with heifer chores.

A painting in Hester Curtis' Assimilation series.

Being with Hester was never boring — for me or for them.  We all gravitated to her like she was a planet.  We were a few of her moons.

Hester had a brilliant mind, a dramatic demeanor, and a great sense of humor.  By the time I met her, she had beat a brain tumor and learned to use her weak hand for painting.  She was left-handed but had broken her wrist, and it healed badly.  So she had to switch to painting with her right hand.

I wrote about Assimilation for the Chronicle in 1986 and managed to find that article when I was getting ready to write this one.  For that story I took a photo of her.  She posed beside one of her wall-sized paintings, chin on her hand, pretending to study the work or attempt to understand it.

Hester Curtis died in 2000.  Her son Mark Curtis, himself an artist, has a studio at the Art House and put the show together.

Assimilation is not easy to understand completely.  The wonderful thing is you can get something out of it anyway if you don’t worry too much about what every little detail might mean.  In that way it reminds me of some Bread and Puppet shows and certain poems that I just enjoy even though they don’t make perfect day-to-day sense on the face of them.

Mark Curtis mentions poetry when discussing his mother’s work in a two-page description he wrote for the show, called, “Hester Curtis and Assimilation — The Painted Thought.”

“Her painting is like vague poetry, as you can see — at once kind of familiar but mostly inscrutable and highly personal.  You have the sense of a secret, playful geometry going on within her paintings — somewhat like Piero, her favorite artist — and of hidden meanings.  The more I look at her paintings, the more questions I wish I had asked.”

The first frame in Assimilation is Alice in Wonderland who seems to be falling into the Grand Canyon to start things off.  A rainbow arches above her like the tail of an Alice comet.  Later she contemplates a space shuttle, a group of professors, so much more.  One painting is a mirror image of “The Sleeping Gypsy” by Henri Rousseau with a little Einstein in the corner, also apparently trying to figure things out.  He has a fiddle.

Another work is a labyrinth in the shape of a brain, with a thread to find your way — Ariadne’s Thread, a reference to Greek mythology, with the thread as a key to the creative process.

The paintings each have a frame painted on them in the shape of a television screen — one of the ultimate assimilation machines.

The show is meant to be a smaller model of what she intended to create.  It was going to be a series of wall-sized frescoes.  Her plan was to create a structure underground in the desert somewhere in the western United States because the conditions would be right for frescoes there.

Ms. Curtis studied fresco with the masters and was commissioned to paint murals for Saint Brigid’s Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, and in homes in Craftsbury.  The Art House show includes some of her early work and other pieces besides the Assimilation series.

Mark Curtis had a stroke that took away the use of his dominant hand as well, his right hand.  He learned how to paint with his left hand.

“If you have to switch, you know, it’s just what you have to do,” he said.  Mr. Curtis moved to Vermont in 1992 and divided his time between Vermont and Gloucester, Massachusetts, for five years.  He had a gallery there.

Mark Curtis’ work shows hints of his mother’s influence but is in general more what some might consider traditional or realistic.  Many of the pieces are still lifes and portraits.  Some of the still lifes are images of refractions of light through a glass of water.  When you bend light, what happens?  It seems like a question Mr. Curtis’ mother would have enjoyed considering too.

Mark Curtis stands by a still life painting he did. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar


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