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Take a look. Meet your very inspiring neighbors. Meet This Artist.
It would be impossible to pin artist Cally Curtis down into one arts discipline. For years, writing was her art of choice, followed by an artist-in-residence job for a church that needed her help in many mediums, including painting, set design, writing, and children’s art. Now that she is “retired,” she’s turning her attention back to her painting, but you’d be remiss if you didn’t seek her out to also look at her “CallyWallys,” which are unique little cloth, clay, and wire creatures. We encourage you to read about this multidimensional and talented artist!
Tell me about yourself.
When I was about four, my parents were commissioned as United Methodist missionaries. They had always wanted to go to Africa, since before their college days. First, they were sent to England for missionary training, so that’s where I first went to school. Then about six months later, they were on to what was then called Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. We lived there until I was 18. I came back to the States to go to college, but my family stayed in Zimbabwe. I thought I would either become a nurse, a teacher, or a secretary, like most other women at that time. It wasn’t until I got to college that I saw there were lots more options.
I started out at Baker University in Kansas, which is a small Methodist college. There were a lot of international students there, which was helpful because I was very British when I came over to the States, after having gone through the whole British school system in Zimbabwe. After two years, I felt I’d done most everything the university had to offer that held my interests–I was a DJ, an editor of the paper, in a touring drama group, and I was in a sorority. I felt I needed a few more challenges so I transferred to the University of Georgia, where I majored in fine art, and then tacked on education, which I was hoping would help me find work after graduation. I was also one course short of being a journalism major.
I also worked as a DJ at a local radio station during college. The music of the time was important to me because the music I had access to in Africa was very old fashioned. I was music-starved when I got to the States. Not long after graduation, I ended up getting another job as a DJ in Little Rock, Arkansas, at a big rock and roll station. At that time, the DJs used to have to write and produce their own radio commercials for the radio clients that came in to buy time on the air. One day, we all decided to enter the ads in some award shows, and we actually started winning. Not long after, a local ad agency called me up and offered me a job as a junior copywriter there in Little Rock. Three years later, I’d worked my way up to being the creative director of a pretty big ad agency. They were the ones who put TCBY yogurt on the map. That campaign was my big breakthrough, and it helped me build confidence. I ended up moving to Los Angeles and working in ad agencies there for almost 10 years.
Were your parents artistic when you were growing up?
My mother was, not my dad. He was a gifted speaker. My mom was a wonderful seamstress. She sewed all my clothes, and she always made doll clothes to match. She loved fabric and design. She’d always read picture books and stories to me. But she was also the practical one in the family, so she didn’t really support my art. She told me I’d never make a living with art. But my dad always made me feel like I could do anything. My grandmother was a wonderful dollmaker. I think that’s also where I got my interest in art.
Was your dad a writer also?
He’s written a couple of books. They’re all to do with ministry, volunteering, and that kind of thing. He was a disciplined writer. But my mother is a great storyteller. All of her stories are very visual in the telling; you can taste, see, and feel everything she’s describing in detail. She’s now 90 and is still fantastic.
How do you think your upbringing in Zimbabwe influenced your art?
Next month, I’m working at the art booth at the Calico Makers Market, and we’re going to be making Picasso masks. I was reading about Picasso and read that when he first saw a real African mask, the shapes, lines, and angles of its design caught his eye. There had been nothing like that in Western art, and it became an inspiration for him. (It’s part of what started Cubism.) I made some sample masks for the kids’ art booth in that style. Making those masks made me feel like him in a way, because you just pick up these things; you see things that capture your interest, and they get tucked away somewhere in your mind. In Zimbabwe, the colors were brilliant. I think that’s where my love of color comes from. The sky was just forever blue. The African fabrics are full of beautiful patterns. My mom helped the African women make crafts, showing them things that they could make under the trees and then sell at market to raise school fees for their children.
What about your siblings? Are they artistic?
My sister is not artistic, and my brother is an engineer. They both think I’m nuts.
Going back to your career path, how did you get the job as an artist-in-residence?
In the mid 90s, my dad got really sick, and they lived in Georgia. I left LA kicking and screaming because I loved my life there. I lived on Venice Beach, a half a block from the ocean. Plus, it was just such a creative time. It was fabulous to be in that environment, with all of that energy, the great museums, lectures, poets, and music. There was always something to do.
I moved to Georgia to be with my dad. I started freelancing so I’d be available when I was needed, and I bought a house in Decatur. But when the dot com bubble burst, all the accounts went away, and I thought to myself, ‘Wait, what am I going to do?’ My house was next door to a little multicultural church called Oakhurst Presbyterian. One day, I saw a guy out there up on a high ladder changing light bulbs, so I went over to hold the ladder for him. It turned out that he was the pastor of that little church. It reminded me of the missionary churches, where you’re always jumping in to do whatever needs to be done. I ended up becoming friends with the pastor and his wife, and long story short, they made me their artist-in-residence, and gave me 2,000 square feet of unused space in the church to use as my studio, run art camps, and hold individual art lessons. I also did this thing that I called congregational art, where I’d have a project, but everyone in the church could participate in it a little bit. At the end of the project, we’d have a collective piece. Those pieces are still hanging in the sanctuary today. People in that church also started commissioning paintings from me, which helped support me.
Our Sunday school was set up in rotations: we had a computer group, a theater group, an art group, and a music group. So the kids learned the same lesson–say it was Jonah and the whale, for example–through music by singing, and then by doing a play in theater, then through art by doing the backdrop and the costumes, and then on the computer, where they’d print the programs or do the writing. By going through these rotations, they’d learn the lesson using four different skills. I worked closely with the pastor and his wife, who was the director of Christian education. We got to be good friends, and we worked together for 12 years. At some point, the projects got so big. I was doing all of the events at the church. I decorated the sanctuary and hung things from the rafters. I made huge installations that took a lot of people to put them up, like doves flying through on strings. I would also paint huge things for the theater, like backdrops and set design. It was my way of contributing and being of service. Things kept getting bigger and bigger, and I was able to really start collecting materials and having room to build big things. It was just like, ‘What is the need, and how can I fill it?’
What was that switch like, from being an ad agency writer to being an artist-in-residence?
It felt like I had to switch to using a different part of my brain. But I will always write. I keep a journal and write in it pretty much every day. Have you heard of The Artist’s Way? In it, Julia Cameron recommends writing three pages a day, and I do it, just stream of consciousness. It allows you to work things out and put down ideas. I like doing it. It keeps me tuned up.
Tell me about your time in Belize.
My dad died in 2004, and it was really hard for me because I had been with him almost every day. So I sold my house, and I used the proceeds to spend a year as a mission volunteer in Belize. One of the things I had done prior to that was work as a teaching artist, working for several museums in Atlanta, such as the Museum of Design, the Children’s Museum, and the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory. The work at the museums taught me a lot about arts integration, using art as a learning tool for curriculum subjects. In Belize, they had taken art out of the school system, so I led workshops for teachers on using art as a way of exploring subject matter. I had to make it cheap or free and use local materials. I did a lot of research on their indigenous arts and crafts. I came up with an interactive guide for teachers from first through twelfth grade, where you could go and pick a subject and a grade level, and all these projects would come up with how-to’s, supplies needed, and prototypes. So that’s what I did for that year. It helped me heal. I felt like I was doing something to honor my parents. I’d absolutely do it again.
When I came back to the States after that year, I was broke, so I took a job in engineering. It was not my bailiwick, but I did it for about five years, just to try to get myself above water again. It’s also what brought me to North Carolina. But it wasn’t really my thing, so I retired and started doing more painting. I also became a member of the Chatham Artists Guild. I was going to be on the tour last year, but then COVID hit. So almost everything I have in my studio now is less than three years old. I have some older stuff as far as prints and cards and things, but what I’ll have on this upcoming tour in December will be relatively new things.
The other thing that I got into that’s weird are these little wall hangings that I call CallyWallys. They’re just like imaginary things, with cloth bodies, clay heads, and hair made out of wire. My grandmother was a doll maker, too.
Your art career has certainly taken a lot of turns. Did you surprise yourself with how things evolved?
I was surprised that it was the writing that took off first, and not the art. But I always feel like I could go back to writing if I wanted to, with blogs and everything. Up until my move to North Carolina, I had always painted what people wanted or needed for the event or for their house. But now I’m painting just what suits my fancy or what captures my imagination. So that’s been fun, to have that freedom right now to do those kinds of things.
Cally Curtis will be participating in the upcoming Chatham Artist Guild’s Studio Tour in December. Stay tuned to the Guild’s website for more information and where to find Cally on the tour. In the meantime, for more information on Cally and her fantastic art, you can visit her website at www.callycurtis.com.