Nan Curtis? Pick up the phone, please

Portland interdisciplinary artist Nan Curtis is the 20th recipient of the annual Bonnie Bronson Fellowship Award. There’ll be a free public reception for her from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday, April 25, in the Gray Lounge of Kaul Auditorium at Reed College.

Nan Curtis, "My Mom's Cigarette Wrapper" 2009 cigarette wrapper, paper, frame“My Mom’s Cigarette Wrapper,” 2009

By Bob Hicks

Don’t call them. They’ll call you. But you really do need to pick up the phone.

“My cell phone rang at 8:30 at night,” Portland artist Nan Curtis recalled the other day over coffee at inner Southeast Portland’s J&M Cafe. “My kids had just gone to bed, and — I didn’t know that number, so I didn’t pick it up.”

Then her land line started ringing. This time Curtis figured something must be up, so she answered.

Nan Curtis, "Mom Rocket," 2010. Steel, afghan, pillow.It was Christine Bourdette, the Portland sculptor who was the first recipient of the Bonnie Bronson Fellowship Award 20 years ago and is chair of the Bronson fund advisory committee. Congratulations, Bourdette  said. We chose you. Oh — and you can’t tell anyone for two months.

Just like that, Curtis joined a distinguished list of Oregon artists who have been named Bronson fellows. In order, the fellows include Bourdette, Judy Cooke, Ronna Neuenschwander, Fernanda D’Agostino, Carolyn King, Lucinda Parker, Judy Hill, Adriene Cruz, Helen Lessick, Ann Hughes, Malia Jensen, Christopher Rauschenberg, Kristy Edmunds, Paul Sutinen, Bill Will, Laura Ross-Paul, MK Guth, Marie Watt, David Eckard, and Curtis.

“Those are totally the artists that I grew up beneath. It’s a pretty cool list of people,” Curtis said.

In a way, winning the annual Bronson award is like nabbing a Nobel Prize or a MacArthur “genius” grant. You don’t apply, you get chosen. And though it’s based on merit, it’s also a pretty exclusive club. The awards are named in honor of Bonnie Bronson, the Oregon artist who died in 1990 in a climbing accident on Mt. Adams. She was 50 years old. Bronson was part of a prominent artistic partnership — she was married to the sculptor Lee Kelly — and, like Curtis’s, her art was both very personal and hard to pin down.

“Bonnie could force beauty out of the earth or steel or paint,” curator Prudence Roberts quoted a friend of the artist’s for her essay on a 1993 retrospective of Bronson’s work. Roberts continued: “More than most artists, Bronson resisted labels and did not want to be associated with one style, technique or medium. … (Her) work was so entwined with ‘the rest’ of her life that it is impossible to separate her artistic activities from her garden, her rock climbing, and her ability to create beautiful living spaces. Her studio was, quite literally, the heart of her home.”

That sense of an integrated life is an important part of the fellowship selection, which, as Curtis puts it, “is so much about honoring Bonnie.” While the award is about artistic accomplishment, it’s also meant to recognize artists who have been committed to the arts  community. Curtis, who’s taught at Pacific Northwest College of Art for 16 years, fills the bill. Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1966, she earned her bachelor degree from the College of Wooster and her MFA from the University of Cincinnati. She’s been in Portland for about 20 years, teaching as well as making art for most of that time. “I feel like everywhere I turn, I run into someone who was one of my students,” she said. At PNCA, Curtis teaches sculpture and 3-D design — and Eckard, her immediate predecessor as the Bronson winner, is the college’s other full-time sculpture prof.

The sort of work Curtis does is the antithesis of the big bold statement school of art. In a way, it’s about looking at the world — her very personal world — and deciding where to put the frame. In some of her sculptures you can detect faint echoes of Duchamp’s urinal art, but without the theoretical histrionics. My Mom’s Cigarette Wrapper, for instance, is technically nothing but the plastic opening string of a cigarette wrapper on paper inside a frame. But it’s also something of a performance, or at least a journey of the mind: What’s behind this mother-and-daughter relationship? What are the tensions and flashpoints and companionship? Why cigarettes? Why the wrapper — an aftermath of a habit — and not the stub, or the promise of the pristine cigarette waiting to be enjoyed? At its heart the piece is a mystery, and viewers can take it as far or deep as they want.

Nan Curtis, "Performative Portrait: Sealed Diaries," 2009. Artists diaries, welded vice grip.Curtis identifies herself as a conceptualist, but also as a meticulous crafter of art. “Craft is critical,” she said. “If it’s not well-made, I’m not interested.” Over the years her craft has included the likes of a stairway to nowhere, a careful arrangement of empty beer bottles with pillows, hair-filled ravioli and elegant tufts of gold-painted spikes,  a series of sense-subverting street signs hanging on telephone poles, and her current project, a series about the binding and unbinding of memories and memorabilia.

She’s not so sure about the dramatic nature of her art: “I never think of myself as a performance artist, but other people think of me that way.” Certainly performance has been there. She had her moment of performed creative destruction in a 1997 installation at the Autzen Gallery at Portland State University, in which she filled the space with objects on pedestals, then drove wedges beneath each pedestal until the object sitting on it toppled to the floor. The show existed first as a traditional exhibition of objects, and then, more importantly, as a real-time action that upset the apple cart — or would have, if an apple cart had been one of the objects. The toppling was documented on video here.

Not coincidentally, those wedges spoke to the practical, pragmatic side of her career. For about 10 years in Portland she also worked as a welder. That experience also led to one of those personal questions that seem to prompt her art. Putting down the welding arc was one of those “things no one ever told me” moments. Welders are the opposite of guitarists: they never grow out their fingernails. They keep ’em stubby. So when she stopped welding, her fingernails began to grow out — who knew? — and inspired art about fingernails.

Through it all, she’s also spent a good share of time raising her two children. Fortunately, she says, kids and parenting are also a big part of her art. Sometimes this befuddles her viewers. Sometimes it makes them squirm. There is, for instance, 2009’s Soiled/Spoiled, consisting of a mattress, a bedspread, foam, and urine. Pieces like this are radical in their quiet insistence that even the smallest and least “pretty” moments in life are integral to life and therefore subject to artistic contemplation. In a way, they throw the door wide open on things that are ordinarily kept private, or at least not discussed in polite company. “When I had a show at Linfield and gave my lecture, one of the students told me, ‘TMI.’ Too much information,” Curtis said. “He was talking about the breast.”

Ah, yes, the breast. That would be Things No One Ever Told Me: Boobs, a series that goes with Things No One Ever Told Me: Belly — works that have to do with the swelling of the belly during pregnancy and the prodigious flow of milk from the nursing breast, a bounty that Curtis commemorated in fountaining squirt. Well, it’s just the truth: at once utterly simple and utterly profound.

As Prudence Roberts wrote, Bronson found beauty in earth and steel and paint. Curtis finds the same in the milk of human kindness and the plastic wrapping of a maternal habit. Twenty years after, life does go on.

Nan Curtis, "Solied/Spoiled," 2009. Mattress, bedspread, foam, urine.


  • Nan Curtis, “My Mom’s Cigarette Wrapper,” 2009. Cigarette wrapper, paper, frame.
  • Nan Curtis, “Mom Rocket,” 2010. Steel, afghan, pillow.
  • Nan Curtis, “Performative Portrait: Sealed Diaries,” 2009. Artists diaries, welded vice grip.
  • Nan Curtis, “Soiled/Spoiled,” 2009. Mattress, bedspread, foam, urine.