Meet Soho House artist Curtis Holder
Ahead of his exhibition opening at London’s National Theatre, the British creative talks about his unusual career, skillful technique and his works in the Soho House collection
Thursday 26 January 2023 By Anastasiia Fedorova Portrait by Cameron Slater
Soho House’s global art collection is one of the biggest privately owned assemblages in the world. The Soho House Artists series spotlights people behind the works – their practice, life and aspirations. In this instalment, we talk to London-based artist Curtis Holder.
Portraiture has always captivated people’s minds as something that allows the exploration of human connection, our very nature and why we’re drawn to crafting our own likeness. The work of London-based artist, Curtis Holder, delves into this with impeccable skill and stark empathy. Mainly working with pencil, the artist layers febrile lines to capture his sitters in all their complexity: features, movement, emotion and character.
Holder’s story is also one of persistence and dedication to his art, having worked as a primary school teacher for two decades while pursuing his practice.
In 2020, he won Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year and his work was praised as being ‘magical […] courageous and startlingly new’, launching him into a wave of critical acclaim.
This week Holder’s solo show, The Makers: Portraits From Backstage, curated by Soho House Global Director of Art, Kate Bryan, opens at London’s National Theatre. As the theatre’s first artist in residence, Holder spent months observing and doing quick sketches of the theatre’s vast backstage areas. His multi-layered pencil portraits capture a range of ‘makers’ at the National Theatre: wigs, hair and makeup assistants, prop and puppet makers, a costume workroom trainee, stage technicians, and one of the stage door supervisors. True to his practice, he highlights the human, the subtle and the sometimes under-appreciated areas of life.
Ahead of the exhibition opening, Holder talked to Soho House about his path to art, his home studio and his works in the Soho House collection.
Where did you grow up and where are you based?
‘I grew up in Leicester, in the Midlands. Both my parents moved to the UK and settled there in the 1960s from the Caribbean. My mother worked for the NHS as a nurse and my father worked in a shoe factory. They taught me to be myself and to be kind, even when the world wasn’t being kind to you. I moved to London as a teenager, and I now live and work in south east London.’
What does art mean to you?
‘Since I was a small boy, I have used my pencil as a tool to observe life, express emotions and tell stories. Drawing is my oldest friend; it’s something that has been there for me during the good times, as well as the bad. For me, drawing is so many things; it’s a powerful and instinctive form of expression. I often find using words to describe my emotions limiting, but mark making and other forms of artistic expression help me to reveal and communicate so much more. Drawing is simply an extension of who I am; it’s just such an important part of my world and I’m not sure what the world would look like without it. It is my first language and my first love, something I hope I will continue to do as long as I am able.’
Name three things you explore in your work?
‘Motivations, connections and conversations through the passage of time with line.’
What is your studio like?
‘I’m lucky enough to have two workspaces at home. There’s a converted garage space where sitters and models sit for me. We have a mid-century 1960s townhouse and I designed the conversion myself with the period in mind; it has wood-panelled storage and a pulldown bed that models can use. That also comes in useful when I’m doing a late-night stint and need to crash out. The space is light, airy and usually clutter-free, apart from the rows of pencils, pencil sharpenings and a battered 1950s adjustable swivel chair. I also have an oddly shaped shed extension on the side of the house where I do wet work.’
What was the pivotal moment of your career?
‘Taking part in and winning Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year in 2020 was without doubt the pivotal moment of my artistic career. Before entering, I had been focusing more energy on my drawing for several years while working part-time as a primary school teacher. But, the competition felt like the very first time I allowed myself to be an artist without any other distractions. Getting through to the end of the competition drawing famous faces such as Eddie Izzard, The Vivienne and Bernardine Evaristo was such a privilege. The crew and the other artists were also the most amazing and talented people you could ever wish to meet. We’re still good friends now. It felt like the start of something new; it was scary and exciting, but ultimately a very self-affirming experience.’
What’s your favourite art-related memory?
‘Can I share two? My earliest art memory was creating a drawing as a six-year-old that looked very different to my peers’ drawings. I remember so clearly my teacher giving me such positive praise, and I recognised at that point drawing was something I was good at. More recently, a special moment was working with ballet dancer Carlos Acosta to create my commission for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. We shared several days working together in his dance studio. I just felt so privileged to be able to draw him in his environment. He was open, warm-hearted and straight-talking. He generously shared stories of his challenging early life in Cuba and his journey into dance. His story is extraordinary, and he talked passionately about his love for all forms of dance. It was a special day of profound artistic connection.’
What’s the craziest thing you ever made?
‘Last year I took part in The World Reimagined, a national art project. Ninety six large-scale, artist-designed globes were exhibited in cities across the UK during the summer, each bearing the commentary of the artists on the slave trade, as well as their past, present and future relationships with Britain. My work “Echoes Talk Back” was drawn directly in coloured pencils on one of the large fibreglass globes, which were about 1.5m in diameter. I’d never drawn on that shape or surface before, so it was certainly a challenge. The piece featured portraits of men from different generations in conversation with each other and themselves; a commentary on the power of dialogue in enabling connection and unity. The globe was displayed in various public London locations, before joining the other globes in an exhibition in Trafalgar Square.’
What do you do when you’re not making art?
‘I like to keep my hands busy. I sew and make a lot of my own clothes, including jeans and a few tailored jackets. I’ve also made ceramics, leather bags, a pair of trainers, and I enjoy cooking.’
Where can we see your works?
‘My first solo institutional exhibition The Makers: Portraits From Backstage, curated by Kate Bryan, opens at the National Theatre in London on 27 January and will run until 4 November 2023. I also have a few works in the Soho House collection at Little House Balham in south London.’
Could you tell me a little bit about the idea behind the upcoming exhibition and how did it emerge?
‘I was initially invited by the director and National Theatre associate, Dominic Cooke, to record the creative development of the play The Corn Is Green. I was then asked to be the National Theatre’s first artist in residence. This gave me the unique opportunity to spend months exploring every corner of the vast backstage world, capturing hundreds of quick drawings and sketches of backstage teams whose dedicated work and passion makes the productions possible. For this new exhibition I’ve distilled my observations and conversations into a series of large multi-layered pencil portraits, which focus on a selection of “the maker”’: hair and wig stylists, prop and puppet makers, makeup artists and costume makers.’
How does it co-exist with your broader practice: is it a development, a continuation, or something completely new?
‘This exhibition is a continuation of my exploration into what motivates the passions of an individual. My process continues to ask the same question: how can I represent their passion and our conversation through marks on paper? This residency has thrown up new ideas of how those conversations with individuals within a larger creative institution can give rise to even more complex and exciting connections. How will this inform my future work and drawing practice? I’m not sure, but I’m excited to find out.’
What do you find the most exciting about the upcoming show?
‘The exhibition will also incorporate a number of public events, including family and adult drawing workshops and a live in-conversation portrait sitting. You can find out more about these events on the National Theatre website. I was a primary school teacher, so I’m a keen advocate for both young and old to reconnect or make deeper connections with their creative and emotional selves. Simple mark making is an easy way for anyone to do that. Come along and get involved.’
‘The Makers: Portraits From Backstage’ is on show at the National Theatre from 27 January.
You can see more of Holder’s work at curtisholder.co.uk or on Instagram @curtisartist.