Julie Curtiss’ Surreal Fantastical Realm

In Her Wildest Dreams

Interview by Charles Moore // Portrait by Dan McMahon

Raised in the eastern suburbs of Paris, abstract painter Julie Curtiss holds a firm belief that the Covid-19 pandemic has compelled individuals to introspect. While she acknowledges the temporary ripple effect of the ongoing devastation, she claims that people cannot fully comprehend the collective experience without first looking inward. In her view, the period of self-reflection imposed by the pandemic has the potential to pave the way for a more informed and interconnected future. It is important to note that Curtiss is not politically oriented in the broad sense. Instead, her artistic focus centers on exploring the female identity through vibrant close-up paintings that immerse viewers in her large-scale canvases. Her work strikes a delicate balance between intriguing subtleties and striking specificities, encouraging observers to project their own experiences onto the art. This ambiguity and paradox are central themes in Curtiss’s body of work.

Julie Curtiss grew up with a French mother and a Vietnamese father, and she had the opportunity to frequent museums from a young age. She developed a deep fascination with the works of Degas and the art of the late nineteenth century. This influence is evident in her own work, where she skillfully captures stillness amidst movement. Having lived in France, Germany, Japan, and the United States, Curtiss gained valuable experience working with renowned artists like Jeff Koons and Brian Donnelly (also known as KAWS) before establishing her own artistic identity. In 2004, she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, thanks to a prestigious Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Award, and subsequently completed her degree at l’Ecole des Beaux-arts in Paris in 2006. However, it was in 2015 that Curtiss solidified her distinctive artistic style, characterized by faceless portraits, distorted digits, and enigmatic figures obscured by voluminous hair. Her work also features macro-representations of food, drink, and seemingly ordinary objects, all of which invite viewers to explore the complex nuances of the human experience.

When asked about her motivations, Julie Curtiss often highlights psychology. Having undergone therapy since the age of 16, she recognizes the significance of the “shadow” within each individual. By incorporating this shadow into her work, she seeks to create a therapeutic connection with her audience. The shadow represents the darkest aspects of someone’s being, and Curtiss aims to capture this essence by projecting her own experiences onto her paintings. Through her art, she becomes the viewer’s shadow, prompting introspection and creating an experience akin to gazing through a screen. Curtiss embraces the absence of distinct features in her subjects, emphasizing body parts, accessories, and food as abstract representations set against monochromatic backgrounds. It is undeniable that she has given the female identity an innovative, grotesque, and profoundly human reinterpretation that resonates with the public. According to Curtiss, the most successful art pieces are those that offer a spiritual connection to the viewer.

Childhood Influences and Artistic Journey

A Creative Upbringing and Early Exposure to Art

Julie Curtiss was raised in Les Pavillons-sous-Bois, a residential area in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Her parents, a French mother and a Vietnamese father, fostered her creative development from an early age. Her father’s talent as a photographer and her mother’s keen interest in art led to frequent visits to museums and extensive travels. This liberal upbringing allowed Curtiss to cultivate her own artistic inclinations. She remembers being particularly captivated by the works of Degas during her museum visits, especially his depictions of dancers. The late nineteenth-century art movement resonated deeply with her, leaving a lasting impression on her artistic sensibilities.

Discovering a Passion for Drawing and Painting

As an only child, Julie Curtiss naturally gravitated toward drawing and various crafts. Encouraged by her parents’ support and her own fascination with artistic expression, she found solace and inspiration in creating visual art. She would immerse herself in the creative process, losing track of time and becoming captivated by the flow and mood of the moment.

Choosing Art School and Pursuing a Creative Path

Given her passion for art, it was a natural choice for Julie Curtiss to attend art school instead of pursuing a more traditional university education. Art became her favorite subject in school, and she used it as a means to channel her anxiety and nervous energy as a teenager. Supported by her parents, Curtiss enrolled in a preparatory class that provided her with the necessary foundation to gain admission to renowned art schools.

In France, the educational system differs from that of the United States. Public art schools offer free education, but admission is highly competitive. Once accepted, the student’s entire artistic education is guaranteed. Curtiss attended the Beaux-Arts school in Paris, initially feeling intimidated by its elitist reputation. However, she soon overcame her apprehensions and embraced the opportunities the school provided.

Exploring Different Art Schools and Cultures

Artistic Exchanges and Studying Abroad in Germany

Julie Curtiss took advantage of art program exchanges, which allowed her to study at different art schools around the world. She successfully applied for an exchange program in Germany and was admitted to the highly competitive Dresden Art Academy. This experience broadened her artistic perspectives and enriched her understanding of different cultural contexts.

A Life-Changing Experience in Chicago

Returning to France, Julie Curtiss received a significant grant from LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), which enabled her to pursue further studies abroad. She seized the opportunity to study at the renowned School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The artistic and cultural immersion in Chicago proved to be transformative for Curtiss. She found herself exposed to a distinct American subculture, which she described as liberating. The experience opened her mind and broadened her artistic horizons. It was during her time in Chicago that she met her husband, Clinton King, and developed a strong desire to spend more time in the United States.

From France to Japan and Back

After completing her education in France, Julie Curtiss decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. However, the geographical distance from her husband made it challenging. They made the decision to spend a year together in Japan before returning to Paris. However, their shared experience in Japan reignited their desire to make a life for themselves in the United States, particularly in New York.

The Path to Artistic Success in New York

Upon arriving in New York, Julie Curtiss faced the realities of starting a career in a new city. Initially working in jobs unrelated to art, such as a coffee shop and a shoe store, she persevered and eventually found her way into the art world. She landed a position with renowned artist Jeff Koons, which she considered a significant breakthrough.

At Jeff Koons’s studio, Curtiss worked in the sculpture painting department, masking sculptures—an exciting opportunity that allowed her to appreciate Koons’s remarkable sculptures firsthand. However, the demanding full-time job left her with little time to focus on her own art. Despite the challenges, Curtiss continued creating art in her personal studio, dedicating evenings and weekends to her own creative endeavors. She embraced the driven nature and ambition of the New York art scene, working tirelessly to pursue her own artistic vision. Eventually, she secured a small art residency and a crucial turning point came when she joined the studio of Brian Donnelly (KAWS).

Redefining Artistic Style in Brian Donnelly’s Studio

Transitioning to Brian Donnelly’s studio marked a significant turning point for Julie Curtiss. The environment was more intimate and supportive, allowing her to work closely with Donnelly and other artists. This change provided her with more time and space to focus on her artistic practice. During this period, her style evolved, as she absorbed inspiration from Donnelly’s work and explored new artistic directions.

Curtiss’s early years in New York were marked by experimentation with various artistic techniques and styles. She initially delved into figurative work inspired by Degas, but upon relocating to the United States, her focus shifted toward graphic works on paper. Her compositions took on a comic book-like quality, with bold lines and abstract elements capturing the attention of Brian Donnelly. The recognition she received from him further influenced her artistic growth and development.

The Female Gaze and Surrealist Influences

Redefining Female Archetypes through the Female Gaze

A recurring theme in Julie Curtiss’s work is the exploration of female archetypes and figures through the lens of the female gaze. Her art delves into the multifaceted nature of femininity and challenges traditional canons of art. By painting from both inside and outside perspectives, Curtiss embraces diverse influences and allows viewers to question societal norms and preconceptions.

From Passive to Active: Challenging Perceptions

In her art, Julie Curtiss presents female figures that defy passivity. By curating, displaying, and presenting themselves, these figures become active participants in the artistic experience. Curtiss seeks to challenge conventional notions of passivity and instead portrays the act of self-expression and self-display as powerful and creative. She aims to evoke a sense of admiration and engages viewers to interpret the active nature of the display in a variety of ways.

Surrealism and Political Sensibilities

Although Julie Curtiss’s work exhibits surrealist elements, she does not overtly classify her art as purely surrealistic. While her paintings may invite interpretations through the lens of surrealism, her intentions do not revolve around defining her work solely within that framework. While she draws inspiration from surrealism, Curtiss does not align with the political aspects of the surrealist movement. Surrealism, particularly its anti-establishment and chaotic nature, has less resonance in her artistic practice. Instead, she focuses on striking a balance between thought-provoking ideas, new perceptions, and the absence of a strong political agenda.

According to Curtiss, striking a balance between inspiration and political advocacy is crucial. She aims to create art that allows viewers to project their own experiences and inner world onto her work. Maintaining an element of ambiguity and paradox enables these projections to occur naturally. Curtiss appreciates the transformative power of art and emphasizes the need for a spiritual connection between the artwork and the viewer. By preserving a level of ambiguity, she opens the door for personal interpretations and unique experiences.

The Significance of Hair and Dreams

Hair as a Symbolic Element

Hair plays a significant role in Julie Curtiss’s art. It symbolizes growth, connection to primitive life, and embodies a duality, especially for women. While hair on the head is often seen as beautiful, once it appears on the body, it can be perceived as unsightly or disturbing. By including hair in her paintings, Curtiss explores this duality and challenges conventional notions of beauty and societal expectations.

The Medusa Complex and Dream Influences

Julie Curtiss acknowledges her fascination with the mythological story of Medusa, a childhood favorite that evoked both intrigue and fear. The complex nature of Medusa, symbolizing duality and the power to turn people into stone, has made a lasting impact on Curtiss’s artistic mindset. Some of her dreams have been influenced by Medusa, as they reflect the foreboding sense that fixed images or fixed renditions possess the power to petrify individuals. This duality manifests as both illness and remedy in Medusa’s character. Dreams hold great significance to Curtiss, serving as a source of darkness and intuition. She pays close attention to her dreams and intuitively incorporates their imagery into her artwork. While analyzing dreams can be helpful, Curtiss believes that overanalyzing robs them of their potency.

The Evolving Role of the Body

Within Julie Curtiss’s body of work, there has been an increasing emphasis on the human body. Curtiss employs cinematic techniques such as cropping, chopping, and segmenting the body, creating a visual puzzle for the viewer to decipher. By cropping certain elements, she intentionally cultivates a sense of mystery. More recently, Curtiss has been exploring the relationship between the individual and the collective, prompting a shift in the framing from individual perspectives to broader social dynamics.

The Role of Literature and Mythology

Literature, mythology, and archetypes hold significant influence over Julie Curtiss’s creative process. Currently reading “A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art and Science,” Curtiss delves into the fascinating exploration of how the universe is organized on different scales, incorporating biology, physics, and mathematics. Mythology and archetypes unify knowledge and communicate profound ideas through images. The significance of certain numerical and symbolic representations recurs in art throughout history, paralleling the recurring themes found in mythological depictions.


Julie Curtiss’s artistic journey has been shaped by her multicultural upbringing, early exposure to art, and diverse educational experiences. Her work defies easy categorization, drawing on influences as varied as Degas and surrealism while exploring the complexities of the female identity and human experience. Through her close examination of the self and incorporation of shadow elements, Curtiss invites viewers to engage with their own inner worlds.

Curtiss’s artistic evolution has been marked by experimentation, driven by her innate curiosity and desire to challenge conventions. She has found inspiration in the symbolism of hair, delving into its multifaceted nature and its significance in both personal and societal contexts. Dreams and their transformative power have also had a profound impact on her creative process, contributing to the rich and enigmatic elements of her work.

As her artistic journey continues, Julie Curtiss aims to provide viewers with thought-provoking and spiritually engaging experiences. She embraces the ambiguous and paradoxical nature of art, allowing for personal interpretations and connections. In today’s cancel culture, Curtiss strives to address uncomfortable but important subjects, pushing boundaries and encouraging discussions that go beyond moralizing. Through her art, she seeks to evoke emotional responses and open doors for self-reflection and growth.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Where is Julie Curtiss from?

Julie Curtiss is originally from the eastern suburbs of Paris, France.

2. What are some of Julie Curtiss’s artistic influences?

Julie Curtiss draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including the works of Degas, the late nineteenth-century art movement, and the Surrealist movement. She also values the influence of literature, mythology, and archetypes in shaping her artistic perspective.

3. How does Julie Curtiss incorporate dreams into her artwork?

Julie Curtiss regards dreams as a significant aspect of her artistic process. She pays close attention to her dreams, viewing them as representations of the unconscious mind and a source of intuition. Curtiss intuitively incorporates dream imagery into her artwork, leveraging its transformative power and rich symbolic potential.

4. What is the significance of hair in Julie Curtiss’s art?

Hair plays a symbolic role in Julie Curtiss’s paintings, representing growth, connections to primitive life, and embodying duality, particularly for women. Curtiss explores the contrast between the perception of hair on the head, often seen as beautiful, and hair on the body, which can be viewed as unsightly or disturbing. By incorporating hair into her artwork, she challenges societal expectations and conventional notions of beauty.

5. How does Julie Curtiss approach her artistic process?

Julie Curtiss embraces a process driven by intuition and spontaneity. She values flexibility and avoids overanalyzing her ideas, as she believes it diminishes their potency. Curtiss strives to create artwork that elicits a spiritual connection, allowing viewers to project their own experiences and interpretations onto her work. Ambiguity and paradox are recurring themes in her art, inviting personal responses and fostering unique connections between the viewer and the artwork.