Who is Elizabeth Turk? Interview with a MacArthur genius

Photo © Joshua Nefsky; courtesy of Hirschl & Adler Modern, New York.

Atlanta’s arts community has a bit of a complex when it comes to comparing our city with the big guns of New York, Los Angeles, and so on. Perhaps that’s why we were so baffled when Felicia Feaster outed our now-beloved sculptor Brian Dettmer and Saatchi Gallery artist Shara Hughes who were living among us without anyone knowing. How could such internationally successful talents fly under the radar for so long?

Last week’s news that an Atlanta sculptor, Elizabeth Turk, was a winner of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellows Program “genius” award came as no less of a shock.

The day of the award’s announcement was a frenzy of emails, Facebook postings, and phone calls excitedly claiming that Elizabeth Turk, the Atlanta-based photographer, had won the MacArthur. This would have been lovely news, except for the oversight that the Turk who won the award was in fact a marble sculptor, not a photographer. The excitement quickly turned to disbelief: No one had ever heard of Elizabeth Turk, the Atlanta-based sculptor. Surely there was a mistake. How could she live here and we not know?

Shortly after Creative Loafing‘s Wyatt Williams broke the story, Howard Pousner at the AJC began dismantling the mystery.

Perhaps more importantly, why is it so surprising to Atlantans that someone we don’t know could be an internationally exhibited artist … living in Atlanta? In many ways, this speaks to the fact that perhaps the familiarity of the arts community becomes blinders to the anonymity that is possible here.

Just a few weeks ago, Cinque Hicks said in an article, “Atlanta’s anonymity, its very formlessness, may be what makes it possible, even beneficial, to be an artist here. And an increasing number of artists with rising world-class reputations—Brian Dettmer, Whitney Wood Bailey, Sarah Emerson—seem to agree for the moment.”

I, for one, am excited that Atlanta is a haven for any number of unknowns hiding out—hoping to not be discovered—as well as those not so inconspicuous artists thriving and continuing their careers locally. The revelation speaks to the possibilities abundant in Atlanta: It is not necessary to join the diaspora of Southerners fleeing to New York in attempts to jump-start one’s career. We are cultivating and supporting nationally and internationally recognized artists in this city, today.

Of course, the looming question remains: Who is Elizabeth Turk?

Originally from Orange County, Turk attended the Rhinehart School of Sculpture of the Maryland Institute College of Art to earn her master’s degree in sculpture. She has worked in a variety of materials but has settled into the classical medium of marble.

Turk’s sculptures are reminiscent of the lightness created by her Italian Renaissance predecessors, but she delivers the material into an undoubtedly contemporary context. Her abstracted organic forms evoke tendrils of lace and double-helix patterns that describe an impossible buoyancy of material.

I spoke with Turk by email over the weekend to discuss her MacArthur fellowship and her plans in Atlanta.

BURNAWAY: What was it like to find out that you won the award? It must be incredible to be a confirmed “genius.”

Elizabeth Turk: That call was like gulping a cocktail of every emotion one can imagine swirled together: excitement, disbelief, awe and wonder. Then, quiet tears overwhelmed. It was bittersweet. I have never wanted to share something more with my father than this news, and he passed away last year.

What are your plans with the award money? $500,000 buys a lot of marble!

I started a new project this summer, and I have been wondering how I would pay for it. Now I know!

You talk about the fragility of your work in several of your previous interviews. Were you surprised at how vulnerable the material was when you first began working with marble?

A lattice is fragile and strong at the same time. I enjoy this paradox. In fact, I enjoy dancing with this theme of “paradox” on many levels. The “vulnerability” of stone …. I like your word choice.

Marble has such an enormous history associated with it. What drew you to such a classical material?

I was seduced by the levels of the challenge, intellectually and physically. Stone is everywhere in art history; you are right. It is a global language. It is not specific to time and place. I wanted to become accomplished in that language.

From what I have read, your studio is based in California, but you reside in Atlanta with your partner. Do you intend to stay under the radar, or would you be interested in doing any kind of work here at some point?

I came to Atlanta because I fell in love, simple as that. I’ll have to look at my license to know the official residency moment, but I have been spending time here since 2003. I don’t even have a car. I work at home when I’m here. We’ll just see how things evolve.

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