An artist, educator, and prominent leader of the Southern California African American arts community, Curtis Tann was born in Circleville, Ohio, a small community south of Columbus. After moving to the Cleveland area in the late 1920s, he studied at the Cleveland School of Art from 1935 to 1939. He also studied theater and puppetry at Karamu House, an influential cultural and educational center for Cleveland’s African American community. Karamu House was founded with the goal of “promoting the creativity of black people.” Enameling and other craft media were taught there, and according to Tann, had it not been for Karamu House, he would not have been introduced to enameling, which eventually became his livelihood.
After serving in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1946, Tann moved to Los Angeles, where he continued his studies at the Chouinard Art Institute from 1952 to 1956. From 1952 to 1963 he worked as a designer for Renoir-Matisse, a Glendale-based jewelry manufacturer. Throughout this period, however, he also continued his work as an independent artist-craftsman.
Grounded in the classical traditions of painting and drawing, Tann worked in the Limoges technique and approached the process of enameling as a painter would plan and execute an oil on canvas. As he described, “I sometimes draw out ideas on paper. I write down colors that I would use. I write down the sequence of certain applications of color and I would also write down the temperatures to gain certain effects…Sometimes I would sift my enamel on the metal and sometimes I would wet-charge it using a brush and water. I would float my color, my enamel into place with water, push it around with a brush and that would give me a painted effect.” Tann’s subject matter ranged from Biblical themes to genre. He was particularly interested in capturing moments in the everyday lives of African Americans.
In 1953 he became a founding member of the Eleven Associated Artists (later called the Art West Association), a group of Los Angeles–based artists organized to support the creative work of African Americans. Other founding members were William E. Smith, Ruth G. Waddy, and Charles White. Tann served as director of the Watts Tower Arts Center from 1967 to 1973. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he was part of a lively community of African American artists that included Charles White and Tann’s friend Betye Saar.