On any given day, you can probably find Joan Curtis tucked in her basement studio, palette knife in hand and acrylic paint splattered on the floor, layering paint onto a canvas. It starts with an abstract, a background, color spreading across a canvas, and then it ignites into the shape of a face or the outline of a dress.

“It’s just whatever I feel like doing that day,” Joan says. “I just do it with a palette knife and it just kind of evolves … When I’m doing my people, it’s an abstract until, all of a sudden, I see a face in there, and then I make it into a person.” Palette knives are good, she says, because she likes to paint quickly and on large canvases, with each painting taking her only a couple hours to do and her smaller canvas size being roughly 35-by-35 inches. For her, the palette knives keep the paint fresh while she works.

Born and raised in Tuscaloosa, Joan discovered her love for color at a young age. According to her, it started with a 64-pack of Crayola crayons and evolved as she got older. She credits a high school art teacher for helping bolster her interest in painting and after that she was hooked, going on to major in art at the University
of Alabama.

“I’ve been painting for 45 years, and I’ve been doing canvases for probably 25 years,” Joan says, explaining that her works have always had their roots in impressionism. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that she started playing with putting figures into her work, a series she calls DoWaDitty. “They’re really abstracts with people in there.” It usually starts out as a lighter version of what’s in her head, beginning with a color, and then she’ll go back and emphasize what she’s wanting—such as layering a more intense red where some already exists to emphasize the idea of a dress in the viewer’s mind.

Not all of her paintings are of figures and people, though. Joan also paints works that are completely abstract, some with city scenes, and even a few musical instruments. “I don’t know what’s in my head and what’s going to come out,” says Joan about when she first sits down in front of a canvas, and it seems like the unexpected nature of painting is part of what drew her to the medium.Joan Curtis

For a while, she also dabbled in pottery, but she found it to be too predictable. “I’m a very creative kind of person, so I could’ve gone a lot of different routes,” she says. “But I just decided one day it was easier to do paintings and carry them around in the car than it was pottery … When you have that passion, it just comes out.

“It’s almost like a habit. You just get used to doing it, and then if you haven’t done it in a couple days, you kind of have to do it all day one day. Maybe it’s like … people that like to read and they want to read all the time and they have to read until that book’s finished. That’s kind of the way it is with painting with me. I don’t control it, it controls me.”

Joan moved to Birmingham from Tuscaloosa when she got married 40 years ago, and she’s been in Vestavia Hills for 27 years. When she isn’t working on her paintings, she’s at her part-time job, working as a pediatric cardiology nurse in the Women and Children’s center of UAB.

Now that her husband is retired, the two take the opportunity to travel as much as they can, and while they’re away Joan also enjoys traveling and picks up inspiration everywhere she goes. “I get inspired and have to get home and start painting, even though I’m not painting anything I saw, it just inspires me to do more,” she says.

Of course, sometimes starting is the easier part, but as with any artistic medium it can be hard to know when a piece is done. But Joan has learned from her work as she’s gone along though. “I’ve gotten better because I do it so much and I know to stop before it’s overdone, but I used to ask my husband. I’d bring it up and say ,‘Do you think I’m finished?’ and he’d go, ‘Well, her face looks a little scary’ or whatever. So, I used to ask others. But now I don’t; I just know,” she says. “It’s all about the details to make it right.”

Currently, Joan has her work displayed in the Liz Lane Art Gallery in Homewood. Alternatively, she can be seen at art shows in the area such as Bluff Park Art Festival on Oct. 7 at Bluff Park and Magic City Art Connection in April. To see more of Curtis’ art, you can visit her website at joancurtis.carbonmade.com, and you can also contact her at joancurtis@gmail.com.