Introducing Curtis Fairley

In a new series on the blog, I will be asking George Lawrence about his collection of artwork created by a homeless U.S. Navy veteran whom he met whilst living and working in New York City.  Lawrence has recently been delving deeper into the works he purchased from the artist in the late 1980’s, and into the life of the artist himself, by studying the biographical information included in the images and text of the drawings.
Lawrence has discovered the identity of the artist through public naval records but has not been able to locate or contact the man, who would be over 90 years old if he is still living.  

This first post will introduce Lawrence’s interactions with Fairley, with subsequent posts looking in more detail at the content and style of Fairley’s work.

1. Meeting Curtis Fairley

Kate Davey: Could you tell me about the first time you saw Curtis’ work? What was the initial impact it had on you?
George Lawrence: I first encountered Curtis Fairley around 1987 on the Lower East Side of New York City. I was working as a draftsman in a design office nearby.  That area of the Bowery in the late 1980’s was a mix of neglected properties, Lower East Side art scene, and encroaching gentrification. Many of the local buildings were being bought and renovated by small businesses, artists and speculators.  Nearby was a homeless shelter and a few blocks away was the rock club, CBGB’s.
At the time I met him, Mr. Fairley was living at the shelter, but he spent his days writing and drawing, using the windshield or hood of a parked car as a drawing board.  He worked with the regularity and commitment of a full-time employee.  He was African-American, probably in his sixties and usually dressed in khaki pants and shirt and a knit cap.
317 Bowery NYC

Image 1  317 Bowery, NYC, The Men’s Shelter building on the right, next to the old Amato Opera Building. (Photo grab from Google Earth Street View, circa 2015) 

Mr. Fairley used pencil, chalk, colored pencil and crayon on paper that he collected from the neighborhood trash.  He often drew on both sides of his pages.  Some of the drawings were done on the green and white striped computer paper that was then the standard. Other drawings were sketched on the backs of discarded business letters.
I have always had a love for the work of folk artists and self-taught artists, so when I saw Mr. Fairley’s drawings I was fascinated by them and thought I recognized the raw work of a true ‘outsider artist,’ although I can’t recall if I knew that term at the time. I had taken some art classes and art history courses as part of my architectural degree and several of my friends were artists trying to find their place in the Lower East Side art scene. Mr. Fairley’s drawings had a quality of uninhibited originality that I didn’t see or feel in the more studied and self-conscious art I saw in the galleries. Coincidentally, I had recently been living in Brooklyn where my Puerto Rican landlord spent his spare time making art, using leftover house paint and scraps of Masonite. He would hang the paintings, which also looked like scenes from his childhood in Puerto Rico, in the hallways of the small apartment building. I admired in them the same vibrant, raw quality that I later saw in Mr. Fairley’s work.
Over the course of a year or so I purchased about 50 drawings from Mr. Fairley and periodically I offered him paper and colored pencils, which he graciously accepted but did not seem to need. I can find all the paper I need,” he told me. The drawings are illustrations of memories from his life.  Common subjects include a variety of Navy ships, submarines, details of daily life, illustrated recipes, animals, exotic destinations and curious inventions. I was amazed by the intricacy of the illustrations and the detailed descriptive notes on many of the drawings.
Image 2 - Landry Ship Drawing

Image 2  One of Fairley’s ship drawings titled Knock Abouts’ at the top of the drawing. I think this may be a fantasty drawing and not a representation of an actual ship. The horizon is labelled as the Equator Line’ and word balloons hold the names of seas and oceans. From my research knock abouts’ is a term for a small sailboat that could be handled by one person. I’m not sure why he would have applied the term to this image of a large complex ship. 

_DSC9235 -signatureEdit

Image 3  One of the first drawings I purchased from Fairley. This one is titled Knotsberry (sic) Farms’ in the decorative border below. It features a chicken perched in a tree, surrounded on the grass below by chicks hatching out of eggs. A border below the tree reads Oh! Oh! What Happen.’ Knot’s Berry Farm is an amusement park that still exists in Buena Park, California. In a search on the web I found a comment thread with people reminiscing about the chickens that used to run loose on the grounds of the Knott’s Berry Farm restaurant in the 1960s. 

I think that on some level I envied Mr. Fairley’s artistic spontaneity and his innate urge to draw whatever came into his mind. Of course I have no idea if that is how he experienced his life and I don’t assume to understand or diminish what he must have gone through, living on the street. Our conversations never progressed beyond a few halting sentences and I never felt comfortable enough to discuss with him how he had come to be homeless. There was, at the time, a movement to show the work of homeless artists at some of the local galleries, so I asked Mr. Fairley if he would be interested in showing his work. As I recall, he shook his head and said something like: This is not art, these are just my memories.”

2. Fairley and the intermediate years

KD: When was the last time you can remember seeing Curtis in person? 
GL: I don’t recall the last time I saw Mr. Fairley on the street outside my workplace. It would have been sometime in 1989. Over the course of a few days or weeks I noticed his absence. Someone told me that the nearby homeless shelter had been closed and was undergoing renovations. I assumed that the residents had moved to another shelter, but I never went so far as to investigate where in the city the other shelter might be, or what had become of Mr. Fairley.
Around the same time that I lost track of Mr. Fairley, I had begun to make plans to leave New York. Much of my activity outside of work revolved around advocacy work with environmental groups in the city. A friend connected me with a group who were planning a coast to coast walk across the United States called the Global Walk for Livable World. I began to attend the local meetings and decided to participate in the walk as a way of leaving New York and discovering a new path” for myself. So I quit my job, and in February of 1990 I flew to Los Angeles and, with about 100 other activists, began a nine-month walk back to New York. We walked mainly along state highways and camped in tents at sites ranging from college campuses to state parks to private farms. We coordinated as much as possible with local environmental groups along the way to hold public events highlighting the challenges to the environment specific to that community, along with promoting environmentally sustainable choices and lifestyles.
Image 4 - George walking through New Mexico

Image 4  George walking through Albuquerque, New Mexico on the Global Walk for a Livable World, April 1990. 

One of our stops along the way was Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were in Santa Fe for a few days for the celebration of Earth Day 1990” and during the visit I decided that I would like to relocate there at the end of the walk. After the amazing experience of the 3,000 mile trek, I walked into New York City at the end of October 1990. Shortly after arriving, I packed up my belongings, including Curtis’ drawings, and moved to New Mexico.
Upon my arrival in Santa Fe, I made a conscious choice to shift my career direction and began to promote myself as an architectural illustrator. In hindsight I wonder if my impressions of Curtis doing his detailed drawings may have had an influence on my decision. In 1996 I began work with a local exhibit design firm where I was able to employ my design skills, my illustration work, and my interest in the environment, for the design and construction of interpretive exhibits for state parks and visitor centers across the country.
Image 5 - Santa Fe Plaza

Image 5  A pen and ink drawing of the Santa Fe Plaza drawn by George in 1998

Often, on meeting someone who I thought would be interested, I would share the folder of Curtis Fairley drawings. Many people over the years suggested that they would make an interesting exhibit or even a book, considering the connections to a variety of compelling issues, including the African American experience in the military, homelessness and of course, outsider art.
In 1997 one of my friends in New York who had seen my collection called to say that he had seen Curtis’ name listed in an exhibition at an outsider art gallery in New York. The description, which had slightly misspelled his real name, described the exhibition as Discovering the eccentric drawings of a lost New York Outsider Artist.” I tried at the time to make contact with the gallery but after leaving a few messages I failed to connect with anyone. Over the next few years I checked the internet periodically to see if Mr. Fairley’s name had appeared elsewhere. There are two other listings that I found, one for a 2011 Art Brut group show at Halle St. Pierre in Paris and another listing of a piece in the Smithsonian Art Library. This indicated to me that other people had been collecting Mr. Fairley’s work, probably in the same way that I had, by approaching him on the street.
In 2013 I decided to put some real effort into uncovering more information about Mr. Fairley’s life. Many of the drawings are of Navy ships and scenes and have descriptive notes written across the pages and in the margins. I made notes from the drawings and sent the information to a website that offered to research and provide the public military records of armed forces veterans. For several months the researcher had no luck in locating Mr. Fairley’s name on any of the records from the ships I had listed. In the meantime I had been searching the military records available on and I came across a very similar name on the muster rolls” of a few of ships that Curtis had included in his drawings. I discovered that we had omitted one letter from the spelling of his (actual) last name. Once I was able to give the researcher the correct spelling, he was able to find and provide me with the military record through the Freedom of Information Act.
I then went back to the web and, using the correct spelling of the name, I was able to discover one more reference. Apparently an artist who had a studio on the Lower East Side had purchased some drawings from Curtis and had included a reference and a print of one of the drawings in an article published in an online art magazine in January of 1987. In the article the writer describes Curtis just as I remember him, drawing on cars.” He has no studio or home but when it is sunny and he is drawing, there is nothing wrong in the world.”
Even with all the information I have discovered about Mr. Fairley, I have been unable to contact him or to determine if he is still living. If he is, he will be 91 years old in 2018.

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