Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020 award-winner Curtis Holder is an artist on the rise. Holder earned his prize by getting through an initial sift of a thousand applicants, then seeing off no fewer than 71 skilful and determined competitors, with his stunning colour pencil portraits of a gaggle of celebrities. These included James Lee Williams, aka high-profile drag queen, The Vivienne, Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo, and stand-up comic, actor, activist and author, Eddie Izzard.

But there are aspects of his story that would confound many people’s expectations of someone fitting this description. How does the portrait specialist defy arty archetypes? Let me count the ways.

Earn money as an Airbnb host
Curtis on growing up in Leicester (UK).

Trope one: the artist as a tragic hero, riven by a miserable existence and obsession with creating their art. Well, not in this case — Curtis Holder is a happy and friendly soul. He’s a gay man in a settled relationship, and his capacity to create his work is partly because his partner Steve Goggin supported him doing so, despite the considerable costs. They’ve been together for 17-years.

OK, well, how about the Angry Young Man? Surely Holder is driven to confront the world with the ferocity of his work? I don’t know what to tell you… wait, yes, I do. The only stereotype that applies here is the good old Black don’t crack one. Curtis Holder is 52 years old but could easily pass for 20 years younger. And while his work is evocative, distinctive, and revealing, it never contains any apparent anger. No doubt he’s capable of capturing it if called upon to do so by his subjects, but he’s skilled enough to get under their skin rather than project his own anger or anything else.

A troubled childhood, then? Does Mr Holder use his creativity to conquer, or at least tame his demons? Oh dear, I can see why some might think this is likely, but again, no. There are many distinctive features of his childhood — he was born in Leicester, for example, Britain’s first city where ‘minorities’ form the majority (black and South Asian). His family somehow ended up in an all-white neighbourhood, “where we were the only Blacks in the village,” Holder says — but though the memory of this is vivid, he’s apparently untroubled by it.

Curtis Holder on teaching part-time.

His mother was an identical twin, so he also has memories of the striking physical similarities and philosophical differences between her and his aunt, but this seems to amuse him, rather than bother him, despite spending some of his early childhood living with his mother’s twin, as both his parents worked demanding jobs.

Ah, but what about daddy issues, eh? I mean, it stands to reason that a black, gay young man had a fractious relationship with his father, doesn’t it? It’s certainly true that many a black gay man — most likely the vast majority — has or had difficult relationships with their fathers. It just so happens that Holder is one of the minority.

Curtis holder portrait artist of the year 2020 portrait of carlos acosta (ballet dancer)
Curtis Holder, Portrait Artist of the Year 2020: Portrait of Carlos Acosta (Ballet Dancer).

He speaks of his father with great affection and makes a point of saying that his relationship with his mother was more complex and challenging. Indeed, he failed to provoke his father’s rage or any meaningful confrontation with him, despite his best efforts as a stroppy teenager. It’s also noteworthy that dad was Holder and his siblings’ primary carer for much of his childhood.

So where does all this leave us, and more importantly, where does it leave Curtis Holder? Well, it leaves us blessed with the presence of a highly accomplished artist, who is grounded enough to retain his role as a primary school teacher part-time, is in a loving, secure relationship and is a bold, black, gay breath of fresh air to the British visual arts scene.

For the Portrait Artist Of The Year 2020 winner’s commission, Curtis Holder drew world-renowned Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Acosta. The portrait now hangs as part of the permanent collection at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the United Kingdom.

Curtis Holder’s work defies pigeonholing even more than his life does. It’s about time the narrative of what makes great portraiture is reframed — and Holder has the world at his feet, and the gift changing this narrative in his exquisitely skilful hands.

Best Bits: Summary of Curtis Holder on the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2020 show (Unavailable in the UK). Watch the full series.
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Cyril Husbands is a writer, commentator and critic. When he’s not doing his day job as a management consultant, his cultural interests are broad, mainly ranging from the middlebrow to the lower reaches of highbrow, and into lowbrow territory, occasionally. Cyril doesn’t do 'ally politics' — but some of his best friends are gay.
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