Growing up in Lakewood, William Turner had a view of Mount Rainier from his bedroom. He loved drawing in there — until he entered high school, where pressing matters of teenage years distracted him from art.
It wasn’t until a self-described “epiphany” in his junior year at Washington State University that Turner would go back to his creative roots. “I had to be an artist,” Turner said, realizing what he really enjoyed was being in that room and making art.
He left WSU and returned to Tacoma, where he took evening art classes before enrolling in a Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the University of Puget Sound.
Ever since, Turner said, art has been his focus. Turning 80 this month, he has been dedicated to his craft, which has led him to become an accomplished abstract artist who has been a part of solo and group exhibitions across the country, with numerous awards and honors to his name.
In his art studio in the Nalley Valley industrial area of Tacoma, there’s a picture of Pablo Picasso hanging above the doorway, which Turner said looks at him as if to ask, “Are you working?”
On one wall hang pieces that differ from the abstract style he is known for: paintings and drawings he did for personal enjoyment, including his first painting from an art class at UPS. Even though he wasn’t yet a professional artist, the piece forecasts his successful career as a painter.
Sitting atop a cabinet in the studio are two pictures, now faded, from his travels in East Africa. Josie — whom he married in 2003 — described the vibrant color in these pictures that would inspire his work’s palette.
“Even though the film is faded, the colors are just extraordinary,” Josie said of the photos her husband captured while traveling decades ago. “And I think that when he goes back and he starts imagining through his process, his paintings, those images — and that color — come out.”
Upon graduation in 1965, Turner’s trajectory as an artist was interrupted when he was given his draft notice. Off he went to officer candidate school and became an officer in the U.S. Navy, leading to two cruises in Vietnam and two bronze medals awarded during his service, Josie said.
In 1968, with the completion of Turner’s naval service, he set off to embark on what he and Josie call his “Great Wander” — an eight-month period spent traveling in Europe and Africa that would go on to influence his artistic style. When he returned from the wander and began to draw once again in Paris, he felt called to return to Seattle for graduate school — the timing of which was right, he said, because he had just enough money to make a phone call and buy a beer.
This sojourn has stayed with him and has had a lasting effect on his artwork: Turner is known for the color in his paintings — inspired, he said, by the wealth of color he saw in East Africa. This approach set him apart in graduate school at the University of Washington, where he said the “mystic artists of the Northwest” were creating work that was dominated by gray. “I was bucking the tide because I was not interested in gray,” he said.
He studied with Alden Mason, Jacob Lawrence, and Michael Spafford, all of whom influenced his work.
“That was a wonderful time to be in Seattle, to be an art student or freshly out of grad school, because the art scene was just starting to blossom in the Pioneer Square area,” Turner said.
In the 1980s, Turner started a group called “Westworks Studios,” which worked out of a building in Pioneer Square they rented for cheap because of the poor economy.
“They kicked us out once the money came back,” Turner said. They found another building, one with 16 studio spaces, where they worked until 2001, when the Nisqually earthquake brought the building down.
Turner describes his artistic process as spontaneous. “I always have invented my paintings as I put the paint down, and I may have a theme in mind, but exactly how it’s going to work its way out is an adventure for each painting,” Turner said. His inspiration comes from many sources. Sometimes, he said, he creates a character and paints until it is revealed.
And if he’s painting, it’s a sure bet that jazz music is playing in the background. “I try to incorporate the excitement and the musicianship and the imagination that go into creating spontaneous music like jazz in my spontaneous painting,” Turner said, noting Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie “Bird” Parker among his favorite musicians. Turner said sometimes he’ll find himself dancing.
Turner always has been connected to Tacoma. His first award was for his work in the 10th Annual Washington Painting/Sculpture exhibit at the Tacoma Art Museum in 1981. He won the Dr. Lester S. Baskin Memorial Award for first prize in painting.
And when asked what has kept him in Tacoma after all this time, he pointed to Josie, smiling. The two met through the Seattle-area arts community. Over time, they became close and married in 2003. Turner returned to Tacoma and settled into his current studio, where he still creates beautiful abstract pieces — a culmination of his life’s work and experience.
For more, go to Turner’s website.