Will - to make something happen 

Power - the ability to do something or act in a particular way 

 

For me, having Willpower is the ultimate test of strength as everything starts in the mind. Without being mindful, our experiences might be considered happenstance which can surprise us at times and feel like luck. I believe in being a deliberate creator and having Willpower keeps me focused on the life I want to create, to live, to experience. 

I was born and raised in Oklahoma. Coming from a military family, we were stationed all over the U.S. but kept coming back to Lawton, OK as it was, at the time, a safe and really affordable place to raise a family. My mom was 17 when she gave birth to my brother and 19 when she had me and my twin sister. My dad volunteered to go to Vietnam after his brother was drafted. My dad didn’t want his brother to be alone. That said, my mom was doing a lot on her own as her family was in California. 

I think I have always been an introvert on many levels. My twin sister was the gregarious one and I assumed the role of her shadow so I wouldn’t have to engage. However, there was something inside of me that loved to perform when we had company to the house. I loved to make people laugh. Maybe I should’ve gone into theater. Being an introvert and loving my solitude, I tapped into my creative side; music, drawing, building, exploring, painting, decorating for birthdays and such. My parents took quick notice and began to nurture my creativity. I feel wildly blessed to have had such a support network that didn’t force me to pursue something “practical” like law or medicine or accounting. Not that there is anything wrong with any of those professions, but I am not sure I would have excelled at anything other than the arts. 

As we all know, Oklahoma is not known for its high level of creativity or the arts, although there is a very visible presence these days amongst the college towns in Lawton, Norman and Stillwater. I grew up in Lawton which was more sports and agriculture focused. Well, I think every town in Oklahoma is sports focused to be honest. That said, it was no place for me to linger once I was old enough to move out, move away. The schools I attended had, in my opinion, really good art programs and I tried to pursue as many as I could manage. From painting to drawing to sculpture to design and architecture. I flourished and some and failed at others but I tried it all. As I made my way through high school and it was time to start applying to colleges, I had a proficient drawing portfolio that I could use as a resume of sorts which granted me a full scholarship to a few colleges. 

I attended Cameron University in Lawton, OK for a few years with a fellow artist and colleague that I was continually inspired by who drove to me be better than the day before. The art critiques were thorough and encouraging. I became really good at creating pencil and charcoal drawings that looked so real that some people thought they were black and white photographs so much that my final was assigned by the class...draw a metal slinky and make it as realistic as possible. I wish I still had the drawing but I gave it to the first guy I dated as he was an avid art collection and he loved the piece. 

 

Once I got out into the real world, I started to window dress for retail stores in Dallas, TX.  

 

I also worked for an another home furnishings company in Dallas, TX that treated me with no respect. From being hit on the head with a book while on set and being called an “idiot”.    

It’s interesting and I’m sure any creative person could answer this in a similar way. When a person is passionate about something and they give it everything they have with the knowledge they have at the time, things don’t always click on the first attempt or even second one. Being told “no” was something I got used to very fast but it didn’t stop me and only made for a better challenge. When I was working as a contract stylist for a major home furnishings company, the art director at the time asked me if I would take of my shirt and toss it on set as we were shooting the first teen catalogue and he needed a casual shirt for the shot. I was immediately put in an awkward situation as this was my job and what I was hired to do, style the set, but nowhere in my contract did it read that I would have to undress in the process. I had no one to pull aside and talk to about what transpired but I stood my ground and refused to take off my shirt. 

From there,  I was approached by a publishing company in San Francisco that was putting together a series of design books and asked if I wanted to be one of their stylists. So I evolved into a stylist and while on set, I learned to use a camera. While on set during a Neiman Marcus shoot, we were working with still life objects to photograph jewelry and that's when it clicked (no pun intended) that I wanted to create still lifes and photograph them as fine art. 

Although it sounds like an easy road, it was anything but that and the jobs paid well, but the work was not consistent. So I took a corporate job at Nike up in Beaverton, OR. I knew I wasn't cut out for the corporate world, but I learned a lot about marketing and creating initiatives to sell products.

 

In my opinion, in the cooperate world there is a level of bureaucracy that can be construed as a waste of time. I recall having a meeting about having a meeting and scheduling the next meeting. I asked if this could have been don’t through an email as I was under a creative deadline. Apparently that didn’t go over well. The delay in getting decisions made is mind boggling and I understand the importance to make the best decision but when you get 12 people in a room with different ideas, things can take longer than necessary. I remember while at Nike, there was this complete runaround for months about an initiative going into the Olympics. It was a simple tag line that no one could agree on. Back and forth for weeks and months. Finally, the deadline was approaching and we all settled on the original tag line, “Find Your Greatness”. I had no idea how prophetic those words would be for me in the following years. 

 

After a few years working on the Product Presentation team at Nike, I decided to exit the company and finally fully pursue my art career (which they laughed at and wished me luck). So I mentioned this during my exit interview, "Could you imagine if someone said the same to Bill Bowerman and Phil Knight for selling sneakers out of their VW...this company wouldn't exist and you wouldn't have this job.”

From there, I moved to Southern California and started walking showroom door to showroom door in Beverly Hills and surrounding areas with two pieces of my work. I would introduce myself and say something along the lines of, "Hello, my name is Curtis Speer. I just moved here and I don't know anyone and no one knows who I am but I am a fine art photographer and I am looking for a place to show my work." 

I was told "no thank you" by everyone that day. I was referred to one more place that may consider showing my work but there was no guarantee...so I got in my car and made my way over to Joe Lucas, Harbinger, LA. I met with him directly and he was gracious and kind and said he would be thrilled to show my work. 

If I can recall correctly, first and foremost, I believe Joe appreciated my dedication to going door to door with my work to find a showroom to exhibit some of the pieces. When I showed him what I create, he mentioned he had never seen anything done in the way I do my photography. He is an incredible designer with an eclectic taste that makes magic. I don’t know how he does what he does, but I knew I would be in good company. 

I worked with Joe and his design staff for a couple of years selling my work here and there but not enough to make a full living. Struggling to make ends meet, a good friend in Palm Springs adamantly suggested I sell all the stuff in my house and move to Provincetown, MA. I kind of laughed and said "well that just seems irresponsible" to which he replied, "you can create anywhere...move to the cape and take pictures with that amazing light" he said. I had never been to P-town and didn't know anyone but this is where it gets good...

I created a post on Facebook in December 2016 that read something along the lines of "moving to the east coast and selling everything in my house this Saturday and Sunday". Saturday rolled around and I was expecting a slough of folks coming in to nickel and dime me, to acquire my life, as it were. BUT one woman showed up with a U-Haul and a credit card and said she would take EVERYTHING but the only caveat is that I would need to load up the truck as she couldn't get any help that day. 

 

THAT WAS THE SIGN I NEEDED that I made the right decision. 

I drove across the country from Laguna Beach to Oklahoma (to see my family before Christmas) and onto Cape Cod by January 6. I arrived that night and unloaded my SUV. Everything I owned was in there including my printer and my computer. Within 6 weeks, a young gentleman approached me via social media informing me that he just purchased an office building in the middle of town and that he came across my work and thought I would be a good candidate to open up my own gallery. I was suspect at first as I still didn't really know anyone here. But I met with him and saw the space and discussed the potential of what could be done. So I signed the lease and began the process of creating my very own gallery space in the heart of Provincetown. I didn't take out a loan, I didn't borrow any money except for a few small amounts from friends back home and I would sell my work through Instagram to buy supplies and paint and track lights, etc…

In the process over the 2 months it took to create the space, folks would walk by and ask what I was doing. I would tell them and a majority would say something like, "oh, you'll never make it...no one comes to Bradford St off Commercial, no one comes to Ptown to buy photography and no one knows who you are." 

I can not say that I love a good challenge or that I even love proving people wrong...it was not about any of that. At that point, I knew my worth and I had a proven track record to back it up. So the doubt went in one ear and out the other and I kept my nose to the grindstone. I realized I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone as the gallery was my project to make or break and this time, no one could tell me “no”.

Ever since I was a little guy, I knew I was here for a bigger reason. In 1985, in elementary school, we had begun practicing for the school play. The song, “We Are The World” had just been released and I knew how powerful the message was and still is. I asked my classmates if they would be interested in performing the song in the middle of the play to lend our voices to what was happening in Africa. Each classmate assumed the lines of the original artists and we practiced and practiced and made a banner that read We Are The World to hold up. (Big dreams for a little gay boy in Lawton, OK). Someone caught wind of what we were planning and I was called into the office. I was told that it was unacceptable to try and highjack the play from the music teacher. I tried to explain why we were doing it and why it was important. I was excused from school and the plan was aborted. My level of disappointment in adults at the time shook me as I knew I wasn’t alone in this and my classmates were on board. That experience alone made me realize I have leadership capabilities as well as a vision to make the world a little bit better and a little bit brighter. So I hold on to that and it drives me to never give in or give up anymore. 

My first exhibition was comprised of lighthouses on Cape Cod. This was after a severe rejection from another gallery (who initially was interested in my work) in Provincetown who told me “If I ever show images of lighthouses in my gallery, I will close my doors before it ever happens”. I kept my mouth shut and walked away gracefully. Months later, she came into MY gallery and sat with me and was rendered speechless by the exhibition and the execution. She told me, “I had no idea you were capable of this”. To which I responded, “as a gallerist, it is your responsibility to do your due diligence on artists you are considering, but welcome to my gallery”. The reason I chose lighthouses instead of my still life work, which is often evocative, is because I wanted to exhibit something locals could relate to as no one knew me or my work. I wanted to ease my way into the community and then I could exhibit the work I’m wilding passionate about creating. Also, lighthouses are beacons and create a shining portal for all newcomers into the magnificent village. My images are all created in the style of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth and the title to the first exhibition in CUSP GALLERY was ‘It Was Hopper All Along” as there was nothing I could improve upon his style of work, except for my work is photography on cotton which emulates a painting. 

Edward Hopper was an American realist painter and printmaker. He is widely known for his oil paintings as well as watercolors. His house is located outside of Provincetown, MA. The light in his paintings are something I never really knew existed as the light in Oklahoma is a lot different. Once I moved to Provincetown, I realized that he captured the light perfectly and beautifully. 

Andrew Wyeth was a visual artist, primarily a realist painter, working predominantly in a regionalist style (realistic scenes of rural small-town America primarily in the Midwest). He was one of the best known U.S. artists of the mid 20th century. 

Anyways, so, I pushed through it all. I documented the entire process. I created my first exhibition of cape icons that emulated the style of Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. The space was bright and beautiful. I opened the doors in May 2017....and sold every piece I had on the walls. 

Four years later, I am still going strong but with a silent voice. I am still on Bradford St, off the beaten path, but I only get serious art collectors in and people who appreciate architecture (the house was built in 1857). Most days are quiet but the art appreciators have discovered me and most have started to collect my work and come back every year. 

Despite finding success at a young age, as Tom found himself training for the Olympic Swimmers and being Valedictorian, nothing prepared Tom for the life journey he embarked through his manhood.

with Tom Ernsting

September 2020

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