Artist Profile: Nell Curtis Tilton


As an instructor in abstract painting at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, local artist Nell Curtis Tilton advises her students to pay close attention to their surroundings. They’re not necessarily looking for scenes to portray, she reminds them, but for elements they might use on their canvases in less literal ways.

“You’re taking impressions and images and translating them in your own way through your painting,” Tilton says.

“You might notice shapes, shadows, forms – and you’re translating those in your work.”

For longtime New Orleanians, the images Tilton herself has worked into her latest paintings may have a perceptible, if not quite precise, familiarity. With the suggestion of rooflines, the impression of arched ceilings, perhaps a column or a patch of skyline, her abstract acrylic paintings suggest architecture and design.

That’s no surprise given Tilton’s family background. Her father, the late Nathaniel Curtis Jr., was a founder of the local architecture firm Curtis and Davis. His design work includes such landmark local structures as the Louisiana Superdome and also important local buildings that have since disappeared. He designed the Rivergate, the elegantly flowing, strikingly modern convention center on Canal Street that was demolished in 1995 to make way for Harrah’s Casino, and the St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Church in Gentilly, which was demolished in 2007 when the Holy Cross School relocated its campus. Inspirations from these buildings play across some of Tilton’s canvases, much more impressions of them than renderings.

“I think a lot of what I’m doing now comes from just being surrounded by those shapes and blueprints and elements while growing up,” she says. “Rivergate meant a lot to my dad, though I didn’t appreciate it as much at the time.”

Memories, recollections, even interpretations that change over time – these are surely as much a part of our understanding of our surroundings as what we can actually see and touch before us. But Tilton’s work isn’t always so reflective.       
“Sometimes I just want to play with the paint and see what I can do with the colors and textures,” she says. “That’s the fun part of it.”

Tilton’s latest exhibit, Blueprints: Reflections of Modern Design, will be on display through Sept. 24 at Carol Robinson Gallery at 840 Napoleon Ave. The opening is Sept. 10 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.  See more of her work at

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