From Marble to Ribbons, Cages, and Collars

The Newport Beach artist’s miniretrospective at the Laguna Art Museum opens next month

The din from the 5 Freeway rumbles through Santa Ana’s Chiarini Marble & Stone, but it’s as innocuous as elevator music compared to the ear-splitting high-powered drills and cutting machines the artisans are using to turn stone into fireplaces, fountains, and other architectural objects.

Elizabeth Turk has her studio in a courtyard here, and she, too, is transforming rocks. On a recent morning, the Scripps College and Rinehart School of Sculpture graduate is drilling into marble, wearing ear protectors, safety glasses, padded cycling gloves, and a scarf over her blond hair. Since the mid-1990s, when she transitioned from working in steel and bronze, she has taken 400- to 3,000-pound blocks of salvaged marble and defied their material properties to create 4-foot “Wings”; “Collars” etched and crevassed with delicate arches and lacy detailing; smooth, flowing “Ribbons”; and latticed “Cages.” These distinctive and startling objects—and their thematic references—have brought her international renown and awards, including a 2010 MacArthur Fellows genius grant and a 2011 Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship.

The 52-year-old, who was raised in Newport Beach’s Eastbluff neighborhood, will have her first solo O.C. museum show as part of next month’s Laguna Art Museum Art & Nature event. The miniretrospective will include new pieces that juxtapose raw stones with carved marble, prints of digitally X-rayed seashells illuminated by LED lighting, marble sculptures from the “Collars” and “Cages” series, videos and stills of the sculptures on the beach, and a room devoted to sketches and inspirational materials.

“I’m drawn to the conceptual nature of the work,” says Grace Kook-Anderson, the museum’s curator of contemporary art. “I love the research behind the work and the amount of time she thinks about the sculptures living [in nature].”

Turk spent her 20s and 30s in Washington, D.C., and New York City, but after the 2001 terrorist attacks, she got a second residence in Orange County to be near her family. The view of Newport’s Back Bay from her home is as serene and spectacular as the marble yard is loud and industrial. It’s the kind of contrast the artist appreciates, devoted as she is to “deconstructing paradoxes” through her work. “Everything is always gray for me.”

Talk a little about how nature is at the crux of all of your work.

A big part of that is having grown up in the West. The scale of the West reminds one that you are a grain of sand. It’s not a city scale. If I’d grown up in New York, I think I’d feel very different, instinctively. Where I grew up, there were infinite vantages, whether it was the ocean or the mountains. It was a constant reminder that there’s something larger than yourself surrounding you.

How long does it take to make these sculptures, a “Collar,” for example?

The first one took about three years. But then they speed up. I thought [the first one] would break. I was working on that one on 9/11. I just didn’t care if it broke. So I just kept working harder and harder. And I felt like I wanted to [make] something that was very fragile, that would need a community if it were going to exist. I wanted to make the opposite mark from something that was big and bold and would change the world—all these descriptions of 9/11.

I pushed fragility to an extreme. It has a presence in its fragility that’s, in some ways, a weight. In other ways it hits the mark of what I was going for. I was going so slowly, thinking that if I moved slowly then I could go further.

How difficult is the work physically?

The worst is the dust. There’s the vibrations in your hands, from some of those tools. I end up doing much more sanding than I want to. I have some people who are fantastic at sanding, extraordinary. I have a choice: whether to have assistants now, or limit carving over the next 20 years. Carpal tunnel, back issues—you don’t know which will get you!

You have taken some of these pieces to the beach, and made videotapes of them in the sand and water.

I think of these pieces as in situ or as being the final place. [She points to a photo of a sculpture protruding from the sand]. The videos that were taken of it out in Newport Beach, or in the tide pools at Corona del Mar, or under Huntington Pier are really special to me. When it was under the pier, people were coming out of the water saying, “Oh my god, is that a shark’s jaw?” Every reference was about bones and something coming from the sea. This was really a beautiful display of how context shapes what you think it is. And at Hirschl & Adler, [the New York gallery] where we had the exhibition, it was all about [shirt] collars and the Dutch and this history of lace and there was not a single reference to anatomical things. I love that dichotomy.

What was the impact of being named a MacArthur Fellow?

Of course it brought attention, which was really nice. So hopefully I live up to that and it continues. The show that we did after the MacArthur was a “Cages” show, and I really pushed that body of work because I was scared [of not living up to the award]. … And I took risks that, still, I wake up at night thinking: “OK, when is gravity just going to make that whole thing [come down]?” I felt the way that the “Cages” ended up was extraordinary. Being able to look down and through that stone into an infinite space was the goal. I think I took these concepts much further. I feel like, “OK, it did push me. I didn’t sit back.” The challenge was a very positive influence.

You are a mixed-media artist, but you have become especially identified with your marble sculptures. Are you ready to forge out in another direction, but feel you can’t?

No, not at all. I’ve always been doing [artwork in] other materials all along the way. They just haven’t been highlighted. Art is an extensive vocabulary now. I don’t think it’s about a singular mark-making or a singular object. I think most of my exhibitions have been in one material but I don’t feel stuck to it at all. Sculptors are so humbled by just moving their material. It’s not a one-person esoteric thing. You can’t dominate like you can dominate a canvas. [Makes the sound of a brush on canvas.] I did this line and it’s miraculously inventive. You’re always reminded that you’re not completely independent. And that’s not a bad thing. And even if you’re deciding to work by yourself and with small tools, it’s still carving you. It’s such a physical material; you can feel it in your shoulder. You can feel it in your body.

What are some of the other thematic issues in your work?

If I were to list them: the lightness and weight, the emptiness in mass, the contemporary [art] in the traditional [material]. The stillness—especially for the “Ribbons”—and the motion, which is a big one for me. … It’s no longer a heavy rock—it’s the definition of lightness because it comes from a context of weight.

Have these dichotomies, paradoxes you have called them, always been important?

That’s why I’m an artist. Sometimes you have areas in your life that you run to, to get away. They’re just sheer passions and there’s freedom in that. I never wanted to lose that sense of freedom. [At first] I never thought of [art] as a career. I mean, it’s brutal. Who wants a brutal life? So I tried other things, but it kept leaking out. I have to make art every day. Just the physicality of it makes me feel at peace. There’s a physicality of making something, a rhythm to it that seems to order my mind. My mind is always popping off on those questions, those searching questions.

Your sculptures can be appreciated by viewers on many different levels, not just as beautiful objects. How can viewers understand the thematic layers expressed in the pieces?

Maybe I should [answer] by example, with the “Cages” body of work. One of the most immutable, the most dense objects is a rock. We use it as an allegory in so many different ways. My challenge is to see if I can make a rock seem not rocklike, and change how viewers experience its properties. Then, maybe I can expand viewers’ intuitive understanding of its material parameters, perhaps even expose the emptiness in its mass. I hope the viewer “feels” gravity and not just understands it intellectually.

The title of the series, “Cages,” is also an allegory. I started to think about the cage of language, emotions, systems, and so on, and not simply physical cages. Whether it’s a thought inside our mind or a rock, they are grounded in the laws of nature and shaped by gravity in some fashion. As humans, we recognize the patterns in these shapes and attach meanings to those shapes. We are not outside nature, but deeply linked to it, even when it’s not overtly apparent to us.

Do you make drawings before you work on the marble sculptures?

In “Collars,” there are no preparatory drawings, in the old-fashioned sense. I drew alongside carving. With “Cages,” I had to adapt; I drew onto the stone. Sometimes my assistants and I will scan an area and cut out the shape of what the stone will be. Sometimes we’ll rough out a general shape on the mill, but usually by hand, and most of the material that’s being taken out is from the interior. I’m not using air hammers. I’m trying to reduce any fractures or any vibration that goes to the stone. I’m trying to keep it at a minimum so I don’t excite any problems, any fracture that you can see. So I can go further. That’s the hope.

By the time the marble gets to California, it’s already been cut for another purpose. I had these pieces that were cut for building facades for a bank. That was the “Cages” show. They were really thick pieces. People want banks to be thought of as sturdy, eternal. That’s a great image.

Why did you decide to live part-time in California after 9/11? Were you afraid?

No. It was more about moving on. It was clarity. I wanted a career as an artist and I thought one really needed to be in New York to do that. But after 9/11, it didn’t matter as much. I wanted a closeness with those I loved and I wanted a more mobile life.

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue.

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