Like many artists, Richard Turner looks to the dramatic episodes of his life for inspiration. His experiences as a teen-ager in revolution-torn Vietnam later became the catalyst for some of his more acclaimed work.

But Turner was unprepared for what led to one of his most ambitious projects. The 42-year-old Orange resident was told shortly after Christmas, 1984, that he had to undergo heart surgery or risk early death. His bypass to correct four clogged arteries and the “painful and illuminating” introspection during the many weeks of recovery inspired his “Wanderers Rest” installation, which was recently on exhibit at the San Francisco Art Institute.

In the multimedia piece, developed through a $2,500 award from the institute, Turner created an environment containing symbols meant to convey the trial faced by a cancer patient. Visitors to the show were provided with a fictional account (written by Turner and his friend Paul Tate) of the man’s ordeal.

“I wanted to give people an idea of what I had dealt with in my own brush with death; the thoughts that came when I accepted the idea of surgery and after, during the recuperation,” explained Turner, who teaches art at Chapman College in Orange. “I also wanted to touch on the kinship among people that comes from our own mortality--the sense that we have this shared experience that binds us together.”


The experience had a cruel irony, Turner noted, because over the years he often incorporated the theme of death in his art. In fact, one of his major shows, “Reliquaries,” which ran from November, 1982, to January, 1983, at Baxter Art Gallery at Caltech in Pasadena, features installations with coffin-like sculptures and constructions resembling pyres.

“Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated with it, more than most people, I think,” Turner said. “There certainly was a sense of death during my time in Vietnam. The political climate at the time created that.”

He lived in South Vietnam from 1959 to 1961 when his father, a criminologist, was a consultant to the police in Saigon. His memories of those years, from the government parties his father attended to street battles between rebels and the military, formed the backbone of much of his work.

Turner, maybe best known for his tall, rail-like sculptures and photos documenting the collision of Eastern and Western cultures, laces his work with bamboo, Eastern religious symbols and other remnants from Southeast Asia. Many of his more political pieces try to show the cultural upheaval created by the Vietnam War.


“I was greatly influenced by that time. I remember running out in the streets and picking up bullets and spent cartridges (left over from some of the street violence) and putting them in one of my first pieces,” he recalled. “The shootings happened right on the street I lived on. The impressions were very intense.”

When assembling “Wanderers Rest,” Turner said, he chose his symbols carefully, both for the installation and text. Upon entering the show, visitors were confronted with two stark walls and invited to write the names of deceased family members or friends on them. A single plant stood in the corner. In the next room was a large sign filled with quotes, scribbled as graffiti, taken from the fictional text. The adjacent room held the dying man’s study, with his desk and chair overturned and the entire area covered by what looked like a funeral shroud. The last environment was designed to represent a cemetery, said Turner.

The story took the form of letters between the man, who eventually dies, and a friend of his in Thailand. They chronicle the man’s life in Garden Grove as his illness worsens, and his friend offers distant but deep support.

Despite the personal importance of the exhibit, Turner said he has no plans to assemble it elsewhere (“I don’t want to build old art; I’d rather make new art,” he said). But he believes the cathartic effect it had on him may endure.


“You have to understand the fears that I had going into surgery and following it,” Turner explained. “I worried that I would be an outcast, a defective human being among more normal people. Also, the feelings of being scarred, of having your chest ripped open, left me feeling less than whole. This whole thing of feeling shunned by everybody, even more than the fear of my own death, was what struck me quite heavily.

“I imagine other people have felt that. I think I became more compassionate and aware of other people’s problems.”

The audience’s reactions were gratifying. Turner said the walls were filled with names and dates of the deceased within a few days of the opening, and visitors frequently spoke to him of their own losses or illnesses.

“I think it prompted people to reflect on the frailty (of life). I was almost overcome by the reactions at times,” he said.


Not everybody, however, treated the show with respect. “Sure, there were some people who had a flippant response; someone wrote ‘Mickey Mouse’ and ‘Donald Duck’ on the wall, but generally there was an honest reaction,” he said.

Now that “Wanderers Rest” has closed, Turner has more time to devote to a Los Angeles project he has been involved with for several weeks. He is among 11 artists commissioned to create sculptures or other pieces for MacArthur Park downtown. The park’s aesthetic revitalization is funded through $187,000 in federal and city grants and corporate donations.

Turner’s contribution will be a half-circle concrete bench complete with large speakers designed to play music and recorded messages and literature in several languages, he explained.

“It will be for everybody--Cambodians, Vietnamese, Latinos, everybody. That’s what I think is so special about it.”