Photographer Shon Curtis

On this episode, Rodney sits down with Dayton-based photographer Shon Curtis to learn how he went from a background in sales to a life of finding the beauty in life through a camera lens. Hear how a college advisor gave Shon the choice of a lifetime and how an early attraction to jazz music put him on the path of the arts.

Show Notes


 [00:00:00] Hello everybody. Welcome to the Rodney Veal’s inspired by podcast. I am super excited and delighted because I’ve actually had time and opportunity before the podcast to hang out with this fabulous, fabulous photographer, artist. Spoken word artist, musician, he’s a multi hyphenate and I think he’s, he’s at the very beginning stages of pulling the multi hyphenates together and it’s just going to be an exciting mix.

Rodney Veal: I think he’s one of the [00:01:00] most talented photographers I’ve ever encountered. In our, in our, in our midst and not to make him blush, but I just feel like his portraiture is something that must be seen and experienced for you to understand how well this man captures the souls of his subjects. So without further ado, welcome to the podcast.

Sean Curtis. Welcome, Sean.

Shon Curtis: Wow. That was great. That was the best intro I’ve probably had ever in my life. So I receive and appreciate that. How are you, Rodney?

Rodney Veal: I’m doing good. I mean, I just have a little bit of congestion, but that’s just typical Ohio weather. Absolutely. You know, I’m like, ugh, really? Before things get bad.

Shon Curtis: Good old, good old Ohio weather. Right? Good old Ohio weather. We have all four seasons in one week. Yep. That’s how it goes.

Rodney Veal: Yep. Sometimes in the same day. It’s just, that’s our thing. But yeah, no, I mean, I mean, I genuinely mean it. And I just, I mean, for the audiences, like I, I we’re working on a documentary [00:02:00] on the, the life and career of Bing Davis, who is an absolute incredible legend, legend icon.

Like he defines the word icon. I’m like, no, no, no, no folks. Yeah, this man is doing it. It is unreal. And we were very, we’re very lucky to have Sean on board to capture being an Audrey’s official portraits for the documentary. And so we filmed behind the scenes. So you’re getting a little teaser to the documentary, but it was just like, one of the things that I noticed is, and we’re going to, this is a free ranging conversation is that.

My observation is, was that when you, you created and crafted an environment. That all time and place and everything else, there’s a lot going on in our world, but in that room, it was about being so present and being so present for the subject, but also being so present for everyone in the room. Like we’re [00:03:00] that way.

It wasn’t just the subjects. It was the, it was everything. It was like, and so you created that environment and a vibe, and then you also, how you filmed your subjects. And I want you to talk to, we’ll talk people through why you have a conversation in a dialogue as you’re filming, because that’s really crucial.

Talk about that.

Shon Curtis: Well, I appreciate that. It’s interesting being, you know, someone witnessing me witness someone else, right? Like that. I think I’ve often described what I do as witnessing someone which at times is a very vulnerable thing. It’s a very vulnerable moment. So I try to be intentional about creating that space where it’s just us in this space, being honest with each other.

And I happen to have that camera in my hand. Yeah. And allowing you the space to be truly who you are. And then you giving me the blessing to capture that, right? Like that’s kind of the environment I want to create. It was Gregory Heisler. Who’s one of my [00:04:00] favorite portrait photographers who says that the only relationship that matters.

In this moment of creation is the relationship between the sitter and the photographer and how, in order to get this vulnerability out of a person, I have to give that vulnerability. I have to give you who I am for you to give me who you are and allow me to capture that. So the dialogue is the key for that for me, because I had this long background in sales and customer service and interacting with people.

So I kind of brought all of that into this space. So my portrait sessions are a little different because most of the time I’m talking to you, I’m helping you understand who I am. And then bit by bit, you’re giving me more of who you are. So by the end of the session, we have some really amazing photos because you weren’t afraid by the time we were done, right?

Everybody’s so apprehensive as we start that I just need you to truly just let go and just be here with me. And however long you got [00:05:00] me for, so I can get something real from you.

Rodney Veal: I love, I love how you say that. Like, you know, the being vulnerable, I think there’s a lot of folks who, when they, when they think about their portrait being taken, they think it like glamor shot, Olin Mills, like I’m stiff and studied.

No, there’s no stiffness. There’s no rigidity to your portraits. There’s a vibrancy. There’s an energy that comes off of it. I mean, that’s, that’s what I, that’s what I find so fascinating because I go, well, wait a minute. Like, you know, you, you talked about it just a little bit like sales. I mean, I, I think for a lot of our viewers listeners, we all come to the arts, having done other things that inform our making processes, not necessarily happening in the classroom.

It’s not necessarily about the technique. It’s like who we are as human beings. So talk to me about this whole notion that you like. Customer service actually leads to being a master at taking portraits. I mean, that’s funny.

Shon Curtis: [00:06:00] That’s real. Like I, I, I think that’s really what it is, right? Like it’s our experience kind of leads our approach, right?

So like it kind of makes us understand how to approach whatever the medium is we choose to do as artists. So my experience is 15 years in sales six years in teaching. But also like having gone through these phases of being, you know, artists of various various mediums. Right. The customer service experience, I’ve had a very diverse experience with how to give customer service because I’ve had every sales job imaginable from commission to non commission to specific industries to door to door.

To over the phone like I’ve had so many different sales. I don’t think I haven’t sold cars. Wow Literally, I don’t think I haven’t sold You you know, you you have no [00:07:00] idea what you’re anticipating when you knock on someone’s door and then try to make an offering Right now I’ve been greeted with a gun.

I’ve been greeted with dogs I’ve been greeted with just flat out racism in the middle of what felt like Kentucky. It was ridiculous. Like I’m talking about clan flags and everything. And I still knocked on that door, right? Because I still had to make the sale, but it helps me understand that human experience and get that diverse range of emotions that, you know, I can, I can kind of be calm and steady in a lot of situations.

And I think that helps reassure the person I’m photographing to is like, if I’m calm and I’m ready and I’m prepared for you, it kind of lets, it kind of lets you ease off the gas of anxiety because you feel comforted. You feel like, okay, I can really just trust this person, which is kind of the thing, right?

It’s all trust. So. I think that being in [00:08:00] these really adverse situations in my life have allowed me to calm my nerves in the most intense moments so that you feel like, Okay, I’m in good hands. I’m good. I’m covered. Right. And that just lets you let go.

Rodney Veal: And, and that’s, and that’s something for someone who’s I say personally, no matter who you’re going to to get your portrait taken, or if you want this documentation of your, who you are, listen up because that’s important because it’s, it’s not, it’s not perfunctory.

This serves something bigger than. The printed image. This is, it speaks, it’s speaks to a larger thing. And I just feel like, you know, you know, take care with that. Take care about how you represent yourself, but also too, how you represent yourself in an authentic way. Absolutely. And it’s, and I just love the fact that you use like your, your, your, the.

[00:09:00] The life to inform what happens to you when you press the shutter release. I mean, it’s just, and I, and, you know, I got to witness it. So I, you know, you know, there for hours and I was like, yes, yeah.

Shon Curtis: I mean, that’s all it, that’s all it is for me. Like I’m not much of a technical photographer, right? I mean, I can get technical, right.

But like I’m self taught. So. A lot of the time. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oh, YouTube University, Skillshare. Was it Udemy? I don’t even know if I say that right. But like those, you know, online self purchase classes and, and, you know, talking to other photographers and building up a network that that’s what really taught me.

I went, I tried to go to now I did say I tried to go to school for photography probably a year into my career, technically, because I had lost my job. I lost my teaching job and because it was a levy, levy paying job and the levy didn’t pass. So I lost that job and kind of was trying to [00:10:00] figure out what am I going to do next?

And I already had a camera and some things because I had this magazine I wanted to start. So what I took, what I did was I took my deferred comp and I took all my investment money that I had at the time that I could afford to put into something. And I just like upgraded my gear and said, okay, let me like take photography actually serious.

And then, and then in there, I thought, okay, maybe I need a bigger network because I’m not really landing the gigs that I want to land. So I was like, oh, let me go to school. So I signed up for the artists to the Pittsburgh. I got accepted. And I was probably in that program for about seven months, made the Dean’s list, had great grades.

I wasn’t challenged because I was already a photographer for a year going into it. So even at the very beginning of the program, I was already ahead by a year, technically. And my advisor who knew nothing about Ohio, except for LeBron James would call me. And asked me questions about LeBron James, because he didn’t have anything to advise me on.

He was like, oh, your [00:11:00] grades are great, I really don’t have nothing to say, but how about Cleveland? How about Miami? You know, like these things, right? Right. And just super trivial conversations. And we would talk for ten minutes, and then he’d get off the phone and go on to the next student. Until one day, he called me and he sounded a little bit more serious.

He was like, Sean, I feel like I feel like we’re doing you a disservice. I feel like we have you in this program. You’re already ahead of the program. thEre’s never going to be a moment where you’re like at pace with what we’re doing because you’re already an experienced photographer. You’re already in the field and you’ve learned so much already beforehand that I feel like you’re wasting your money.

So I have two options for you. I can withdraw you and we can start the process of returning your student loans or returning some of your student loans back. Or I can put you in a different major and I chose of course, the first one, because student loans are no joke. So. He helped me process that I withdrew from the program.

That was [00:12:00] literally seven years ago. I’ve been a photographer ever since. buT I did try to go to school for it and maybe I went too late. I don’t know. No,

Rodney Veal: well, well, I don’t think, I don’t think it’s too late. I think it’s just, I think we’re all having this conversations and, you know, you know, you know, I’m an educator, so I’m in higher ed as well.

It’s, it’s the recognition that people, it’s not cookie cutter. Students are not, students are not all the same students come in with like, maybe they’ve had, you, you had came in with previous experience and skills and a proven talent. I mean, and I mean, and that goes to creativity that speaks to that, the well of creativity that you have, what’s inside yourself.

And so I think a lot of times. We think if we don’t complete a higher ed process, we think it’s a failure. And it’s like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Sometimes you go to figure out that’s not right for me, but this pathway is right for me. But I [00:13:00] wish you would. You know, we built it within our K through 12.

I mean, that’s a soapbox conversation that we build it into that, kind of into what we teach students is not teaching is about, let us explore so that you can come up with the best option that’s for you. And not necessarily a great option for improving graduation rates or completion rates. It’s about you.

And it won’t, the more we start thinking about the individual within that process, it just makes it easier. So exactly. That was my soap. That was my soap box. You know, Sean, we had these conversations. I just go straight there.

Shon Curtis: That was a good place to be.

Rodney Veal: Yeah, exactly. And so, Yeah. I think that that’s, I think that’s something that people would let, I need to understand and aware about expertise and mastery.

It’s not necessarily degreed or credentialed. It’s about experience. It’s about talent. It’s about the individual making the decision to do this thing. So, [00:14:00] so when you said you picked up photography, I, I go back because I did the multi hyphenate you, you were studying, you, I was slightly aware of you being a student at Stivers in music.

And so, cause I taught at Stivers school for the arts in Dayton, Ohio. Talk about music. I mean, you, you said this, you said this on Friday, you said I was gunning to be the next Coltrane.

Shon Curtis: I was 100 percent like, you couldn’t tell me that I wasn’t right. Like Really briefly into the, the, the background behind music for me, my mother, when I had to stay with my aunts for, for a little while and my mother got me this cassette player and in this cassette player, there was one tape on side a was Sonny Rollins and his greatest hits and on side B was John Coltrane and his greatest hits.

I had never heard jazz before that. Right. And I was probably eight, nine, something like that. I could be getting that completely [00:15:00] wrong with the age, but like that doesn’t matter. I was fixated on this sound. Now, both of them were tenor saxophone primarily, right? They played the tenor primarily. And I didn’t know what the tenor was.

All I knew is that Whatever this sound they were creating was and how vastly different each player was, I wanted to be in the middle of that. I was like, I don’t know what I had. And I had no band experience, no nothing. I don’t know what I had to do to get to that place to play music. All I know. And I didn’t even know the instruments.

I was like, I just need to do this. So fast forward a little bit. I’m in school. There’s this girl. I like it always starts with a girl. There’s this girl. I like it’s the same reason I started wearing glasses too. And now I need them, which was another story. There’s this girl, like she’s in band. She plays alto saxophone.

I don’t have any classes with her. I’m like, I need to figure out how to put us in the same class. [00:16:00] I’m a kid, but I’m still strategizing how to do this. So I find out our band teacher’s name is Mr. Claus. And so I go and ask for a hall pass. I go to, I say, I’m going to the bathroom. I don’t go to the bathroom.

I go to Mr. Claus’s class. Somehow I caught him in a period where he didn’t have anybody. He didn’t have a class or anything. And I’m talking to him and I’m like, Hey, listen I really want to join band. I don’t tell him my reason. He’s like, well let me see your hands. So he looks at my hands. He sees how big they are.

He’s like, what do you think about a saxophone? And I said, yes, that’s perfect. Cause I knew the girl played a saxophone. I didn’t know what saxophone. I just knew she played the saxophone and it was a small saxophone. So I was like, yeah, that one I’ll do that. So he gave me a tenor and he gave me a mouthpiece, gave me a whole setup to try to just figure out if I had the wind power to do it.

I did and somehow slowly, but surely it clearly became less about the girl [00:17:00] and more about this instrument, because. I had figured out after telling him finally about this cassette tape and how I was like in love with this sound. He was like, oh, that’s a tenor. You’re playing that. And I said, this is the instrument that makes that sound?

He was like, yeah. I was like, so help me make that sound. I’m a kid. I’m just making demands, right? Like it’s not even about anything else. I’m like, I would just want to, I just want to sound like them. So I’m playing this instrument and I’m playing it for a few years. And then he’s like, I want to get you into this school for the arts.

And I’m like, I don’t know if we can do that because you know, I’m, I was a little kid. I wasn’t really thinking about that. But my mother was really thinking about that because she had had this, I had this, this teacher who told her. This child is an artist. Make sure you invest in his art. And she meant that my mother carried that in the back of her mind.

And I had no idea that this exchange even happened between them. So when she heard I was going that he wanted me to audition for this art school, she was like, I’m 100 percent forward, whatever we got to do to get him in there, [00:18:00] let’s get him in there. so They did. So I auditioned. He taught me this jazz piece.

He taught me how to read music. He taught me how to improv a little bit and I was like, okay, I’m ready. So, you know, sixth grade year, I go audition for Stivers. I get in, I get into their jazz ensemble, which is like their biggest. Thing they have there. That’s, that’s a whole other thing, but Oh, I know I got in.

I know ’cause I was there. I got in, I was there. Right. So you already know I was there. I know you already know. So I got in and that is when I started being a jazz musician. Like that was. it. I was rehearsing. I was doing like I was doing a John Coltrane shift. It was 12 hours of rehearsal a day if I can get it in.

There was playing at the club on weekends was playing at a jazz central. They had an open open band on Sunday nights and they was letting kids come in and play from high school. So I was one of them kids. I would go in and play. I will, I will, I will cut up. And It was just an amazing, amazing experience.

I’m, I’m, I [00:19:00] mean, I’m, I’m never going to not love jazz. And music is always going to be a huge part of me and my legacy and my story. Because it really helps me understand what it is to be in between the lines and understand nuance. Because that’s what improv is, is this nuance, right? To life, except it’s this, it’s a sound, right?

But like, it really just helped me understand that in life, you’re going to have measures. You’re going to have lines. But best part of life is going to be what’s in between. Right? So. Oh, yes. Yeah. That kind of, I mean, that kind of just did, that just kind of did something for me as an artist. Like it, and that brought me to poetry, right?

Like there was, there was a moment where I was playing music for so long and I was on stage so much. But with an ensemble that eventually I wanted to see it was like being on stage by myself and, and figuring out what that light looks like,

Rodney Veal: which, which is your own voice, which exactly my own voice, which your own voice.

And it’s so [00:20:00] funny because Sean, when you said that, like between the lines, there’s a thing that Sierra Leone, who is a good friend of mine, great, great artists, human, human being, she and I both talk about people aren’t comfortable with the gray. They love the linearity, the, the, the duality of black and white.

But you gotta be comfortable with the gray. Oh yeah. That area that does not quite, we don’t know what it is, but you gotta be in that place. And I think that’s true of all cre creatives. I think it’s really true of people of color that we reside in that gray. Absolutely. You know? Absolutely. Because that’s, that’s what the special sauce is.

Shon Curtis: The gray is how we saved, we kept our, you know, we, we, we kept safe. We were alive, right? Like, I think, you know, we truly live in that gray areas, you know, because if we were to go by the rules, we wouldn’t be here, you know, like the rule was we’re not supposed to be human beings. We’re not supposed to want to fight for our lives.

We’re [00:21:00] not supposed to to just, just exact. Our own agency over ourselves. We’re not supposed to do these things, right? Those are against the rules and the rules are in the black and white areas. We had to live in the gray just to exist, you know, I’m with you.

Rodney Veal: Yeah, no, that’s, that’s real. So this, this journey to spoken word, I mean, I mean, language.

I mean, you are, you do, you do have a command of language. I mean, it’s just, no, no, no, no, it’s it’s real. It’s real. I mean, it’s real. I mean, I, I, I say that with. I’m not saying it’s blow, blow smoke. So, so what, I mean, at home, you, so you’re saying that you’d like, you’d like, what does it feel like to do it?

Why was it spoken word? Why wasn’t it just playing the tenor sax solo? Well,

Shon Curtis: so I’m not a curiosity about that. My intro to creativity and artistry was spoken word. That conversation my mother had with my teacher at the time [00:22:00] was when I was like six years old, because. In whatever grade that is I was asked for an assignment to write a poem.

And I wrote a poem about the passing of my grandfather who was like the most influential person in my life at that time. And it brought my teacher to tears and it brought my class to tears. And she was just enamored with the fact that this six year old truly brought her to tears with, you know, this language.

And that’s when she told my mother, like, this kid is an artist to his bones. You better make sure you’re paying attention that you better make sure you’re invested in that because this kid, this kid is going to kind of do something someday. And you’re going to understand this kid is an artist. And my mother and my father aren’t, you know, they never identified themselves as artists or creatives in much capacity.

So For my mother was like this is just this gift that was bestowed upon him. So It’s it’s unfair of me to try to keep that from me. So [00:23:00] let me let me invest. So, you know, fast forward, I’m kind of burnt out on the ensemble thing and doing doing performances every so often. In my, my senior year of high school.

I ended up getting on the literary magazine team, or group, or class, or whatever you want to call it. Star Wars was interesting. Things Classes turned quickly into actual organizations and projects and, you know,

Rodney Veal: it was cool. Just doing things, I mean, truly. Like manifesting content. I mean, that was, that was, that was a big deal at that school.

It was even for, even for dance. I mean, it was like, okay, these kids are choreographing, filming. They’re going out and performing on their own schedule. I mean, so, so,

Shon Curtis: and that’s what it was. It manifest, right. It manifests into its own entity to a degree, right. Cause they, they, they truly just bring you. The concept of being a full spectrum artist, where it’s like, [00:24:00] okay, not only are you going to be taking these classes, not only are you going to be doing rehearsals, you’re going to be making your own shows, you’re going to be producing, you’re going to be writing, you’re going to be doing these things.

So I joined the literary magazine club, group, team, class, whatever you want to call it, and I believe I left a notebook there in the classroom of poetry that I just wrote. Right? I was, I was always writing because that was kind of like my thing to kind of, uh, as an only child, I needed to purge a lot of emotion all the time.

And I didn’t have anybody that I felt like I could confide in, so I would just write about it. So my teacher had found this notebook full of poetry. And I was panicking, right? I didn’t know where I left it. I was like, oh my gosh, I don’t know what’s going on. So the next day of school, I come back in, I go to that class at some point.

And she’s like, Miss Susan, can I talk to you after class? I’m like, okay, cool. I think I’m in trouble. I think I’m, I think it’s over. It’s over. I don’t know what I did. [00:25:00] So she, she had the notebook in her hand when I came in and talked to her and she was like, how long have you been writing? And I’m like, I just, I’ve been writing since I was like six or so, but like, I just write for me, right?

I don’t, I don’t write for anybody else. I don’t, I’ve never, I don’t perform poetry. So she was like, I want to, I want to hear you perform this. I want to hear you read this. But like, read it in your voice. And that was something she really taught me in that moment. Is that there’s a, there’s a such thing as a poet voice.

Right. And it’s real melodic. It’s real, you know, tempo based. And it’s really expressive, but sometimes it’s also super performative, right? She’s like, I want to hear you read this poem because she was like, I like to hear poetry when it’s read by the person who wrote it. Cause you know where the breaths are, you know, you know what you were thinking at the time, you know what emotion you’re connected to.

So it’s better for me to hear you read it. So I can get a full understanding of it. [00:26:00] I didn’t know she was setting me up for the okey doke. I just thought she wanted me to read this poem.

Rodney Veal: She was set you up to find out if you were going to be a performer.

Shon Curtis: 100%. And I read it and it, and it, and it brought her, it did something to her.

Next thing I know, she’s like, okay, here’s what we’re going to do. So they literally came up with a game plan for me, my senior year, I was already doing music as a magnet, you know, from seventh grade to senior year. So here’s senior year. I’m like, okay, I’m almost done. She’s like, no, no, no, no, no. Here’s what we’re going to do.

I want you to host this loudspeaker poetry show downtown in the Oregon district. I want to do a showcase. I want you to do poetry. I don’t want you to do music. And then she’s like, I want you to close the show as a matter of fact. So. I was like, okay. All right. I’m agreed to it. I’m gonna say yes. We’re gonna get out here.

We’re gonna figure it out So I started performing in the city That’s all right water does that to me? I know I [00:27:00] know it does the same thing to me So I started started performing in the city I started doing open mics. I had a great showcase my senior year, and I did a poem that really closed out the show.

It was really dope. My mom was super proud because she hadn’t seen me do poetry in a long time. And I started committing myself to being a writer my senior year. And I remember one of my, one of my teachers Mr. Unger, who’s one of the most incredible human beings on the planet.

Rodney Veal: Oh, he really is.

And folks, I mean, you know.

Shon Curtis: I’m gonna say this.

Rodney Veal: He’s pretty amazing. He’s an amazing guy.

Shon Curtis: He truly is. He truly is. He, and he affects every generation that comes to his classes. Which I think is such a telling thing is that there is not a generation that doesn’t say that about him, right? So senior year, I’ll probably I’ll probably have maybe Eight nine performances all over the city the whole senior year.

Mr. Unger was at every one of them And I didn’t even tell [00:28:00] him about one He showed up to every single performance I ever did my senior year and he would always sit right next to my mother in the back somewhere And I, and I, if I didn’t, if I didn’t see him, my mother would just tell me he was there and I, and I had no idea he’d be present.

Right. But that’s just how amazing he is. Now, what it did for me was it made me truly love Spoken Word. I was already studying, you know, Langston Hughes and, and James Baldwin and, and people like that. Paula Dunbar too, of course, because I’m here in Dayton. But Langston Hughes was kind of my guy at the time.

I don’t know why I just identified. With his process and writing a little bit more. So, I ended up becoming a host of Dave’s Poetry Slam. And then being connected to all the poetry shows, kind of in our region. Like from Kentucky to Cincinnati to Columbus to everywhere. So I became like a conduit, which is how I kind of met Sierra Leone.

Is because she would always need poem poets for shows and [00:29:00] she would, she knew I was a person to call because I would just hook her up with everybody. Right. Cause I was the connect. Yeah. It was very funny. I felt like a pusher and I was pushing.

Rodney Veal: You’re pushing poetry. I love it. I love it.

Shon Curtis: I was like, Oh, I was like, how many you need?

Oh, you need two points. Okay, bad. I got you. And I’m like, And then here go these posts that pop up at the show. So but it was fun. It was a dope, fun experience at the time. And I really loved it. I really loved something about writing and not necessarily mastering language, but more so redefining it, right?

Like I would redefine what a metaphor was for me and, and come up with these really abstract ideas which is, you know, the contribution To my artistry in terms of being able to tell a story, right? Being able to, to understand beginning, middle, and end in between is where the improv comes from jazz. So I was starting to get a full [00:30:00] spectrum of how to be an artist or how my process is as an artist, as a storyteller, um, fast forward a little bit more.

I got burnt out of that. That was the thing I got burnt out with certain things. So I got burnt out with performing all the time on stage doing poetry. I mean, I was writing every day. I was writing two, three poems a day just as practice and repetition. So I got burnt out on doing that. So I started a magazine because I still wanted to do poetry, but I just didn’t want to perform anymore.

So I started a magazine. I needed a photographer. Thus. The, the, the full spectrum of how I became a photographer comes in, I writing led me to needing a photographer and I became the photographer I needed.

 [00:31:00]

Rodney Veal: Everything you’re saying, like, like we’ve had, we’ve had.

Producers for, for musical theater. We’ve had our visual artists. We’ve had a comedian who they all talk about, like, you know, what necessity writing being like, okay, you, you, you just, you just got to get in and you realize, Well, I need to do these things. I need to, I need to approach it this way in order to get it done.

And I just, I just find it very fascinating because you know, podcasts is called inspired by, it’s about inspiration. It’s about like what inspires people to do what they do. And I’m fine. [00:32:00] I can see it. I can now go, Oh, that makes so much sense. And having watched your photography process. This all kind of, it all makes sense.

I mean, it’s like, Oh, like, we’re like, we solved the matrix. So, I mean, so when you, when you, you knew that necessity, so what kind of photography were you looking for, for the, for your, for your magazine that you’ve written that forced you to kind of pick up the camera?

Shon Curtis: Well, I didn’t, I didn’t really know what I needed, right?

Like I knew that, you know, there were these, there was some interesting people I was meeting in the city. There were, they were doing some interesting things and I just wanted to document them, right? I just wanted, I wanted there to be a visual documentation. Cause I’ve always had a, an eye for aesthetic, right?

Cause even at Stivers, of course you do all these mediums of art. Like I was doing painting and sculpting and all these other things. So I’ve always had this visual aesthetic to go along with. You know, this application of being a jazz musician is application of writing.[00:33:00] So it was like, okay, I don’t really have an outlet in terms of continuing this visual aesthetic that I have this visual eye.

So I would go to these things and I would be, I would write, and I was writing I was writing and editing for the for my own magazine and. I just realized this would be really great if I had something visual to show with this article that I just wrote or this article that one of my writers just wrote.

So I started bringing in this guy named Aaron Pascal, who’s go who’s signature is AP to photography. And he was like, And after hearing my story a little bit, he was like, didn’t you go, like, you went to art school and you have this aesthetic. Why don’t you just pick up a camera? Huh, that’s interesting.

Yeah, so I bought a, I bought a camera. Matter of fact, my coworker bought me my first camera. Cause she believed, she believed in me wholeheartedly. So she bought me my first camera. And I started using that camera everywhere and just taking pictures of everything. [00:34:00] But something about, like, the one on one portraiture kind of spoke to me louder than anything else, right?

Because because I think shooting events and things like that, there’s just a bunch of noise, right? There’s a bunch happening. Right, it’s just like And yeah, and it’s about the pulse. It’s about having a pulse and understanding the flow of the event. Understanding You know what? That feeling is that inclination that okay, I need to be capturing this this moment.

There’s a post that you have to have. And I found that out, you know, being being an activist and going into marches and things like that. And then understanding when things would escalate by the post of the crowd around you to know. Okay, now we got to run, right? Like it was the same mentality I brought to photography was there’s a pulse here.

That I need to make sure I always have my hand on because I need to know what is important to photographing what’s not. But something about that exchange between me and the other person in front of my [00:35:00] lens, that was something that was like, okay, this feels more like something I need to do. This feels like, this feels familiar, right?

This feels familiar. This was, this was the writer and the page. This was the breath and the saxophone. Something about this one person in front of me. And, and making this relationship manifest on this camera is more familiar to me than anything else I’ve done. So, that’s how I got to portraiture, eventually.

Rodney Veal: I, I, that is, I love that because that’s, it’s not necessarily, and this is what’s interesting because I think people always think it’s like, boom, it’s automatic. It’s like you’re going to, this thing. That you kind of choose like, like I’m a choreographer, I, I, but I know that I’m a choreographer because I started off as a visual artist and I saw dancers moving through space, just like paint on a [00:36:00] canvas is like, you’re, you’re making relationships, you’re creating patterns, you know, I understood that.

And I think that that’s, I think that’s really important. And I think that that, I love how you said the pulse because that’s, I think that’s what your photographs do. They capture, there’s an energy. I, I’ve, I, I said, you’ve taken my portrait twice and each time it’s been like, that is the only, these are the only photographs that actually look like me right now.

Like it, it is really like, and people go. That’s right. That’s exactly, it’s not, and it’s a beautifully, you know, it’s be recurrent photograph. It’s just, there’s an energy that you capture me. I talk with my hands and it was like, that’s, I’m never going to let that go. I refuse to be defined by, Oh, put your hands down.

Like, no, no. Yeah. I bring them up. Yeah, bring him up. Yeah. Be you.

Shon Curtis: Talladega Nights, right? Like, I love, like, that scene is gonna be iconic [00:37:00] to me as a photographer from now on. Whenever, when he got in front of that camera and he didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he just brought them by his face. So awkwardly, I accept that, and I appreciate that, right?

I love that. Because people do express themselves that way. Why not bring your hands into your face, into this camera? It’s not a mistake. I’m not going to correct you. Do it.

Rodney Veal: Do it. Be you. Yeah. Which is so funny, because as I think there’s, like I said, I think a lot of people, it’s a question about nature and artifice.

And, and. There’s, I think people respond to the carefully composed facade, like photographs, and those are lovely technically, but yeah, well, they’re kind of soulless, like where’s soul, like where’s the. You bring the soul. Yeah. You bring out the soul and the subject, you bring out the soul. And, and so it, it, there’s a vibrancy and a, and and, and a spark of [00:38:00] electricity to your images and, Mm-Hmm.

Yeah. I’m just a, I’m I fan boy out. So that’s a story.

Shon Curtis: I appreciate that, man. No, see, I, I, I receive and accept that yeah. I’m just glad that someone sees it, right? Like, I don’t know, I don’t know what I set out to do. You know, intentionally with photography other than just capture what’s honest, right? And I think that there is so much diversity in life that my, my images are always going to look different.

But if someone can see my images and connect that tether to each one and be like, this is one of his images, this is one of Sean’s images. I think that’s like the most amazing compliment to me. Okay.

Rodney Veal: Yeah. And so, cause you, I think a lot of people don’t realize it was like, you know, you, because knowing you and I’m still getting to know you, you’re based in Dayton and you’re, you’re working out of University of Dayton’s hub as artists in residence.

I mean, talk about the fact [00:39:00] that why, I mean, I, I, I mean, you’re hearing your words about why it’s important. For this community to kind of support artists at this stage of their careers and why it’s important, especially artists of color. Yeah. I mean, those two, just two parter. I’m always about a two part.

So talk about that. Why, why this is important. Why it matters.

Shon Curtis: I mean, that’s a great question. I think that it’s important. I think it’s really, I think it’s vital to, to, to, to supporting artists, especially early on because.

A lot of times we’ll create, if we’re, if you really are creating art and you really are creating, you know, for the sake of creating, for the sake of purging, whatever your reason is that self identifies as an artist.

You don’t even care to share it, right? Like it’s not like I’m creating to share the work I’m creating because I’m compelled to I need to write. It’s part of my life that I need to be creating something. So a lot of times [00:40:00] if we’re not getting that support and we’re not experiencing people that that also believe in us, we’ll keep it to ourselves.

Right. Because until until you recognize. Like for me, right. My artistry is such a testament to my faith, to my understanding of, of what faith is for me, that my artistry is my testimony, right? Like it is, it is my offering. It is my gift that has been gifted to me. So then I have to gift it to the world because it actually doesn’t belong to me.

Right? So like, that’s the reason I share my work. And that’s why, that’s why I, you know, if you, if you can’t afford a session with me, I’ll find a way to photograph you anyway. Because I have to give this to you, right? Like, your image matters. And your documentation of yourself matters in this moment, right?

Even if you’re the only other person that sees it, and I’m the only other person that sees it, we still need to take it. We still need to photograph it. [00:41:00] Because, again, it’s my testimony. It’s my testament to, to, to be human and to offer To the world, something that was given to me, right? I think that I was always meant to be an artist because I’ve always just coexisted with art in my life.

And it’s been placed there. Not by me, not by my mother, not by anybody else, right? It’s this gift. So let me give it right. It’s selfish of me to not give it. So until you reach that place as an artist, until you reach that place of fully believing you’re going to be, you’re going to be. apprehensive about sharing your, your work to the world.

So the more people that believe in your work, the more people that, that tell you, Hey, this touched me, this meant something to me. You know, unless they’re giving you that, you’re not going to share it. Why would you share it? It’s for you. You [00:42:00] created it. It’s something that you tried to expel from yourself.

That’s vulnerable. Why would I intentionally sign up to be vulnerable? Right? Who does that? Well, I do that. Right? Like, that’s my thing. That is literally my thing, is I sign up to be vulnerable. And I think

Rodney Veal: that’s every artist I think is everybody who does something that’s in a creative realm. And I, it’s like, you don’t show up to be guarded.

You show up to be open. I mean, and so when you’re that, that’s such a true, I love that it’s a gift and it’s like, it’s a gift that has to be shared. It’s meant to be shared. It’s supposed to be shared. I. It’s also often I can say, I always think about, um, the people that inspire me, like you inspire me to, because it’s just, cause it was like, it was like a discovery.

It was like, I turned a corner and there you were, you know what I’m saying? And so let’s talk about the fact that how we met, because I think that this is really funny. We met through launch Dayton, which is basically an [00:43:00] entrepreneurial’s week in Dayton, Ohio and Audrey Ingram pulled together a panel. We talked about it.

She says, Sean would be fantastic. Sean Curtis would be great for this panel. It was Ben Baum, Countess Winfrey and Thomas Trautman. And I just remember the fact that we were in the room and the, you. To get us all in the room. I, I looked at the audience and that audience was like, they had, were going to church.

Yeah. And it was, I, and, but we all spoke about artistry and creativity in the same sort of, we all looked at each other like, oh, we we’re like

Shon Curtis: apostles here. What’s going on? We’re, we’re locked in. We’re locked in. And it’s funny, like, we were sitting out in that hallway, right? And that was like, that was the first time all of us had met in, in, in the same space.

Really, truly

Rodney Veal: had met.

Shon Curtis: Yeah, exactly. And there was so much energy in that, in that circle. People gathered. [00:44:00] Outside of that circle watching us, you know, be with each other before even realizing that we all had to step into this room and give a panel right that’s that spoke so that said something right because we brought that energy into the room, but it’s the fact that that energy permeated out of us before we even got there.

You know, like like launch date. And that was such a, that was such a great moment for me. Because I’ve talked, I’ve spoken on a few panels before. I think that. What we were able to do, we were able to be really honest about, you know, this, about being a artist and creative and a lifelong creative because, you know, being an artist is such a, is a romanticized thing, right?

Like, it can be a romanticized thing, right? The idea of being the starving artist or being an this, you know, jilted, misguided, you know, person who’s [00:45:00] like so creative that their mind just, we can’t begin to explore it type like, yeah, no, there’s, there are these ideas of what artistry and creativity are but we were really, we were able to put a real face to it, put real words to it.

And you know, give it life and give it life for these people that wanted to sit in our panel who, you know, have the ambition of being an artist like, yeah, okay, you can be an artist, but let me, let me be real with you about what this is, what this actually looks like, right? Like to, to understand there’s a business to this too, that you also have to begin to understand and craft, because if you’re just caught in the artistry, you can get taken advantage of, right?

Like there, there are, there were a lot of. Moments in that panel that I feel like we actually were able to let people walk away with something that they’re going to carry with them forever. I,

Rodney Veal: I totally agree about that because I, I feel like, and that was the thing is the fact that we were talking from the different [00:46:00] vantage points.

Cause we weren’t, we weren’t all in the same art forms, but we understood the through line of that notion of there are moments where you, you, you can say, you know, yeah. That was a powerful thing we took that was like, really, it’s like, no thank you for thinking of me, but this doesn’t fit with what my vision going forward is.

Yes. And so I, I think that was really important, but I also think it’s important for our view, our audience to understand that we are not. Trained creatures on the leash that just perform at demand, right? Because that was a, there was a, cause there’s a phrase that you use being, you know, performative. I mean, and there’s a performative aspect to this kind of relationship to society and culture with artists.

It’s like, I don’t

Shon Curtis: know if it’s here to before I’ve spent years performing. And that [00:47:00] was like authentic performing. I’m not performing for the benefit of someone else. Like, and that’s the thing, like, there’s so many times when we’re asked to perform for people. And I’m like, this doesn’t serve me. This doesn’t do me any good, right?

It’s not serving my creativity. It’s not serving my soul. Why am I doing this? You know, it’s hard. It’s easy to get caught up in it, though. Oh, no, it is. Start throwing numbers at you, and they’re like, can you, would you do this for this much? And it’s like, mm, I mean, my rent’s due. I don’t know, right? You have to fight that urge.

Right. Can’t perform like you can’t, you can’t just be performative. Right. Cause then it stops coming real.

Rodney Veal: It stops coming around. I love that because in our conversations, we have lots of conversations that we talked about the, the phrase being ready. There’s a difference between ready and ready. [00:48:00] Yeah.

Shon Curtis: Yeah. So

Rodney Veal: for those who don’t know date and ready allow. Allows us to, to not be as brilliant as we could be, but if we’re ready, that allows us to fully be brilliant and share and take in the energies of the universe, those are two different things. So that’s for our audience to pawn more so than anything else to respond to.

So Sean, in our last few minutes, I want you to talk about if somebody. Wanting to be creative and this is specifically to, because right now you’re in the photography mode, what should they be taking into consideration? What would be your advice to them? Cause you, your vantage point now you’re at an early stage.

What should they be really considering before they take that step

Shon Curtis: forward? That’s a great question. [00:49:00] Like ’cause it’s, you know, right. It’s not meant for everybody. Right. Being an artist isn’t meant for me. I think everybody’s, I think everybody’s creative. Creative, but not everybody’s an artist. Right.

I think it’s definitely a privilege to, to be an artist. I think it’s an amazing thing that I get to experience in my life. It’s, it’s also this heartbreaking thing, right? Like, it is, it is this constant ability to heal enough to continue creating. Because there, because you recognize that higher purpose in it.

So, it’s like, okay. I can, you know, what is it, what is it? Through all things, through crisis, strength, and me, or something like that? Like, there is this Interesting space that I find myself in where I can have a moment where my heart is broken, but I can’t live there too long. Like, it never makes me want to give up on this, right?

Like, there’s this, there’s this understanding that I am [00:50:00] doing this because I need to do it. I have to do it, right? There’s, there’s, there’s this will that is compelled to want to do this and continue creating. So, I can’t live in that heartbreak. I have to mend. I have to heal. And I have to create based on that, you know I know people were like, oh have a nest egg Do this You know have a backup plan.

I understand The realities of life trust me. My rent is due my cell phone bill is not cheap. You know what I’m saying? I like shoes. There are, there are things that clearly impact my life monetarily that say, okay, this would have been a lot easier if I had this or that or that set up before I fully went gung ho.

Go ahead. Do it. But you know, before I went gung ho to being a photographer, if I had my nest egg and I was safe and secure, then the idea of being a [00:51:00] photographer You know, not too far fetched. Or if I had a backup job, if I was doing a little bartending here, if I was doing that and that’s fine, you can, you can have other jobs and still be an artist and create in the midnight hour, right?

Like that, the, the, the, what is it? The, the, the nine to five, and then the five to whenever, right. You can, you can be an artist in that part of your life right there. Right. It doesn’t, it didn’t work for me. It didn’t work for me. I needed to fully believe in this. I needed to fully jump into this. So I did.

Some days is great. Some days is not. Some days I’m eating ramen and that’s all right, right? Yeah, how the student I I was eating ramen for a couple days and but it’s okay. It’s fine. But for real for real what

I would also say is Recognize that you’re always gonna be a student There’s no, there’s no mastery to this. I don’t believe. Maybe later in [00:52:00] my life, I’ll think differently. But right now, today, I don’t believe there’s a mastery to this. I believe there’s a constant student. I believe that I am constantly engaged with learning to be a better version of me, a better creative, a better artist.

That means being open to inspiration, finding my inspiration everywhere, whether it’s in life, whether it’s in other photography, whether it’s in movies, books, art, whatever. I think that you have to be open, you have to receive the world in order to gain a vision of it, in order to create from it, right? So like, I’m always going to be learning.

I’m always going to be trying to find another technique. I’m always, I like my lighting now, but I always want it to evolve, right? Because I think there has to be an evolution in art. You have to be constantly evolving or grasping at what is there in front of you, because, like, matter of fact, Matthew McConaughey, I feel like [00:53:00] it was the Grammys or the Oscars, I think it was the Oscars, he had a great speech, where he talked about who his hero is, he said, somebody asked him who his hero is, and he said, it’s me ten years from now, and then like, and he said, I ran into the same guy, Uh, 10 years later, he asked me, okay, it’s 10 years now.

Who’s now? Who’s your hero? And he’s like, it’s me 10 years from now. And he says, it’s me. It’s me evolving every time. That’s my hero. That’s who I’m chasing after. That’s the goal is to be a better version of me than I was 10 years ago. Same thing as an artist for me. I want to be better tomorrow. I want every shoot, every photograph I take to be better the next time I take it.

So I never have a favorite piece. I just, I haven’t created my favorite piece. Yeah. Man.

Rodney Veal: And with that, Sean, I’m telling you, yeah, this is why folks, you need to, you need to be, you need to be open and receptive and find and track down Sean. His [00:54:00] information will be in the, in all the, all the notes. I’m telling you, it is a, it’s a life affirming experience to, to have your portrait taken.

By shot. So thank you, John. I love our time. There’s going to be even more time. You know, there’s more stuff coming, brother. You know how that goes. It’s all started. We are just getting started. And so, and so are you. So thank you for being on the podcast.

Shon Curtis: Thank you for having me. Thank you so much. Seriously.

That’s amazing.