First published: Spring 2023


Leaning on car bonnets in a New York City street, Curtis Lee Fairley drew his memories of his Navy days, unaware of the interest of a fellow draftsman


In 1987, from his office window overlooking the corner of Bowery and Second Street in New York City, draftsman George Lawrence often noticed Curtis Lee Fairley down below, absorbed in writing or drawing, using the windscreen or bonnet of a parked car as a makeshift drawing board. Lawrence assumed that Fairley, when not on the street, was a resident of the nearby men’s shelter which occupied the upper floors of the defunct Palace Hotel.


Plank Owner – Holy Stone Ship, c. 1988, 14 x 11 in. / 35.5 x 28 cm. The naval term “Plank Owner” shows that Fairley was a first crew member on a newly commissioned ship, aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea. “Holy Stone Ship” indicates it had a wooden deck. Fairley listed the oceans he had crossed
all artworks shown: pencil, chalk, coloured pencil and crayon on paper; courtesy: George Lawrence


Out of curiosity, Lawrence approached Fairley one day, and asked to see his drawings. Despite differences in their circumstance and background – Lawrence was a 34-year-old white draftsman and Fairley, a black man in his sixties, subsisting on the street – the two developed an acquaintance over the course of the following few months. They shared an interest in drawing and the odd fact that both had grown up in Birmingham, Alabama.


Self-portrait in Dress Blue Navy Uniform, c. 1987, 8.5 x 11 in. / 21.5 x 28 cm. The three chevrons on Fairley’s arm show that he was “Petty Officer First Class”. “SP” on his hat and arm mean he was assigned to Shore Patrol. He notes how to roll his neckerchief, and Patrol duty rules such as “No drinking alcohol”.


Lawrence soon discovered that Fairley was a US Navy veteran, and that his artwork consisted largely of memories from a life of military service: images of battleships, submarines and other vessels, self-portraits in uniform, ports of call, illustrated mess-hall recipes, intricate Navy insignia, and long lists of destinations and tasks. The complexity and technical detail of many of the images and accompanying text were particularly noteworthy given that they were drawn 30 years on and from memory. Using art supplies that he collected from bins and dumpsters – graphite and coloured pencil, chalk, crayon and paper – Fairley added his own expressive style and graphic energy to the scenes.




This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #114.

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