Inside Elizabeth Turk’s airy, sunlit studio overlooking the back bay in Newport Beach, the artist is hard at work on her latest creation, “The Shoreline Project.”
At the moment, work means playing with umbrellas.
Turk and Laura Siapin, her project manager, are opening and closing an oversize umbrella emblazoned with a haunting, geometric image on the top. Barefoot and giddy with excitement, they lift it and turn it sideways. They tilt it and tip it, careful to avoid stacks of standard-size, similarly decorated umbrellas piled neatly on a blanket on the floor. The smaller black and white umbrellas are equipped with LED lights so when switched on, the image is illuminated: a seashell X-ray mandala.
On Nov. 3, Turk’s Shoreline Project will come to life as 1,000 volunteers from the community gather at Laguna’s Main Beach at twilight, outfitted with the umbrellas as they move along the shore to create a living, breathing work of art. Loosely guided by Lara Wilson’s Assembly Dance company and other dance partners, participants are free to walk, dance, jump, chase waves or just stand still while drones film the mass of moving, lighted mandala umbrellas from above as the sun sets. The movie will be on view at the Laguna Art Museum later this year.
In Buddhist tradition, mandalas are geometric designs meant to represent a perfectly balanced universe. These intricate images are painstakingly created in total silence, then almost immediately dismantled. It’s an apt metaphor for Turk’s eagerly anticipated foray into environmental performance art.
“I think of this as quiet art,” she says. “I want it to be quiet and fragile and trumpet things that are the opposite of the ‘noise’ we’re experiencing now in the world.”
Museum Director Malcolm Warner commissioned Turk as part of the institution’s annual Art & Nature festival, which includes a major outdoor art installation. The museum has previously commissioned works by such artists as Laddie John Dill, Lita Albuquerque and Phillip K. Smith III, but Turk’s may be the most ambitious yet.
The “Shoreline Project” is the highlight of the four-day event, which also includes a family festival, panel discussions, screening of a documentary on land artist Andy Goldsworthy and a keynote lecture on Charles Darwin and his views on art.
“Since we’ve been putting on this festival in 2013, we’ve sensed that all across the country, even internationally, there’s an increasing interest in art’s engagement with nature,” Warner says. “For contemporary artists, it seems like an important issue, because of environmental concerns. Climate change and man’s relationship with nature have come to the front of people’s minds in recent years. That’s a great thing for our festival, because it has a special and growing relevance right now.”
For Warner, Turk was a natural choice. The museum presented a solo exhibition of her work in 2015 that included the delicate marble sculptures she is best known for, as well as her more recent seashell mandala artwork, which uses X-ray photography methods to expose the interior structure of shells.
“She’s an artist very much in touch with the materiality of nature,” Warner says.
Turk, 56, made her name creating gravity-defying marble sculptures, carved from heavy blocks into rippled ribbons, delicate pinwheels, geometric cages and intricate lace collars. Her sculptures are part of the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Mint Museum in North Carolina and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C.
“Most of my work is about pushing to the edge, pushing a structure in a repeating form to its end, until just before the point that it breaks,” Turk says. “For instance, with stone, you think that it is really heavy and solid and internal, but if you take away almost all that stone so it’s just a single line or a tiny single structure, the emptiness will describe the ‘what was.’”
Born and raised in Southern California, Turk originally studied international relations at Scripps College with an eye toward entering politics. “Art was a place I loved to go to escape — like reading,” she says. “I never thought I would make a living as an artist; I thought of it more as a passion.”
While working in Washington, D.C., in a “lowly, I’ll-run-and-do-anything-that-the-campaign-needs” job, Turk started making small bronze figurative pieces that she would “try to sell to anybody who walked into the office.” Eventually, she quit her job and got a master’s degree from the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. From there, she moved to New York and began working as an artist full time.
Turk says her life changed after she was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the “genius grant.” She received the news while on a road trip in 2010. “They said, ‘I understand you’re driving across the country,’ and you think, ‘Who is on the phone that knows that? You don’t recognize the number.’ Then they say, ‘If you’re behind the wheel, you should probably pull over,’” she recalls, laughing.
A year later, she was awarded a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship. At the Smithsonian, she studied calcium carbonate and mineral structures and began experimenting with X-rays of seashells and deep-sea coral that would eventually become the focus of her mandala series and the “Shoreline Project.”
“The imagery was just so beautiful. I wanted to keep pushing it forward,” she says. “I just didn’t think we would eventually be managing 1,000 people.”
When Warner approached her with the commission in early 2017, Turk was ready to hit the ground running. She and Siapin had recently brainstormed a number of ideas for projects and thought one might work for the museum. “I wanted to create experience-oriented art that integrated art, science and nature,” Turk says.
Turk knew she wanted to incorporate the mandala but wasn’t immediately sure how. She toyed with the idea of an enormous structure with a mandala printed on it that people could walk through. Or maybe something involving windmills or tents? Then one night, she and Warner were having drinks at the Royal Hawaiian restaurant in Laguna Beach. “He had a really funny drink that had an umbrella on a toothpick in it, and I said, ‘Hey, I have an idea for the project,’” Turk recalls, bursting into laughter. “As Malcolm would probably say, it got all ‘Turk-ed up’ from there.”
From the start, Turk envisioned a work that would bring together communities at a time when divisive politics and world events threaten to rip them apart.
“The context of our time pushed the idea of creating intimate bridges. Creating a large, shared experience became really important,” Turk says. “The seashell, the umbrella — everything is based on these really basic things that every human has experienced. It’s commonality we can agree on.”
At the same time, she wanted to make sure the process was accessible, so people wouldn’t be intimidated by any notions of high-brow art. “That’s why it’s an umbrella. It’s so low-maintenance,” Turk says. “We’re trying to make art really approachable so the doorway is open to everybody.”
After the idea was settled on, there were many details to work out. For example, the umbrellas went through five prototypes and numerous considerations: choosing a mandala design, sampling various fabric weights for the canopy, testing lighting units and light arcs, and trying out different shapes for the stem and handle. At one point, a solar-powered umbrella was even considered.
To ensure that the public became involved in the creative process, Turk set up a “think lab” at SCAPE gallery in Corona del Mar to illustrate the scope and details of the project. Starting with an empty space, the gallery began to fill up with drawings, images and maquettes for visitors to view and offer suggestions. “We created a framework, and everyone was invited in to just develop the concept and make it real,” Turk says.
Turk and Siapin have spent months mapping the shoreline, researching crowd movement and potential crowd size, observing light patterns at twilight, testing batteries, determining parking and clocking the amount of time it will take to distribute umbrellas. The result, Turk jokes, will be “managed chaos.”
During several small-scale tests, Turk and Siapin observed how people engaged with the umbrellas. “With children, you give them the umbrella, and they’re happy and they’re running around dancing,” Siapin says. “With people in their late 20s to mid-40s, they open the umbrella and kind of look around, like, ‘Who is looking at me?’ They have this strange, awkward moment, and after about 10 minutes, you see them dancing. And then you’ll have the next demographic, and they want to follow rules. They’re very respectful of the umbrella.”
Turk hopes the dancers, who will kick off the evening with a brief, choreographed performance, will inspire participants to mimic their movements or create their own paths. “It’s definitely not going to be a Busby Berkeley water ballet,” Turk says, grinning.
Armed with information they’ve already gathered and lessons they’ll pick up from the upcoming event, Turk and Siapin plan to replicate the project in other coastal cities. But for now, the team is working nonstop on the logistics of the ambitious project. Hundreds of volunteers, including students from the Laguna College of Art and Design, will be enlisted to guide participants and help make the event run smoothly.
Those interested in taking part in the umbrella performance must register on the “Shoreline Project” website. Participants will be required to sign a waiver that they are encouraged to print out in advance to speed the process. The signed waiver will serve as a “ticket,” with the 1,000 umbrellas handed out to ticketholders on a first-come, first-serve basis. To reinforce the concept of community, everyone is encouraged to wear black, so no one stands out.
The next milestone will be a full rehearsal, minus the drones, on Oct. 22.
“We’re setting a beautiful stage, and then we’ll see what happens,” Turk says. “Whatever happens, happens.”
‘The Shoreline Project’
Where: Main Beach in Laguna Beach
When: Nov. 3
Arrival time: At 5 p.m., umbrellas will be dispersed on a first-come, first-serve basis to ticketholders who have completed a signed waiver
Start time: At 5:45 p.m., dancers will begin a brief performance to kick off the event
Parking: Limited street parking. Shuttle service will be provided from various locations