The Vision Quest of Philip Curtis

More than 500 paintings of social and psychological truths spanning 50 years have made Curtis the dean of Arizona artists. At 90, he's losing the most important tools of his trade.

Perched on a swivel chair in the small living room of the Scottsdale home where he has lived since 1949, Philip Curtis is testing his vision. He opens one eye, then the other. He raises his hands in front of his face as if to read his palms. Then he lowers them and squints quizzically at a pole that a visiting photographer has left standing on a tripod across the room. "It's the damnedest thing," he says after a reflective pause. "I know that pole over there goes straight up. But to me it looks like a piece of bamboo--squiggly, kind of bumpy and wavy."

And who would know better than Curtis how things should appear? In the past 50 years, he has mixed the real and unreal into striking portrayals of social and psychological truths. His more than 500 paintings and scores of drawings and watercolors have led people to call him the dean--without the stuffiness--of Arizona artists. In the past 20 years, he has received just about every award the state and its art institutions have had to offer. And the ruckus hardly seems to be subsiding.

Late last month, Arizona State University Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center opened an exhibition featuring a broad selection of Curtis paintings borrowed from Valley collections. This month ASU's College of Art kicks off a campaign to endow a $250,000 scholarship fund in his name. And in the next few years, Phoenix Art Museum (PAM) plans to produce a major book to help spread Curtis' reputation beyond the region.

Yet, at 90, Curtis is trying to come to terms with the fact that he might be losing the very tools of his trade. In the past two years, macular degeneration, an incurable disorder of the retina--the layer of light-sensitive cells that serves much like a roll of film at the back of the eye--has been gradually stealing his ability to see and focus on things straight ahead. It struck his weaker left eye first. Then, early last January, it moved into his right, depriving him of the two tools he truly needs to continue painting.

Studies have linked the disease to genetic factors, smoking, diet and exposure to sun. Though doctors don't fully understand what triggers it, its effects are well-known. "The vision you lose isn't something that makes you completely blind," says Dr. Joan W. Miller, a professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School who treated Curtis recently at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. "But you can lose all of your central vision, and with it the ability to read, drive a car, recognize a face, and, obviously in Phil's case, see what you're painting."

As victims depend increasingly on peripheral vision, they also lose the ability--essential to painters--to distinguish subtle details and contrasts of colors.

Because the disease is not fatal, there are no firm estimates of how many people it affects. It is thought to be the leading cause of severe vision loss in older Americans. Some doctors suspect that it strikes 25 percent of Americans older than 65. Professional estimates of the number of people affected range from the National Eye Institute's 1.7 million who are seriously affected to as many as 10 million others with less impairment.

About 90 percent of victims suffer from what doctors call the "dry" form of the disease--characterized by a thinning of the retina and a gradual buildup of deposits on it. Curtis is among the remaining 10 percent who suffer from the "wet" form, which causes far more rapid and severe vision loss.

"What usually happens in the wet form," says Miller, "is that new blood vessels grow in under the macula. They leak fluid, bleed and eventually subside. But in the process, scar tissue forms and destroys parts of that crucial central vision."

Miller has attempted to stem the spread of blood vessels in Curtis' eyes with an experimental radiation therapy. However, there are no guarantees of success, no known treatments to reverse the existing damage to Curtis' eyes, and no way for Curtis to know whether he will be able to complete the two paintings he was working on when his eyes went bad.

One of the uncompleted pictures sits on the easel in the small, north-lighted room that Curtis uses as a studio. He says he intended the scene--an island with a handful of figures isolated by varying blue shades of water and sky--to symbolize the human situation. Instead, it has become a reminder of his own predicament--marooned by eyes that can't direct his hands to paint.

Taking a seat on a stool in front of the easel, Curtis says that he had been working on the island scene and another painting late last year. "The two paintings were mostly finished, but I thought I could improve them with a couple of small changes."

Pausing a moment, he reaches out with his right hand and draws a line with his fingers across the scene's horizon. "I thought I could lower this horizon a bit. Then I wanted to change the figures on the island. There were too many of them and they just didn't seem to have the right balance." He points to a smudge of orangey brown in the foreground. "There was a dog there, but it wasn't the right dog. I like one with superiority, the right posture, and spaced just right. The dog, you know, is usually me in these pictures--kind of keeping an eye out. This one was too close to the surroundings.

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