Oregon Sculptor Shelley Curtiss

written by Addie Hahn


Every morning, Shelley Curtiss hikes the hills outside Joseph and observes the ever-changing lakes, rivers, mountains, buttes and canyons. “This landscape feeds my creativity,” she says. “And I take those creative juices back to my studio and give them visual expression.”

Curtiss grew up in Alabama, the daughter of a rocket scientist. As a young adult with a career in medical technology beckoning, she too seemed destined for a life in the sciences before a drawing class for beginners changed everything: “You might say I learned to look at the world as a whole picture instead of a series of details as seen through a microscope,” she explains.

A move in 1986 to the tiny northeastern Oregon town of Joseph, where Curtiss worked at Valley Bronze foundry, ignited the artist’s growing interest in bronze. She became exhilarated experimenting with the “luscious and tactile” oil-based clay and noted that getting to play with molten metal was like “pouring crucibles of liquid light.” Quickly, she developed a graceful aesthetic that resulted in smooth, minimalist human and animal figures.

In Joseph, a town traditionally timber- and agriculture-minded, Curtiss initially taught drawing, inspiring a greater collective interest in the visual arts. After serving as arts council president and city council member, Curtiss was elected mayor in 1994, and while serving, was granted funds to promote Joseph’s image as an arts community through beautification projects.

Perhaps now more than ever, Curtiss is conscious of how her physical surroundings inform her artwork. Inspired by Taoism concepts contained in the classic Chinese spiritual text, I Ching, and by the depiction of monks in The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, her next project is a series of eight robed monk figures.

“My father, now 85, gave to me some very special gifts as I was growing up,” Curtiss says. “I learned to see the beauty in the sciences, of course, but also learned to see the richness of beauty in the natural world. … I have explored many spiritual paths and have found that Taoism speaks to my natural spiritual inclination.”

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