Abstract painter William Turner ’65 embraces the unexpected.
William Turner ’65 first fell in love with art as a child growing up in Lakewood, Wash.
His family stopped at a restaurant on the way home from a trip to Seattle, and he was fascinated by the colorful paintings that hung on the walls. Later, he became interested in drawing.
It was the beginning of a prolific abstract painting career that would span decades. His work has won numerous awards and has been exhibited in a number of museums in the Pacific Northwest and nationwide. Next year, it’s scheduled to be the focus of an exhibition at Ryan James Fine Arts in Kirkland, Wash.
Abstract painter William Turner ’65 often paints while listening to jazz, whose rhythm and improvisation influence his work. Photo: Trina Jones
Many collectors have told Turner how much joy his creations bring to them on a daily basis. “That’s what brings me joy,” he says. “That’s when I know the painting is done, that it’s in the right place.”
After graduating from high school, he attended Washington State University; three years in, he reconnected with his interest in art and began painting watercolors. He transferred to Puget Sound and joined a class with Prof. Berkeley Chappelle, who taught painting and drawing. He also studied watercolor and design under Bill Colby.
Two weeks after graduating, Turner was drafted and sent to Vietnam. After his discharge, he traveled to Europe, and one day, sitting at a cafe in Rome, he read an article about the journey from northern Africa to Tanzania, which was said to be impossible to complete overland. Turner decided on the spot he would set out to prove the article wrong. He trekked from Tunis to Tanzania in under a year, hitchhiking and traveling by riverboat.
It was a transformative trip. One night, he and his friend pitched a tent on the Serengeti and were awoken by snorting water buffalo. He recalls sleeping under the stars among ancient ruins in Egypt and gazing up at the full moon on the same night as one of the Apollo missions. After returning home, Turner resumed his pursuit of art, earning his M.F.A. at University of Washington.
The first stage of Turner’s process consists of laying down thick, haphazard brushstrokes. He prefers oil paints for their “yumminess.” Next, he’ll study the shapes and colors, waiting to see what emerges—an object, a figure. As he continues to add layers, he gets a sense of how the painting will come together. His favorite part is “the moment when the magic takes place,” when the finished painting reveals itself to him.
As a young man, Turner developed a passion for classical music and jazz, often driving to Seattle to see legends like Miles Davis and Charlie Parker perform at underground clubs. Nowadays, he’ll often paint while listening to jazz, which influences the rhythmic, improvisational spirit and colors of his work. Big swashes of color, overexaggerated brush strokes, color and rhythm bouncing off the canvas, all have become his signature.
His wife, Josie Emmons Turner, believes the stunning palettes of his travels come through in his paintings. And now, at age 80, the same open mindset that led to Turner’s earlier adventures is also helping him cope with Parkinson’s disease, a result of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. In fact, his frequent advice to young painters also serves as good advice for life in general: Find the positive. Don’t look at an obstacle as an obstacle, but instead as a chance to learn. Be open to the unexpected.