Curtis Speer is an artist and photographer raised in Lawton, Oklahoma. Being raised in a small town, he began to pay closer attention to his surroundings at an early age. With a copious amount of self-prescribed solitude, he would spend time outside, far away from anyone. There he tuned into the colors, sounds and most importantly, the light. He enjoys creating bodies of work that play with the mind and the eyes. Curtis finishes off his work in handcrafted raw walnut frames and hand finish the edges of his images so the final piece is a work of art, not just another photograph.
Curtis has worked across the United States, from the west coast to firms in New York. Throughout his career, he has worked brands like Neiman Marcus, Williams-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, and Nike. His works of art are featured in galleries and museums throughout North America. Get to know Curtis Speer a little better in our intimate interview.
How are you doing today?
I’ve never been busier…with construction at the gallery and working on a show for a debut exhibition in Colorado in a few months.
Regarding your gallery, any particular theme or focus? How do you choose what goes into your gallery?
The gallery is in the heart of Provincetown. I named the gallery CUSP which is derived from my initials but to also represent a space that has a positive reference to artists who have done the work. The word “emerging” sounds like such a struggle, but CUSP has power. This is my third year and I have decided to bring in two new artists to have permanent shows. One artist is a ceramicist from Oklahoma and the other is a Mixed Media artist from San Francisco.
Can you describe the first time when you realized that creating was something you absolutely had to do?
I must have been in 5th or 6th grade and I was always involved with putting on the school plays. But this one particular time, I had this notion to get the rest of my classmates involved in interjecting our version of “We Are The World” in the middle of the play. I, somehow, wrangled most of the kids to give up their recess and meet in the auditorium to practice our singing parts. Eventually, the principle found out what we were up to and squashed the whole idea.
Damn! lol That’s messed up. Seems like you all could have been up to a lot worse things than banning together to sing “We Are The World.”
It was small-town Oklahoma and I don’t think they were ready for the kids to be that “tuned in”. The music teacher made it all about himself and how important HIS production was. I look back and think about how silly children’s plays are and I think the parents would have loved our version of the very important message.
How has growing up in Oklahoma inspired your work and your outlook?
At an early age, I knew there was something more to life. I started reading the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Growing up in a town with nothing to do forced me to be creative. Now, many years later, I’m in my own art space exhibiting my work on Cape Cod. Being from Oklahoma taught me a lot about how to treat people and show respect. That, alone, is worth gold.
“The thing I had searched for in my younger years started to reveal itself and it was everywhere…it was the Light that made it all beautiful. I joke with people now that if the light is perfect, you could put a bottle of ketchup in that space and it would be the most beautiful bottle of ketchup you’ve ever seen.”
How has being gay impacted your experience both creating and working as an artist? I’m sure things have evolved a lot in the 20 years you’ve been out.
Was it easy for you? I’m not sure being gay has impacted my experience so much as given me the freedom to be exactly who I was created to be. As a gay man and being in the creative field, society almost expects it as we can make the world a really beautiful place. But it’s not just a gay thing. I’m glad the stereotypes are being dissolved. There was a side of me that was wildly insecure and being a gay man, the pressures of having the perfect physique led me to isolate myself until I could confidently show up at a pool party and take off my shirt. I still don’t think I would do that, but I am a lot easier on myself these days. That said, the series of Self Portraits are all about exploring the masculine side without sexualizing the male form. In all of my work, I am wearing a white t-shirt and white briefs. I’ve realized that a man can be sexy without having to be perfect.
No, being gay hasn’t always been easy for me. But I think it pushed me to be creative and to look at things from a unique perspective.
Maybe I should be interviewing you.
Another time perhaps! Your study series with the men on the beach is interesting. Each piece says something about masculinity or the male body. I appreciated that there wasn’t forced sexuality. You focus on light in a lot in your work. And feature the sky and water quite a bit. Both play with light in interesting ways. Can you talk about that?
Thank You. Each guy had a different story to tell. It was a nice challenge to photograph someone else. The thing I had searched for in my younger years started to reveal itself and it was everywhere…it was the Light that made it all beautiful. I joke with people now that if the light is perfect, you could put a bottle of ketchup in that space and it would be the most beautiful bottle of ketchup you’ve ever seen. I studied Vermeer and Rembrandt in college and loved how they captured the light and I wanted to emulate that approach. I moved to New England from SoCal only for the light.
I’ve noticed on Instagram, you’ve removed a lot of your self-portraits. What caused the edit?
Funny you should ask. The decision to take down most, if not all, my underwear self-portraits (which were all part of my art) stemmed from being objectified and receiving lewd comments and DMs and this is not the point or message of my art. I no longer felt they represented what I try to accomplish with my work. I also found myself subconsciously competing with strangers I follow that have unbelievably fit bodies. I think there are more creative ways to exhibit strength and confidence in my work, so stay tuned!
I think you may be on to something! Some of the work showcased here achieves just that. However, I get what you mean. Instagram can be very inspirational but also a total mind-fuck, and often are based on false Fyre Festival type scenarios or steroids as far as the types of guys you mention. But, there are also some dedicated men that put a lot of hard work into their fitness goals. There’s a line between creating a blatant lie to deceive people and creating an obvious illusion to make people think. Something I love about your work is how you ask the viewer to question that line. Also, I think as an artist, you have the right to change your mind for sure! Are there any other pieces in your portfolio you have revised or wish you shot differently? Or wish you played with the viewer in a different way?
As an artist, and I can’t speak for all creative types, but I think we all have work we’ve created that we think can be revised, be it music, literature, poetry, sculpture or photography. The creative process is always evolving and I personally believe that I get inspired by my past works which only elevates me as an artist. We never get it wrong because we never get it done meaning the festive process is eternal.
What are some of your favorite pieces you’ve created? Anything you’d like to do but haven’t?
My favorite piece is the “Cicada & Quail Eggs” Interestingly enough, I was having one of my darkest days when I created that image or when the image was created through me. I had no idea until days later when I uploaded the work, I really saw the magic. I’ve sold all 11 signed pieces of that particular image. It’s so simple, the subject, but so complex in it’s portrayal. As for creating something new…I am currently working on a body of work to be debuted at The Center for Creative Arts in Crested Butte, CO. The show will be the inaugural exhibition in the new gallery space. That said, I am creating works that have never been seen and correspond to the natural environment there in the mountains. The title of the show will be “If Nothing Ever Changed”.
Do you have any creative routines or processes you follow?
My process is music. Usually, when I’m shooting, it’s the music that creates the emotion and I capture that emotion.
What kind of music do you like? Any genre you avoid when working?
In my early works of still life images, I would gravitate toward Hammock and Sigur Ros. Now I listen more to bands like Aquilo and William Fitzsimmons and Jamie XX. I stay away from trance, techno, or anything that makes me anxious.
“If you see yourself as struggling, then you will struggle. If you see yourself as successful, then you will start to show up differently.”
Some of your work is pretty dark both literally and figuratively. Do you find the process of creating healing or therapeutic?
I find creating to be both healing and therapeutic. I was sexually abused when I was a little guy and I know some of that sorrow comes out in my work. In life, there is always contrast. Without it, no single thing could exist. For example, light has to have dark and up has to have down. Otherwise, the former would never exist. So my work deals with the dark side of who we are as it’s all connected.
In getting to know other gay men throughout my life, far too many have revealed they were sexually abused. I’m sorry to hear that. I’m glad you’re dealing with it in a healthy way. One of my favorite creative quotes is interestingly from a sexual abuse victim, Tori Amos, “The only way to deal with destruction is to out-create it.” You’ve done quite a bit as a creative. Can you share what all that has been? Which creative medium would you love to pursue but haven’t yet?
I used to play the violin back in the day. I got into drawing which provided a 4 year college scholarship. There, I got into sculpture, design, painting (although not very good). I minored in English Literature so I was taught how to write. I went on to design windows and eventually got wrapped up in set design and styling for Neiman Marcus, Williams-Sonoma and Pottery Barn. It was at that point I learned how to use a camera. That led to me exploring the photography world. I was told by gallerists that my work would never sell that no one would buy it. So I turned the other way and kept moving. I can confidently say that I am a successful, living, working artist and it’s all I do. THAT has led to me opening my own gallery here in Provincetown.
Do you have any advice for aspiring or struggling artists?
It’s all a mindset. If you see yourself as struggling, then you will struggle. If you see yourself as successful, then you will start to show up differently in the art world. Stay true to your craft and don’t let the words of one person lead you to believe they have your best interest in mind. Had I listened to the “art critics” who told me I was wasting my time, I would probably be sitting in an office somewhere, behind a desk working on someone else’s dream.
I’ve noticed you’re bringing in some new artist to be featured (I’m not sure that the right verbiage) at CUSP gallery, Kenneth Sloan. How did that connection happen?
I met Kenneth and his partner, Mike, through social media. When they came to Ptown to visit, they stopped by the gallery and introduced themselves. I found out Ken was an artist and asked if he’d be interested in showing some of his work for a group show. Since then, he and his have a home here so I asked he would want a place to show his work year round.
What other artists have you featured at CUSP? What do you look for?
I’ve shown a few other artists and had a pretty good experience. There was only one who let his ego get in the way of his show so I took down his work. What I look for with any artist I allow to use my space, is a work ethic, a hunger to show up and represent their work and, of course, talent.
You’re having a grand re-opening in May. Tell me about that!
In going into my third season in Provincetown, a friend and collector asked me what my mission was for CUSP this year. I took a couple of weeks to really think. On my trip to Modernism Week in Palm Springs, I realized that with the expansion (to upstairs), I wanted to take the gallery to the next level…pun intended. With that, I wanted to also bring two artists in whose work I admire and am inspired by. Collectively, that is cause to have a grand re-opening.