Sybil Curtis was born and raised on a dairy farm near Canungra, Queensland. For her secondary education, Curtis went to a boarding school at Southport where she was introduced to the sciences and to art. She did well academically and accepted a Commonwealth Scholarship and enrolled in a science degree at the University of Queensland. To cover living expenses she worked in the University’s Entomology Department and completed a Bachelor of Science with majors in entomology and geology.
These were formative years and Curtis feels that there is more that connects the sciences and the arts than divides them. Both attempt to understand the world around them by extending existing practices or experimenting to reveal something new. Failures are as important as successes. If you are not sometimes failing, you have ceased to experiment and are replicating something that is safe.
In the 1960s, illustrations in scientific publications were in black and white (full-tone) as photographs (half–tone) were prohibitively expensive to publish. While in the Entomology Department, Curtis started illustrating insects and on graduation secured a position with the Division of Entomology, CSIRO in Canberra to work on the monumental textbook Insects of Australia. Here Curtis learnt to use scraperboard. The surface of the board is covered in highly compressed chalk and, in addition to the usual black ink on white, it is possible to scrape back white lines on blackened areas. Pens become bogged in the surface so it is necessary to draw lines with a fine brush. Subsequently, Curtis has run courses and trained many other illustrators in this technique. The use of highly controlled, fine lines is a hallmark of the artist to this day.
On returning to and settling in Brisbane in 1970, Curtis became involved with the Brisbane Art Scene through Ray Hughes who ran a progressive gallery. He ran private tuition in his house and Curtis joined a group of budding artists who met once a month. Exposure to Hughes’ personal art collection and his gallery exhibitions were pivotal in Curtis’ artistic development.
In 1975, further exposure to contemporary art came with the establishment of the Institute of Modern Art initiated by Ray Hughes and Roy Churcher. The 1970s was also the beginning of international blockbuster exhibitions held at state galleries. For the first time in Australia, it was possible to see great works by the European masters.
After a period of experimentation, Curtis’s art practice and technical abilities matured. Entries into local art competitions were successful. The most notable was the lucrative Caltex City of Brisbane Art Award (painting) that allowed her to travel to Europe and visit its major galleries.
Curtis had her first solo exhibition at Kelvin Grove Campus Gallery in 1983. In 1986, her first commercial exhibition was held at Victor Mace Fine Art Gallery, Brisbane. Mace continued to represent her for the next seventeen years.
The Mining Years 1990s
A geological excursion to the coal mining areas near Ipswich was the starting point for mining themed paintings that continued over many years. Curtis was attracted to the dense, black character of coal and the knowledge that it was formed from ancient plants and sunlight, and that stored energy is transformed back into light via electricity generated in powerstations.
The Ipswich Coal Measures abound in exquisite fossils of ferns, cycads and extinct primitive plants. Curtis’ early mining paintings combined modern descendants of ancient plants with coal related infrastructure, particularly the Swanbank Power-Station. Over time, the plants disappeared and the buildings and equipment dominated.
Work place health and safety was not then an issue and, with the verbal permission of a site manager, Curtis was granted access to mining and industrial sites.
The Illawarra Coke Company invited her to their historical coke works at Corrimal near Woolongong NSW and this resulted in a series based on another aspect of coal.
Curtis based another coal series on the coal washing plant at Peak Downs, Moranbah central Queensland.
In 2000 Curtis had her first solo exhibition at Access Contemporary Gallery, Sydney run by Brenda May. The gallery changed its location and name a number of times; its final iteration was MaySpace at Waterloo, Sydney. Brenda May was a tireless worker for her artists and a great promoter of art. After a 22 year partnership, it was regrettable to see her gallery close in 2022.
BHP Newcastle Steel Works Demolition 2002
As coal became problematic, Curtis turned her attention to other heavy industries.
One of her most successful series was based on the demolition of BHP Newcastle Steelworks NSW in 2002. This was emblematic of transience as most structures were destroyed in a matter of months.
On the Waterfront
Around 2005, Curtis became interested in Sydney’s old docks as they were being repurposed into modern commercial and residential places.
After the Sydney waterfront, Curtis explored the Melbourne wharves and container terminal, constructing images that contrasted the elegant lines of ships with rectilinear containers.
Inside, Outside Industrial Buildings
Industrial buildings are often gigantic and enclose cathedral-like spaces with generous windows admitting natural light. Their engineering and structure is simple and functional but has the elements of good design and composition: balance, patterning, textures and rhythms.
In 2010-11, Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbor provided the basis for another series of Curtis’ paintings. It is interesting that it is now used as a venue for the Sydney Biennale and other art exhibitions.
Returning to Landscape
In 2016, a lifetime dream of Curtis’ became a reality with a voyage to Antarctica. It is remote, inhospitable and beautiful. The resulting paintings incorporate historical huts or modern buildings from scientific research bases into the frozen landscape.
In contrast to the cool blues and greens of Antarctica, the next series Curtis completed was based on the hot red landscape around Kati Thanada (Lake Eyre). Both places are inhospitable and are dotted with the remains of failed enterprises.
The most recent of Curtis’ paintings are based on driftwood structures constructed near a beach. They may appear very different from her previous images but they are still Structures in a Landscape.