Curtis Fairley: Life in the Navy

This is the second part in a series focusing on the work of Curtis Fairley through an interview with George Lawrence. This post looks in detail at Fairley’s insightful interpretations of his life in the US Navy. 

3. Fairley and the naval works

Kate Davey: Fairley’s work expands across a range of subject matter from images of food preparation and recipes, to animals and nature, to inventions, but perhaps his most intriguing work is that which relates to his life in the US Navy. His depictions of life in the Navy, including submarine bases, Navy ships, self-portraits in uniform, and specific Naval missions are fascinating both from an aesthetic and historical perspective.  Unlike many of the most well-known outsider artists, for example Madge Gill, Martin Ramirez or Henry Darger, Fairley doesn’t conjure a new reality with his work. Instead, his work is almost a rigorous documentation of a certain period in his life. You’ve done some research into his Navy’ works, could you tell us a bit more about what you have discovered during this research, and share with us some of your insight into these interesting pieces? 
George Lawrence: You’re right Kate it seems that Fairley’s time in the Navy carved the memories that were the most vivid in his mind. He was able to put them down on paper many years later with amazing detail.
I am not an expert on the US Navy, but as I said earlier, I was able to obtain Fairley’s naval service record from Freedom of Information Act documents. It shows that he entered the Navy at Birmingham, Alabama in December of 1945. He would have just turned 18 years old. World War II had just ended in August of that year. From that date, he served a total of 31 years, from 1945 to 1966 in active duty, and then from 1966 to 1976 in the Naval Reserve. It makes sense that the Navy experience would have been the central subject of his memory drawings.”
Fairley’s rank is listed as MS1” which stands for Mess Attendant Specialist Petty Officer First Class.” Among the decorations and awards listed in his record are the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (Vietnam), The World War II Victory Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.
Two of the drawings are self-portraits in Navy uniform. In both drawings Fairley’s uniform shows the three red chevrons on the right arm that indicate ‘Petty Officer First Class.’ The ‘SP’ on the hat and left armband indicate that he was assigned to ‘Shore Patrol’ duty.

Image 6 – Curtis Fairley, Self Portrait

In Image 6 Fairley lists some of the duties associated with the Shore Patrol position. (note: Fairley often uses the word and” for a”)
“Never strike and mate on his head.
Never sky larking
Always walk in pairs
No drinking alcohol
Never use hand cuffs on and mate
45 pistol std (starboard) side… nite stick on port side”
Figure 2 - self portrait 2

Image 7 – Curtis Fairley, Self Portrait

Image 7 has some humorous and informative notes about his demanding job as a mess attendant, posed in a question-answer form.
“How many mates did you starve aboard ship during the war? Ans (answer) None.
What was the largest amount you cook for? 1,100
Small amount? 25
The medium amount? 150”
These two drawings demonstrate the amount of information and historical detail that can be gleaned from many of Curtis Fairley’s sketches. I’m sure that someone with a more thorough knowledge of the Navy would find details that I have missed.
From 1945 to 1966 Landry served on 11 different ships according to the notes in his drawings. I was able to identify eight of them from his naval record – four aircraft carriers: USS Philippine Sea, USS Leyte, USS Kearsarge and USS Sicily; one submarine tender, USS Gilmore; two guided missile cruisers, USS Providence and USS Topeka; and one destroyer tender, USS Frontier. His longest posting was with the USS Gilmore from 1950 to 1957.
Figure 3 - USS philippine sea

Image 8 – Curtis Fairley, USS Philippine Sea

Fairley’s initial assignment in 1947 was aboard the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea whose first mission was as part of a major expedition to Antarctica called ‘Operation Highjump.’ Image 8 may be his drawing of that aircraft carrier because of the notes at the top of the drawing that read ‘Plank Owner’ and ‘Holy Stone Ship.’ The naval term ‘Plank Owner’ indicates that Fairley was a member of the first crew aboard a newly commissioned ship (USS Philippine Sea was commissioned in 1946) and ‘Holy Stone Ship’ is a term for a ship with a wooden (teak) deck. Apparently most US Navy WWII aircraft carriers were still being built with wooden decks.
Other notes on the drawing include a listing of the oceans that he has crossed:
“Paciffic (sic) 5 years, Atlantic 2 years, Arctic, An Arctic (sic), Indian.”
And the destination of Operation Highjump: “South Pole Operations, Little America”
The circumstances surrounding Operation Highjump” deserve a mention. One year after the end of the Second World War, thirteen Navy ships, multiple aircraft and 4,700 men took part in a US Navy expedition to Antarctica led by Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The official objectives of the mission included establishing an Antarctic research base, testing equipment in frigid conditions, and extending US sovereignty over the Antarctic continent. However, a quick internet search will reveal a wealth of websites that put forth theories of more sinister objectives, involving everything from hunting down a secret Nazi military base to UFO sightings and encounters with flying saucers!
Unfortunately, none of Fairley’s drawings offer clues to these mysteries. However, one drawing (Image 9) illustrates an interesting initiation ceremony that took place on board when the USS Philippine Sea crossed the equator en route to Antarctica.
Figure 4 - crossing the equator

Image 9 – Curtis Fairley, Crossing the Equator

Fairley illustrates the ceremony with lots of explanatory notes in the margins. Sailors who had never crossed the equator were considered ‘Polywogs’ and had to undergo a day-long ordeal in order to become ‘Shell Backs.’ The Polywogs in the center, wearing only their underwear, are on an area of the deck bearing the note oil on deck.” The Shell Backs, in uniform, form a whipping line on either side. A note next to one Shell Back reads wipping (sic) bags stuffed with sand.”
Fairley gives a description of the day’s events for the unfortunate Polywogs
(note: spelling is as written):
“Menu-none,  No Eating,  No Drinking,  No Skylarking, No Smokeing,  No Sick Bay Starts at sun rises until sun sets Do none of the things above Uniform of today, drawers, bottoms
No.1 Elevator departing to the wipping line En route to the South Pole via Panama Canal locks.”
The text at the center of the drawing describes the expedition:
“Equator Lines, One half of the world to the bottom, Adm Byrd expedition en route to the South Pole now name Little America-History, On board U.S.S. Philippine Sea.” The tank filled with green water at the top right is labeled Body Cooling Systems.” 
From this dramatic entry into Navy life, Mr. Fairley proceeded to serve on a succession of Navy ships. Some of them found their way into his drawings.
Figure 5 - USS gilmore

Image 10 – Curtis Fairley, USS Gilmore Pick Up Pilot Down the Mississippi River

Image 10 has the title ‘USS Gilmore Pick Up Pilot Down the Mississippi River.’ The USS Gilmore was a Submarine Tender, a type of ship that supplies and supports submarines. Landry was a crewman on this ship for 7 years. Not surprisingly a number of the drawings illustrate this involvement with the submarine force. Titled ‘Home of Sub Force, Groton, Conn,’ image 11 shows the bay with what looks like two subs docked and one in a kind of dry-dock. Mr. Fairley must have spent some time in the area because he also created drawings of two of the nearby landmarks.
Figure 6 - Home of Sub Force

Image 11 – Curtis Fairley, Home of the Sub Force Groton Conn

I was able to identify Fairley’s memory drawing of a lighthouse as the Avery Point Lighthouse (Image 12) because the drawing captures the characteristics well enough that recognized it in a photo that I found of the actual lighthouse, still standing on Avery Point in Groton (Image 13). The mysterious eclipsing sun that he added to the scene appears in several of his drawings. It was also easy to identify the Escape Training Tower at Groton from Fairley’s simple sketch (Image 14). The tower was in use from 1930 to 1994 to train scuba divers to access or egress a submarine during special operations (Image 15). The tower has since been demolished.
figure 7 Landrys lighthouse

Image 12 – Curtis Fairley’s Lighthouse

figure 8 - avery point lighthouse

Image 13 – Avery Point Lighthouse

figure 9 - grotong conn pressure tank

Image 14 – Curtis Fairley, Groton Conn

figure 10 - escape training tower

Image 15 – Escape Training Tower

Recently in my research I discovered that two of the ships, the USS Providence and the USS Topeka were equipped to fire surface-to-air missiles. Landry served on those ships during the Vietnam War, from 1959 until 1965. Looking back, I think this explains one of my in-person encounters with Mr. Fairley.

Seeing him at work on the street one day, I noticed that he was intent on a drawing that a first glance seemed abstract fiercely drawn with intense strokes blendings of red, yellow and black. Looking closer I saw that the drawing was of a missile firing as if viewed from above. It was difficult to imagine how that point of view would have been possible. The following day I happened to see him again. He had produced another drawing that was almost identical to the first powerful image, as if he was still immersed in his memory of the event (Images 16 and 17).

Not long ago I came across the photo in image 18 of the firing of a Tomahawk missile from the deck of the USS Farragut. The similarities to Fairley’s drawing are remarkable, including the circular red markings on the deck indicating the missile area.
Figure 11 - missile firing 1

Image 16 – Curtis Fairley, Missile Firing 1

Figure 12 - missile firing 2

Image 17 – Curtis Fairley, Missile Firing 2

Figure 13 - missile firing

Image 18 – Missile Firing

Click here to read further posts about Curtis’ life and work.


6 thoughts on “Curtis Fairley: Life in the Navy

  1. Steven Newton says:

    Great job. Loved that. And I’d also love to have met “Clayton Landry”. What a fascinating and artistic person he must have been. I’ll look forward to the post next month.

  2. Susana Guillaume says:

    It is wonderful to see this vibrant artwork again, now enhanced by George Lawrence’s excellent explanations and the meticulous research he has done. A real pleasure!

  3. Kate Dickson says:

    I’ve seen these drawings first hand and found them so exciting and interesting.
    It’s intriguing to me how people like Clayton can impact others and leave an enchanting and educational body of work while possibly being unaware of their unique place in the world.
    Where ever Clayton is, I hope he knows that he left something brilliant and special and that he is remembered for it. Remarkable research and an engaging interview, thank you for sharing this.

  4. Elsa Kendall says:

    What a wonderful article. It’s so inspiring how a chance encounter on a city street could inspire this story. I love the way the images of Clayton’s are woven throughout the text. How wonderful you found him and his drawings, George, and you are sharing them with us now. I am intrigued and would love to learn more. Thank you, George, and to Kate for publishing this on your fabulous blog.

  5. kdoutsiderart says:

    Hi everyone, thanks again for all your kind comments. Just to let you know that an article will be appearing in the next issue of Raw Vision magazine on Curtis Fairley and his work.

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