A passion for sculpture

Written by Katy Nesbitt, The Observer March 06, 2013 09:55 am

Shelley Curtiss created “Bleudog and Pup” for Woodinville, Washington’s downtown. They were installed September 2012.
Shelley Curtiss created “Bleudog and Pup” for Woodinville, Washington’s downtown. They were installed September 2012.

by KATY NESBITT / The Observer 

Popularity of Shelley Curtiss’s bronze work reaches new heights 

Joseph’s bronze artistry has drawn hundreds of thousands of artists and art lovers to this tiny, northeastern town for decades. Shelley Curtiss is an artist among many who have made themselves known throughout the country from a mountain village. 

Her cougar entitled, “He Who Thinks He’s Invisible,” can be seen outside of Embers Brew House on Joseph’s Main Street. The cougar is one of many bronzes adorning downtown, giving the feel that this is a community serious about art.

Lyn Craig, executive director of the Josephy Center for Art and Culture in Joseph, is a big fan of Curtiss’s work. “She exemplifies Wallowa County as do other like-minded artists. There is a subtle undertone of a true passion for art here and when you meet someone like Shelley it is pretty amazing.”

Curtiss moved to Joseph in 1986 with a background in microbiology and a passion for sculpture. Before moving to Joseph, she was an art aficionado, touring art shows and galleries and gaining knowledge and appreciation for bronze.

“I knew Parks Bronze and Valley Bronze were doing the best casting work and patinas and the best foundry work around,” said Curtiss.

Craig said Curtiss took her on a tour recently to show her the intricacies of bronze.

“We went to Steve Parks’ studio and she showed me every step of the incredibly complex process. It was just mind blowing. I don’t think the average person understands the depth that goes into a piece,” said Craig.

In 1989, Curtiss poured her first crucible of molten bronze at Joseph Art Castings, a fine art foundry which she co-owned, built and operated for six years. The first sculpture she did was of a fox. She followed up with a coyote and a wolf. Then she moved on to prey and created a rabbit.

Her foxes are very popular and a collector from Maine called her last year wanting to buy a life-size fox, but Curtiss had been sold out of foxes for 10 years.

“I sculpted and cast a new small fox last year which I will display in this year’s art festival, and I am presently using it as a maquette for an enlargement to life-size for my patroness,” said Curtiss.

From wild dogs to domestic, Curtiss created “Bleudog and Pup,” a piece commissioned by Malka Fricks and donated to the city of Woodinville, Wash.

Curtiss said, “Because Woodinville is famous for its annual celebration of, well, basset hounds, Malka felt that a couple of really big bronze basset hounds would be appropriate. They are such funny creatures that I am still laughing about the whole project and me trying to make them into fine art, of sorts.”

Her work caught the eye of the New York City Parks where she has 10 pieces in five different parks on display. She recently sold two 24-inch beavers, like the ones in New York, to Studio Art Direct, Inc., in Portland, contracted by Kaiser Permanente in Hillsboro to find sculptures for its new facility.

The unifying theme of the 128-piece display is “Tranquil Relief Through Nature” and the opening ceremony for the artists is this month. Curtiss said she will be in attendance.

Tranquility begins at home and in the studio for Curtiss. She said she is a student of Taoism and a practitioner of Immortal Crane Tai Chi and Chi Gong.

Craig said, “She set up a beautiful studio in her home and plays calming music — it’s like a spiritual process to watch her work.”

When not creating art, she teaches drawing, watercolor and sculpting classes, both privately and through Eastern Oregon University and Blue Mountain Community College. Her most recent 11-week class, “Drawing and Intro to 3-D Design,” for BMCC in 2011 was in collaboration with local artist Jack Coelho.

Also in collaboration with Coelho, in 2009 Curtiss was assistant instructor for a three-week ceramics workshop on “Primitive Ceramic Firing Techniques” as part of the Alaska Artists in Schools Program, on the Pribilof Islands.

Even a commissioned artist knows the ebb tide of the economy. Curtiss said in 2008 the art-buying market dried up. To supplement her art business, she fell back on her microbiology degree and worked for Terminal Gravity Brewing in quality control.

“I still knew how to use a microscope,” said Curtiss.

Craig insisted repeatedly that she is not an artist, yet she is surrounded by art and artists as she directs the Josephy Center. She is keen on helping keep Joseph’s art at the forefront of artist communities.

“They say that mom and pop businesses are the backbone of the country. I say the artists are a business unto themselves and they just keep going, despite the economy. That perseverance is obvious in Joseph. I think that’s what’s going on up here and Shelley is the heart of it,” said Craig.