Conversation: Sculptor Elizabeth Turk

BY Tom LeGro  October 29, 2010 at 3:38 PM EST

Elizabeth Turk is a sculptor who can seemingly turn marble into lace. She studied at Scripps College and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her work has appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions, and she has been awarded one of this year’s MacArthur genius grants.

I spoke to her earlier this month about her work.

Read a transcript after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Elizabeth Turk is a sculptor who can seemingly turn marble into lace. She studied at Scripps College and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Her work has appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions, and now she’s been awarded one of this year’s MacArthur grants. Welcome and congratulations.

ELIZABETH TURK: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: For those who are not familiar with your work, tell me what that means, turning marble into lace. What are you doing?

ELIZABETH TURK: I think I’m best known for the collar series, because it’s been out in the world the longest, and the inspiration was really a hollowing out of the stone, of a chunk of rock, basically.

JEFFREY BROWN: A chunk, a big chunk of rock. You start with a heavy thing, right?

ELIZABETH TURK: Exactly. Several hundred pounds, and turn it into a matrix that’s pushed to the edge. It’s the smallest amount of stone that can exist and not have it break in on itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not have it break, because that’s easily, that can happen, right?

ELIZABETH TURK: Exactly, exactly. The fun part about it for me is playing with gravity, thinking about gravity all the time and at what point the balance will just implode.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you a few questions about the process. First of all, you got this big chunk and you’re hollowing it down. Do you know what you’re coming to at the end before you start? Or is that part of the process?

ELIZABETH TURK: No, it’s more like a conversation. And I’d say, I’d step back a little bit and I have other people help make a general shape, a sea shape for that series, now a few different other shapes, and then I start going into the piece from all different angles. Originally, I was sculpting them upside down, and then the scary part was when you flipped it over.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens.

ELIZABETH TURK: Yeah, because the weight changes dramatically.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of tools are you using?

ELIZABETH TURK: Basically, when you go to the dentist, you know that horrible sound? That’s pretty much in my ear all the time. It’s that fine. We start with, of course, larger angle grinders but go down for my work predominantly. It’s that dental tool size.

JEFFREY BROWN: The studio is in the middle of a marble quarry?

ELIZABETH TURK: No, a marble yard, a marble yard in California. They’ve been incredibly generous. They first arrived because I was afraid to ship these pieces for an exhibition out in California, and I was hoping I could just finish off the last-minute work, which turned into 10 years, so …

JEFFREY BROWN: Ten years, really?

ELIZABETH TURK: Practically now I think it is. First I was out in the sun, then a tent kind of came over me, and pretty soon air was being pumped over to where I was working, and unfortunately for them I don’t think I’ll ever leave.

JEFFREY BROWN: And tell people how you got into this in the first place, how did this start, this specific kind of work?

ELIZABETH TURK: It was actually here in Washington, D.C. I did an exhibition with a gallery here and the woman in the front was Louise Bourgeois, and they were exhibiting the fantastic bronze spider.

JEFFREY BROWN: The huge version?

ELIZABETH TURK: The huge version, which you all have now at the National Gallery. And I thought at the time — I did work in metals — I thought, how could one ever compete, that’s such a dramatic wonderful piece. And so I went the opposite direction and thought stone, something that was very elegant and quiet, the contrary to the drama of her piece, something that was quiet but could hold its own, and I was seduced. That was it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But size and scale sort of were important, but against what Louise Bourgeois and others were doing.

ELIZABETH TURK: Well, it was really a material, a material and a specific piece, because I love how she dances around with all sorts of materials and has opened the world in many ways with that, with her adept ability with those materials. And this one just seemed — I thought it was a challenge. I thought, Oh well, she can do that, I can jump into stone just as easily. So then it was, can you really?

JEFFREY BROWN: But even go back a little further. Why those materials, why the power tools, where does all that come from?

ELIZABETH TURK: Oh, why the power tools and that energy? The challenge of it. The stone came in because, not so much I was choosing the perfect rock, perfect piece of marble and an ideal western sense, but these pieces were left over chunks from the Lincoln Memorial that were sitting out in Takoma Park. It was more like a found object piece. And then, I don’t know, you know, in life how you have all these different emotions, you’ve got to get out all the aggression, it just seemed perfect. And then at the end you have much more quiet reflective moments, so the stone just could hold all that range.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I guess I ask this for sort of would-be artists because you got this award for kind of a lifetime here, but you have negotiated a life in art as an artist to be able to do what you want and make a living?

ELIZABETH TURK: I have. That’s a tough one. I tried other things and I kind of failed at them, so I think finally when I decided to follow the career as an artist, my family, they were all jumping up and down. Finally, you’ve chosen the right path, which is kind of the other story, the opposite story that you hear most of the time, but for me it’s my refuge basically. It’s my refuge. I can’t not do it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And of course I have to ask you, now you have a nice chunk of money. I guess that certainly helps you with the refuge.

ELIZABETH TURK: It does, it does. Although I sort of feel like now something really unbelievably spectacular has to come out of my hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: A little more pressure?

ELIZABETH TURK: And a lot more investment into it, so we’ll see. We’ll see how that falls.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Elizabeth Turk is one of this year’s MacArthur’s fellows. Congratulations, and nice to talk to you.

ELIZABETH TURK: And thank you very much for your time. It’s been an honor.