I See Faces: Amy Turner Retrospective

How do you quantify a human being?

A server, a skilled hairdresser, a trophy-winning go-go dancer at the Benton Hotel, and a once carhop on rollerskates who accidentally poured hot coffee all over a police officer, Amelia Turner, or Amy as she was known, was a standout figure in our community for many years. 

Having relocated from Albany at the age of twenty-three, the West Albany High School graduate lived an extraordinary life right here in downtown Corvallis. Shortly after her move she welcomed her baby girl Tammy into the world, but just four months later experienced tragedy when her own twin sister committed suicide. During our interview, Tammy said of the event that her world had frozen, and that from there on she never stopped struggling to move forward.

Most of you reading this will have recognized Amy in one of her signature wigs, sitting outside of Benton Plaza, cradling her walker and smoking. That’s how Bruce Burris of CEI Artworks remembers first seeing her, just days after moving to Corvallis himself in 2013. A year later, just as he moved into the Artworks space, Amy passed away at the age of 69. Recognizable as she may have been, what only very few people knew had yet to come to light: Amy’s truly incredible art practice.

Brought to Burris’ attention by Benton Plaza social workers, Amy had created hundreds of drawings in pen and marker. Primarily forged in notebooks, the work was not just prolific, but incredibly unique and beautiful. While an estimated 10-20% of her work was mistakenly thrown away after she passed, alongside photographs and other items, Burris estimates that around 350 to 400 drawings survived. Speaking with social worker Mary VanderLinden, there are also rumors of another 300 drawings that Amy claimed to have squirreled away, but so far none them have turned up.

I can recall first seeing her work myself almost exactly two years ago at an Artworks exhibit called WE LIVE HERE, a collection of art by the residents of Benton Plaza. When I interviewed Burris at the time, he commented on the fact that such a high percentage of residents there were engaged in substantial creative practices: “[It’s amazing] that we so often undervalue creative lives … we wonder if this is typical, and if so, are we underestimating the potential and numbers of those who create in a singular fashion all around us day in and day out—or could it be that there is something unique about the culture of this place?”

Much as she did in life, Amy’s work stood out. To this day, I am mesmerized by its sophistication. Seemingly endless arrays of shapes, fields of color, various planes, and perhaps most recognizable, faces—it feels like the distinctions between subject and object and figure and environment have been effortlessly broken down. Everything is made of the same “stuff,” so to speak; a line item that took physicists considerably longer to figure out.

The content of her work sometimes seems to explode from some singular point I lovingly can’t seem to find, and other times it leads you from one place to another with great intention. To call her pareidolic landscapes psychedelic may be forgiven, but a tremendous misjudgment. Like most great art, there is an obvious honesty and sense of joy on the surface, intermixed with hints of pain and anger, but the complexity of the compositions make it clear that she knew precisely what she was doing when making these hundreds of artworks. Not just that, but if you look closely, you’ll recognize a symbolic vernacular that is distinctively Pacific Northwest.

“Each drawing resembles or is shaped like a mountain and some literally read that way. Rivers and ponds or lakes at bottom, rain, ribbons of road cutting back and forth as you weave your way to the summit,” said Burris.

Regardless of what you might see in it, the work is undeniably gorgeous and rich in narrative. In other words, it is not interesting by association, it’s just really, really masterfully done.

Her posthumous exhibition, I See Faces, is open now, running throughout most of February and well into March. Two healthy selections of her some 350 to 400 surviving works will be on display at both CEI Artworks and The Arts Center. Please let me be exceptionally clear here: not only is this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to peer into the world of an incredible woman, but I’d be surprised if we see a more important local exhibition in the coming decades.

I See Faces runs from Feb 5 through March 19, with opening receptions Thursday, Feb 21, during the Corvallis Arts Walk (4-8 p.m.). A gallery talk with Bruce Burris will happen Feb 21 at The Arts Center at 12 p.m. For more on Amy, a wonderfully written look at her work by art historian Isabelle Havet, and a great selection of photographed drawings, visit, http://outpost1000.weebly.com/amy-turner.html.

By Johnny Beaver

Images courtesy of Bruce Burris