Curtis Fairley: Everyday Life

This is the third post in a series introducing artist Curtis Fairley through interviews with George Lawrence, who is a collector and supporter of Fairley’s work. This post focuses on Fairley’s representations of every day life, and how these are intertwined with his life in the US Navy. 

4. Fairley and everyday life

Kate Davey: His naval works certainly are incredibly interesting, and go some of the way to putting Fairley at certain points on the map at various points in his life. Some of his other work the work that appears more everyday’ actually still relates to his life in the Navy. What are your thoughts on these more everyday works? Is it a desire of Fairley’s to document everything he sees and experiences, from the historically important to the relatively mundane’?
George Lawrence: There are very few of Fairley’s drawings in my collection that I would categorize as ‘everyday’ unless you qualify it ‘everyday in the Navy.’ I think that the years of military service dominated his thoughts and influenced the subject matter of almost all of his artwork. When you think about it, Fairley entered the Navy in 1945 at the age of 18 and then spent the next 31 years in active service and the reserves. It’s easy to see why the main focus of his artwork would be fixed on those years.
Apparently, Fairley’s days were filled with a wide variety of duties and tasks. On the back of one of his drawings he made a list of the different skills and positions that he practiced over the years, some of which he has rated according to how well he performed them, in a kind of graphic resume (Image 19).
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Image 19

The over 100 listings are almost all jobs and positions that he held in the Navy. The ones he has rated Outstanding” and Excellent” include Galley, Ward Room, Pantry man, Baker, Butcher, Gunner, Loader , Sighter. Jobs rated as Average” include Shore Patrol, Atomic Attack, Pressure tank, Landing parties and Scullery.
From what I have read about the Navy in the 1940’s, African-American servicemen were mostly restricted to job postings such as Steward or Mess Attendant. This appears to have been the case for Curtis when he joined in 1945. However, formal racial segregation in the armed forces was ended by President Truman in 1948 and from Fairley’s listing it appears that his opportunities may have expanded over the years to include other duties and responsibilities.
Nevertheless, it appears that he took great pride in his position in food preparation and as cook, baker pantry man and butcher. Many of the ‘everyday’ images that you mention, Kate, look like they are representations of some of the meals and dishes that he prepared in the service. One of my favorite images is ‘Stuffed tomatoes Salads w/ Russian Dressing’ (Image 20).
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Image 20 – Stuffed Tomatoes Salads w/Russian Dressing

It must have been a meal for officers because it includes Baked Stuffed Potatoes with grated cheese” and Fillet Mignon Steaks with mushrooms.”
Other drawings illustrate complete table settings. Image 21 is a drawing of a table draped with two American flags, set with a variety of dishes and a centerpiece of flowers. A title in the decorative border reads On the Fan Tail” and Buffet Operations.” The description below the drawing reads Menu, O’Durs (sic) Meat Balls, Spinach Noodles, Grape Punch, Stuffed Cantaloupe Halves and a Center piece.” (If you google On the Fan Tail” one of the first results is the site for the USS Intrepid Museum and a photo of a table on the rear deck of the ship with the caption: Begin your event on Intrepid’s Fantail, located at the westernmost point of the ship. It is an ideal setting for outdoor cocktails before moving upstairs to the Great Hall for dinner.”)
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Image 21

Another of Curtis’ decorative food illustrations is of a platter of Blue Fish (literally) Baked Japan Style” (Image 22). This image is striking in its simplicity and bold colors.
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Image 22 – Baked Japan Style

All three of these drawings (Images 19, 20 and 21) are done on the backs of found computer paper the perforated edge, green and white striped kind that was common at that time.
Another drawing reveals Fairley’s knowledge and experience in food preparation. Image 23 shows two colorful cuts of meat, along with detail sketches of blue government inspection stamps, cutting knives and a meat hook. Notes on the drawing offer helpful details like Cut across the grain after cooked” and 2% fats use for flavor.”
Figure 18

Image 23

Some of the most powerful of these ‘Everyday in the Navy’ images are of isolated objects or symbols that seem to have a special meaning to Curtis.
One example is a drawing of a cracked ship’s bell positioned above a strange rendering of a ship’s wheel (Image 24). The two terracotta colored graphic shapes are isolated against a coral-colored background with a decorative border. A lever or control of some kind floats to the right of the wheel. The text on the images is carefully placed in outlined white boxes or arranged against the coral backdrop. The cryptic question posed within the text boxes reads: Who shine the bell off duites (sic) while the bell crack was crack?” Under the image of the bell is the label, U.S.N. Bridge.” The words ON Bridge” are written next to the ship’s wheel. At the bottom of the page in parentheses is the inscription: “(Change the Days and Time).”
Figure 19

Image 24 – Change the Days and Time

It’s hard not to conclude that this drawing is meant to convey a symbolic or allegorical meaning beyond the obvious words and images. I would love to hear possible interpretations from your readers, Kate.
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Image 25

Figure 21

Image 26 – A Ship’s Compass

Figure 22

Image 27 – Engine Order Telegraph

Image 25 shows a drawing of what I have interpreted to be either a ship’s compass (Image 26) or an ‘engine order telegraph’ (Image 27). Notes written around the image list various engine orders: Full Speed Ahead, Full Speed Back” as well as names of oceans: “Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Artic.” Some of the notes give information about Curtis’ experiences: The longest at sea Six months, The shortest 2 hours.” A descriptive/poetic note appears at the top of the drawing: When ship gets lose (sic) what Happen The Navigator shoot the moon or sun and fine (sic) his true courses.”
There are drawings that don’t seem to be directly connected to Curtis’ Navy life. Some of these are images of places where he may have lived or traveled. Two striking images from the travel drawings are of highways: the Santa Anna freeway (Image 28) and a highway through the Florida Everglades (Image 29). In both drawings Landry uses the full width of his paper so that the roadways stretch across the page and careen off either end.
Figure 23

Image 28 – St Anna Freeway

Figure 24

Image 29 – Florida Everglades

The Santa Ana Freeway (Clayton labels it St Anna Freeway”) in Fairley’s drawing is interrupted only by ‘trouble’ signs and light posts. In semi-circular landscaped areas on either side of the highway are a few lonely tulips or daffodils.
The image of the Florida Everglades roadway is busy with all kinds of creatures crossing the lanes in the median and on the shoulder. Serpent shaped creatures with many legs (alligators?) wander across the roadway and a small creature like a miniature tank (armadillo?) appears on the grassy median and shoulder. Two ominous dark structures appear to be giant gas pumps loom over the lanes in either direction. The pumps have signs reading Last Change.” I’m not sure if this was meant to be ‘Last Chance’ but either way I think a driver would get the point.
Regarding the last part of your question, Kate, about whether Fairley recorded everything he saw or if he focused more on images that were important to his life, I think I would choose the latter as the motivation for his artwork. For instance there are very few drawings that depict the Manhattan streets where Curtis was living at the time that I knew him. The scenes and subjects of his artwork were largely drawn from his Navy life and must have represented his most memorable and meaningful life experiences. In depicting some of those experiences, as in the drawing of the cracked bell and the ship’s wheel, he sometimes seems to hint at deeper meanings and interpretations.

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