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In 1937, the WPA sent him west to establish an art center in Phoenix.
Phoenix, said Curtis, "was culturally impoverished as hell when I got here. There were a couple of sketch and charcoal clubs in town. And other than those, the only outlet for artists was the State Fair."
The federally funded art center was a momentous change. It regularly brought in exhibitions of works by contemporary American artists. It provided workshops and classes. And its core group of artists, which included Lew Davis, a fine painter from Jerome, produced works for the several WPA buildings being constructed in the area.
The art center was the seed that eventually grew into the Phoenix Art Museum. Its wide-ranging activities attracted the interest of key Phoenicians such as Walter Bimson, head of the Valley National Bank, and Mrs. Dwight Heard, who donated the building for the center, and later, the downtown land for the museum.
The WPA work didn't leave Curtis much time for his own paintings. He made a few each year, along with numerous watercolors and sketches. Yet during the late 1930s and the war years of the early 1940s, he mentally worked and reworked his approach to painting.
He spent the war in Washington, D.C., with the Office of Strategic Services -- the forerunner of the CIA -- and a congressional committee on health. By war's end, his progressing arthritis and the damp East had taken a toll on his health. So, in 1947, he and his wife, Marjorie, whom he had met in Phoenix during his WPA days, returned to Arizona, and to painting.
"I was about to turn 40, which at the time seemed to be pretty old," he said. "All through the war, whenever I could find time on the job, I had tried to paint a little. I didn't do much, but I did a lot of work in my head, thinking through ideas about what I wanted to paint and how I'd approach it. So I felt I didn't have to do a lot of experimenting to get going again. And I sort of knew what I wanted to say."
Curtis and his wife settled in among the core of artists who gave Scottsdale its reputation as an art scene. Among them were prewar friends Lew and Mathilde Davis, Philips Sanderson, Lloyd New (known as Lloyd Kiva) and a handful of talented others. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, Curtis evolved his poignant vision, painting scenes whose combination of emptiness and spectacle suggested spells of boredom broken by the sudden thrills of daydreams.
His landscapes alternated between the closed-in forests of his Michigan childhood and the expansive Arizona desert. They featured circus and band performances and parades under way in silent settings with sparse arrangements of old trees, billboards, furniture, buildings and doors bleaching and peeling in the sun. Clothing, curtains, hair and banners often appeared furled and buffeted by silent gusts of wind. And his people invariably stood alone in crowds, mouths closed, eyes averted, poised to act.
"The whole secret," he said, "seems to be to stop the action at the right place."
That place was rarely in mid-motion or stride. It invariably occurred just before or after an event.
Curtis viewed these frozen moments as telling predicaments, revealing something, he said, about what was going on in the minds of his subjects.
Curtis sold his paintings to a broadening circle of Phoenix patrons, including Bimson and others he'd met in the 1930s. Marjorie drew the household pay with a variety of steady jobs.
His big break came in 1960, when Lewis Ruskin, a former Chicago drugstore king who sat on several Phoenix cultural boards, persuaded nine other Phoenicians to join a trust to support Curtis for three years. The arrangement propelled Curtis into one of the most productive periods of his life. He produced more than 40 pictures, including some of his finest. He exhibited briefly at the prestigious Knoedler Gallery in New York, and at a gallery in Switzerland, before returning to his old ways of selling his work to friends out of his Scottsdale house.
Over the years, his work appeared in numerous international group exhibitions. And in 1978 he had a solo exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Yet his renown remained largely within the region. In the 1990s, he exhibited briefly at Scottsdale's Marilyn Butler Gallery, now closed, and the Riva Yares Gallery.
Toward the end of his life, Curtis confided that this small circle of success suited him.
"I remember after the war of thinking about going back to New York," he said. "But at the time I was afraid of getting trapped into that style of painting. Not going back could have been a mistake, but I don't think I could have done it any other way."
Last year, the Phoenix Art Museum published a book about Curtis' career. Next spring, it will open a room dedicated to his work.