Revealing the heart of stone

Bones of thought. Webs of feeling. Elizabeth Turk thinks in terms of pattern, structure. Her intricately carved white marble “Collars,” now on view in a three-person show at Otis College of Art and Design, evokes lace netting, grids, folds of fabric, flower petals and leaves, wind- and water-eroded fossils, arabesques, rib cages and vertebrae, architectural tracery, and more.

Turk, 42, studied international relations at Scripps College in Claremont and worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., before turning professionally to art. Fine-boned herself, blue-eyed and gracious, Turk graduated with a master of fine arts degree from the Rinehart School of Sculpture at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 1994. Since the late ‘90s, she has lived in New York and for several years has also maintained a studio within a marble fabricating facility in Santa Ana. Turk is represented by Hirschl & Adler Modern in New York and will have her first solo museum show this fall at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C.

At the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis, Turk is showing eight of the “Collars” as well as a video she made of some of the stone pieces placed on the beach, in the desert, and in a swimming pool, acted on by the rhythms of light, water and wind. The series has been in progress for about five years. In the past, Turk has exhibited the sculptures on pedestals, resting on their sides like ornate seashells or grand, castoff garments. Here, for the first time, the pieces are mounted at shoulder height, on slender steel bases.

Turk spoke as she was installing the exhibition, which continues through Aug. 14:



I wanted to set [the sculptures] up as if you were approaching humans. Part of what I was thinking about when I was carving them was the process of thought, the patterns of thought, the chemical and electrical responses -- how they work in a visible way. That’s the individual part of being human, in a physical form. That translates to a lot of the patterns in nature, the things that I like looking at.

Marble takes a long time. You have a lot of thoughts working on it. It also kind of talks back to you, because there are fragile places in the stone itself when you’re getting it thin that start telling you, “You can do this,” or “You can’t go there.” I like that resistance.

There are fissures that run through the stone. You have to be very focused on where you are, but you also learn to look further out, because you might have a gap here but the damage might happen over there. There’s a conversation. When you stick the piece on the beach, in the waves, after all those years making it, it talks back to you again. You really have to subvert your ego. It stops being this precious object.


There’s something about the sculptures that is just about beauty. It sounds so overused, but I wanted to make something that was in homage to what had been done before, not just the next new great idea. I don’t know if I really believe in that. There’s something about the continuity of stonework across the planet. You look at those pieces in Cambodia and Japanese funeral pieces or the huge stones in Mayan art. They’re so physical, and they always last. I wanted to pay my dues, or some sort of respect. I didn’t want to just be new. New becomes novel. Chasing after a novel idea would make me feel like a hamster on a wheel, and I’m a terrible runner.

With all my work, there seems to be this quiet, delicate side. I think it’s because [working with marble] is so loud, and it’s so physically draining. There’s a combination. I also like combining an industrial look or setting with something delicately carved and fragile. Originally I had the idea of doing an homage, a memorial to lace. Marble’s a memorial stone, and there’s something I really like about memorializing something feminine.

I also like the idea of lace and garden patterns because they’re things we do in our leisure. They’re physical recordings of how we think. It made me really ponder, “Why do some of these shapes feel so good, elicit such a good response, a comfort response?” You see them coming up in Chinese windows or Persian carpets. It’s really interesting to me.

I have a book I’ve been putting together -- it’s probably 200 pages now -- of collaged patterns and thoughts, references to physics, anatomical movement, veining rivers, the spirals in the begonia. I like the idea of making associations between different patterns and what they could mean. Surrounding myself with these images, I like how my mind started forming categories by visual association rather than a linear path. That’s what I wanted to come out through my fingers in these pieces.