Janet Turner, Bird Artist

Snow Geese

The following is from my latest book, The Art of the Bird: The History of Ornithological Art through Forty Artists. Janet Turner was one of the artists I discussed and special to me because I knew her personally. She borrowed bird specimens from the natural history museum I supervised, allowed me to visit her in her art studio, and even gifted me with one of her prints. She was a very special person and a wonderful artist.

Janet Turner grew up on her family’s Kansas farm punctuated with summer camps at Cape Cod. Her sister Barbara noted that Janet was engrossed in every detail of the out of doors and believed that all of nature’s creations were just as important as human beings. The natural world was at the forefront of her thinking. On her hospital deathbed Turner said “it’s just nature’s way.”

         At Stanford University in California, Turner was discouraged from majoring in biology because “it was not a field for women.” So she majored in history, took courses in botany, and later enrolled in art classes. She started making prints with linocuts – similar to woodcuts but with linoleum. Receiving a degree in Far Eastern History she returned to Kansas and enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. She taught for a year and then pursued her Masters’ of Fine Arts at Claremont College.

Turner experimented with different forms and subjects of art, with birds as her main focus. She continued to paint but eventually moved to silkscreen as it seemed to be a less labor-intensive way to add color to relief prints. Turner was elected to the Audubon Artists of New York, The National Association of Women Artists, received an Ed.D. from Columbia University and served as president of the National Serigraph Society.

         Turner illustrated books and articles and sold prints and in 1959 accepted a position in art education at California State University, Chico. Continuing to travel, teach, and produce prints, Turner eventually had two hundred one-person shows in forty states and fifty countries on six continents.

         In California, she began to concentrate on local bird images. She took hundreds of photographs and often borrowed bird skins from the university’s natural history museum. Birds were the centerpiece of all of her works, and the backgrounds were faithful to the natural habitat. A pheasant, gingerly walking through a dense bed of live and dead reeds, hidden from prying eyes, looks up at a Marsh Wren peering down at him. Her magpie in a tree contrasts with the blossoms behind him. It appears that the tree was the main focus of the print and a magpie somehow got in the middle of it. In addition, two other magpies are surreptitiously flying in the distance, filling up the little space that the blossoms do not.

Her Guineafowl (1950) and Egg of the Flamingo (1953) are examples of full frame composition – the subjects fill the picture. Although the birds are realistic, their positions and interactions are not. The flamingo print, filled with more than a dozen flamingoes with their necks stretching in every direction, reminds one of Alice in Wonderland. They demonstrate her knowledge of Japanese woodcuts in their flat space.

Guinea Fowl
Egg of the Flamingo

    

The Nightwatcher (1955) is a a Great Horned Owl staring out at the viewer from behind a branch of autumn leaves with accusatory eyes. Perhaps her most dramatic work was that of Wintering Snow Geese (1968) which was an experiment combining linocuts with screen printing.

The Nightwatcher

         Turner’s prints were all about mood. The atmosphere was often established with a heavy background and the bird or birds superimposed on it. In her Cascade with Dippers (1971), the rocks and the cascading waterfall are the whole picture, the dippers only a small part. That’s perhaps what she was trying to impart to the viewer. In nature, you rarely see birds taking up the most space in your view – they are only a small part of the big picture.

Cascade With Dippers

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