INSIDE Chico State
0 October 5, 2000
Volume 31 Number 4
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico





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Janet Turner: Legacy in Letters

Wintering Snow Geese by Janet Turner, 1968
Wintering Snow Geese by Janet Turner, 1968

Wood Ducks by Janet Turner, 1972
Wood Ducks by Janet Turner, 1972

Photos by Ian Gilmore

Janet Turner's letters reveal artistic struggle

While cleaning out a box of papers after an elderly friend died, Kay Stark of Connecticut discovered an extraordinary treasure for CSU, Chico's Special Collections: a series of 100 letters written to Mary Ellen Morris over the course of 50 years by Chico's own artistic legend Janet Turner.

The friendship between the two women spanned a lifetime, and the letters, written by Tur-ner to Mary Ellen Morris nŽe Finfrock, were later addressed to both "Finny" (as Turner affectionately called her) and her husband, writer/artist Wright Morris.

The letters reveal both a historical and personal perspective as Turner was mastering her medium and struggling to make a place for herself as a woman artist in a man's world. Donated by Kay and Suranto Stark, the letters come back to Chico at a time when the Janet Turner legacy -- the valuable art collection she worked so hard to gather for her students and community -- is attracting new attention on campus and throughout the community.

First Love: Printmaking

Turner set out to be a biologist, not an artist. Her love of nature began as a child in Kansas, where her sister, Barbara Edmonson, recalls her undaunted exploration of their 60 acres, sidestepping copperheads and prairie rattlers to sketch the wildlife.

Enrolling in Stanford University in the 1930s, Turner hoped to major in biology, but was told it wasn't a field open to women. Instead, she found herself in history, botany, and art classes, studies that would eventually inform her life and work.

Hoping to teach after graduation, Turner had to face the realities of the Depression, when most jobs were given to men. After traveling to Japan and China, she returned to Kansas and enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute, where she studied composition and painting with Thomas Hart Benton, whose regional realism so influenced her work. Turner then earned an M.F.A. in art at Claremont and moved to Texas to teach, where she became a well-respected regional artist.

It was during this time that Turner began winning the awards, including the Guggen-heim Fellowship, and recognition that continued throughout her life. Today, as Barbara Edmonson pores over her sister's letters to the Morrises, she is surprised by the couple's influence in Turner's life.

"Wright knew writers and artists, and Janet asked him for help and contacts frequently. And she had such a great friend in Finny; at one point she was writing to her every week," Edmonson said.

The letters not only chronicle Turner's struggle in the art world, but her emerging consciousness as an artist as well. "One theme," said Edmonson, "is what she speaks of as 'confusion' with the artistic trends of the time. She did not believe everything had to be abstract, that there was no room for what she did, which was very subtle, usually."

Turner, who wrote that she saw her own work as "an evolution of social, biological, and ecological relationships," was often neglected by critics but popular with the people, and this issue is also explored in the letters.

The letters chronicle how she turned her hand to various media as she mastered her form, moving from the slow, meticulous tempura painting, to prints, to the difficulty of combining woodcuts with silk screening.

"People who are serious about printmaking as a fine art medium would be very interested in reading what she went through," Edmonson noted.

By the time Turner was recruited to teach at Chico in 1959, she'd earned her Ed.D. from Columbia University, where her research laid the groundwork for her later, more complex prints. At Chico State, her dedication to teaching won her one of the first Outstanding Professor awards, and her work included helping colleague John Ayers develop the fledgling fine arts program.

Second Love: Collecting

Turner's awards were numerous, and her art could be found in permanent collections throughout the world, including the Bibliot‘que Nationale of Paris, the Victoria and Albert in London, and the Metropolitan in New York. Despite this success, Turner's personal goal was not simply to leave behind a collection of her own work, but the rare and valuable collection she'd been amassing of other artists' work.

That collection of more than 3,000 prints spans 40 countries and six centuries. It includes works by Rembrandt, Picasso, and other famous artists, rare Japanese wood blocks, and the best from Turner's students through the years.

Brooks Thorlaksson, associate dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, said, "Janet's letters allow us to see her not only as an artist and collector, but as a person. We see more clearly than ever that it is her life and perspective that created that collection. These letters provide a remarkable research opportunity that will extend the value of the Turner Collection."

Even though Janet Turner died in 1988, her legacy continues to build at the university.

Zu Vincent


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