Honored artist and educator Murray Turnbull'sBy Suzanne Tswei
always took an unorthodox approach
to teaching, and he's still improvising
on his life and career
Special to the Star-Bulletin
MURRAY Turnbull has accomplished something quite rare for an artist: a total lack of self importance. He is the last person to make a fuss about himself. So, when he was being honored last week as recipient of The 1999 Koa Outstanding Artist at Kapiolani Community College for his life-long dedication and achievements in the visual arts, he did his best to cope with the spot of fame.
He put on a colorful aloha shirt (he doesn't own a suit), took his beloved cornet and wife Phyllis to the $100-a-plate dinner attended by about 60 artists, patrons, university administrators and other luminaries.
After listening patiently to others recount his many accomplishments, Turnbull responded not with a big speech but with a bit of whimsy. He demonstrated the virtue of exercise, or more specifically, exercise of the lips, by playing his cornet.
A few days later, Turnbull summed up the evening this way: "It was a splendid dinner. That was very nice, but people are very polite and you can't take that kind of thing too seriously." And, he meant every word.
"Murray is really a special guy. He is low key, very low key. People really don't have a good idea of what he did, and he has done so much," said David Behlke, artist, educator and gallery director who sits on the award committee.
Turnbull, who turned 80 two Sundays ago, indeed has a whole slew of accomplishments and art is simply one of many. Coincidentally, his latest paintings and sculptural assemblages are on exhibit at Kapiolani's Koa Gallery and dining room.
The show is aptly titled "The Many Universes of Murray Turnbull" for a man who is artist, teacher, administrator, writer, historian, critic, visionary, maverick, volunteer, world traveler, voracious reader, lover of traditional jazz and croquet, cornet player, father of four, grandfather of eight and winner of numerous awards.
"Oh, I am just an old codger with some funny ideas," said Turnbull during a recent visit to his Manoa studio where he is surrounded by hundreds of jazz cassette tapes and artists tools.
Looking very much as he did 14 years ago when he retired from the University of Hawaii, Turnbull laughed easily and characteristically talked little about his accomplishments. He never mentioned he was the driving force behind the creation of East-West Center or that he served in the top administrative posts in the initial years.
"He never takes credit for anything," said retired university chancellor Richard Kosaki, who described Turnbull as "very imaginative, very independent," a superb scholar of history and literature, and a first-rate teacher.
Ironically, for such a private man, his name is familiar to thousands of islanders who attended his art classes at the university's Manoa campus. His cutting-edge ideas, unorthodox grading system, wise philosophy and a bit of showmanship in those 32 years made him a memorable teacher.
He took away the easels in his life drawing classes to steer students away from simply copying in his belief that reproducing realistic details is a hindrance in making art, which should be a search for a subject's essence.
In his art history classes, he passed out questionnaires that made students ponder the important things in life, such as what would make them happy.
He offered some no-nonsense advice along with the class requirement guides. "There is not much reason to be in a university at all except to change your mind by being in touch with other minds and ideas -- if you don't take advantage of the minds and ideas which are here while you are here, you are a damned fool."
His advice to new teachers was to remember they have the power to change lives and should create a nurturing climate to help students discover learning because learning should be for learning sake, and not for good grades and conformity.
Turnbull was nominated for UH's Award for Distinguished teaching but turned down the honor twice "because there were so many other things that needed attention." He finally accepted the award when he was nominated for the third time when he was retiring.
It doesn't seem Turnbull has slowed down any since his retirement. He works steadily in his studio, does plenty of reading and takes his pet Samoyed, Posy, on daily walks. And he remains a thoughtful radical with no intention of becoming rich or famous.
He still has no plans to get an agent or dealer to sell his art. He still says he doesn't like juried art shows because the decisions are based on politics and not on the art. And Andy Warhol still is not on his list of good artist.
He said much of contemporary art is trendy and commercial while the best art is made by people completely ignorant about art.
He doesn't yet feel the need to show off his considerable draftsmanship skills. He is continuing to learn, using improvisation, a lesson from jazz, to help him be a better artist. Painting represents an adventure as he begins each one with no preconceived ideas and allows the paint to reveal images to him. Making art is a necessity to him, as critical as breathing.
"Art is not decorations that go on the wall. Art comes out of necessity. You don't do it because you can sell it, or it's going to be popular. Artists make art because they are propelled to do it, they must do it."
Exhibition: "The Many Universes of Murray Turnbull"
The dates: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Friday
The venue: Koa Gallery, Kapiolani Community College
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