Dorris Lafferty Curtis (1908–2006)
Dorris Lafferty Curtis was a nationally recognized folk art painter, author, and songwriter. Compared to folk art painter Grandma Moses (who started painting at age seventy-five) by herself and others, Curtis began painting at age sixty-five just before she retired from teaching. She produced hundreds of paintings, many of which are on display at the Torreyson Library at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway (Faulkner County).
Dorris Lafferty was born on March 4, 1908, in Rogers County, Oklahoma, near Foyil, to Roy Lafferty, a farmer, and Nan Lafferty. She was the third of four children. She grew up on the family farm, and much of her folk art is based on memories of her early years. Her mother died when Lafferty was six years old, and her father remarried a year later.
Lafferty graduated from Foyil High School in 1925 and immediately enrolled in Oklahoma State Teachers College in Tahlequah, joining her sister there. She met her husband, George Curtis, while traveling home for holiday visits. Curtis, a widower with a three-year-old daughter, was a telegrapher at the Fort Gibson railroad station. Lafferty and Curtis were married in July 1926. They had a son the following year. For several years, the Curtis family moved frequently to towns along the Central Division of the Missouri Pacific Railroad between Little Rock (Pulaski County) and Coffeyville, Kansas. Curtis began teaching elementary school when the family moved to Van Buren (Crawford County).
Not long after the family moved to Conway, Curtis enrolled at Arkansas State Teachers College (now UCA), where she received a BS in education in 1940. She then taught history and government at Greenbrier High School. When World War II caused a labor shortage, she began working for the railroad, which earned her significantly more money than teaching did. She received an MS in education in 1962 and returned to teaching, this time at the elementary level.
While making teaching her career, Curtis was also active in several writing groups in Little Rock and served as vice president of the Arkansas Writers Convention. She also composed country and western songs and sent recordings to Nashville publishers. Her song “Cry Baby Cry” was recorded by the Wilburn Brothers for Decca Records in 1968. Also in 1968, “Blabbermouth Sidewalk Stroll,” another Curtis composition, was recorded by Chuck Bowers for Decca.
Curtis taught first grade in the Conway public schools until she retired in 1973. Approaching retirement, Curtis reasoned, “Grandma Moses started painting without formal training when she was seventy, creating memory pictures of her childhood. Why can’t I do the same?” In September 1973, Curtis had a one-woman art exhibit at the Women’s Exchange in Memphis, Tennessee. The school in Conway where she taught had hosted her first show just before school was out for the year in 1973.
Curtis exhibited in the R. H. Love Galleries in Chicago in 1985. She was guest artist on the nationally televised PBS show American Art Forum in 1988 and 1990. She became a published author in 1985 when the University of Central Arkansas Press released her young adult novel, Skammy, Prince of Troy, based on her extensive study of Greek mythology and Homer’s Iliad. In 2004, the University of Arkansas Press published Come Walk with Me: The Art of Dorris Curtis, a book she co-authored with Robert Cochran, featuring photographs of her paintings and anecdotes to go with them. Curtis died on August 27, 2006. Her cremated remains were spread over her son George’s grave in Foyil, Oklahoma.
Although Curtis bore many similarities to folk artist Grandma Moses (Curtis’s son even sought out the man who marketed Moses’s paintings, Otto Kallir, while attempting to market his mother’s work), she was in no way a self-taught or “primitive” artist. She took art classes in Little Rock and Mexico as well as read art books, visited art museums, and joined art clubs as she developed her craft. She also studied with noted Conway artist and teacher Gene Hatfield. Curtis’s paintings deal mostly with Oklahoma and Arkansas subjects and settings; many relate to her early childhood in Oklahoma.
Curtis donated about 100 of her own paintings as well as her art collection—including a collection of African artifacts acquired by her son while he was in the Maritime service in West Africa in the mid-1960s—to be displayed at UCA’s Torreyson Library. She also established an art scholarship in her name at UCA, and royalties from her book Come Walk with Me go to a UCA foundation for the maintenance and exhibition of the collection. Her work is also displayed at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville (Pope County), at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County), and in Little Rock.
For additional information:
Curtis, Dorris, and Robert Cochran. Come Walk with Me: The Art of Dorris Curtis. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2004.
Dorris L. Curtis Collection. University of Central Arkansas Archives and Special Collections, Conway, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://uca.edu/archives/m02-06-dorris-l-curtis-collection/ (accessed September 27, 2022).
University of Central Arkansas
Staff of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture
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