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IN CONVERSATION: National Theatre's Artist in Residence - Curtis Holder

Curtis Holder is electric.

The winner of Sky Arts ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’ in 2020, Curtis informs me that being chosen as the first ever National Theatre Artist in Residence has been a “crazy journey of craziness”.

But the ability to create beautiful works of art has always been within him, “I was drawing before I could put a sentence together”, a skill nurtured by his late mother, it was their special way of communicating. Now that he has earned this title, something that started off so intimate now champions not just the creative sector but Black Queer youth to dream just that bit bigger.

Curated by Kate Bryan, Global Director of Art for Soho House, arts broadcaster and judge for shows like Landscape and Portrait Artist of the Year; Kate saw something in Curtis which led to his appointment as Artist in Residence.

Curtis Holder (c) Cameron Slater

Initially invited to document the rehearsals and creative development of National Theatre’s ‘The Corn is Green’ (2022), by Dominic Cooke, Curtis became, as we all are, encapsulated by the spirit and the energy of the stage. It was during this time, Curtis began to notice more than just the actors, “all these things started happening, people would have bits of costume on, they’d have a bit of a wig on. And I’d go 'where’s all this stuff coming from? I want to go and see those people'”.

Like myself Curtis holds love for those who shy away from the spotlight, “it’s all about those people who the light doesn't shine upon which makes other people’s days glow,” he gushes. And with this Curtis’ pencil shifted to the ‘Makers’.

He began exploring the labyrinth that is the National’s Backstage, sketching those working on its shows over a period of about six months.

Curtis Holder (Artist) and Kate Bryan (Curator) with the sitters at 'The Makers: Portraits from Backstage' by Curtis Holder (c) Cameron Slater

One of those ‘sitters’ was Skye, who works in the Wigs, Hair and Makeup (WHaM) department. Skye, along with her fellow chosen colleagues, were shadowed by Curtis doing their day to day tasks across various 2022 productions at National Theatre. Curtis amassed a healthy amount of quick portraits that were used to reference back to the slightly larger pieces you see displayed in the Lyttelton Lounge.

“With me, I did a two hour sitting, which I enjoyed. I literally just sat there, chilled. I’m pretty still anyway,” laughs Skye. On first seeing her portrait [Curtis told me all the sitters decided to view their portraits for the first time at the preview] Skye said, “I loved it! You can tell it’s me and he got my lashes in”.

Curtis Holder - National Theatre - The Hair Stylist (Skye)

His work evokes a sense of movement in each of its subjects, and his sense of storytelling is evident throughout the entire series of portraits. Having sat with several individuals across a number of months - he most likely knows the secrets of the stage better than Deputy Artistic Director Clint Dyer (who Curtis drew on 28th January in a live session) something which he jokes about whilst giving his thank yous the night of the preview.

Viewing Curtis’ work makes me want to take up drawing (something I hadn’t had attempted since taking mandatory art classes in secondary school) but Curtis insists that everyone can draw and should be allowed the creative freedom to do so. Alongside his portraits, Curtis will be hosting two workshops.

“I love teaching [Curtis was a Primary teacher for a number of years] … the language of creativity is legitimate. It’s a way forward”.

Curtis Holder’s works are available to view for free at the National Theatre in the Lyttelton Lounge, he will also be hosting two further Self-Portrait workshops for young people and adults.


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