You may remember Amy Turner.
You may have seen her with her walker outside the Benton Plaza in downtown Corvallis, smoking and wearing a giant bouffant wig.
But the odds are that you didn’t really know the person underneath all that hair.
However, a gallery show opening Tuesday with pieces at both the Arts Center and CEI ArtWorks aims to change that. Each gallery will feature 11 works by the late Corvallis resident, who passed in January of 2014 while battling pneumonia and left behind hundreds of drawings that have rarely been seen before.
Getting to know Amy
Turner was born in May of 1945. She grew up in North Albany, her daughter Tammy Elwess said. Elwess said her mother was a product of her generation – a part of the free love movement of the 1960s and was unmarried when she conceived her.
“There was no safety net… for young women,” Elwess said. Elwess, who now lives in Tennessee, said her mother struggled as a single parent and then was struck by tragedy shortly after giving birth.
“When I was four months old, her twin sister committed suicide and her whole world stopped there,” Elwess said.
Elwess said her mother couldn’t ever really move on after losing her twin, Arleen May.
“She got stuck. Her brain could not move out of it,” she said.
Elwess said she thinks this is why her mother, who worked as a hair dresser, could never really leave her signature hairstyle behind.
“When she was young, that was the style. When she went to beauty school, that was the style… For years, I tried to get her to change, but it was her confidence,” she said.
Elwess said she and her mother moved to Corvallis in the late 1960s and her mom became a part of Corvallis’ party scene, playing pool and dancing, including at a bar at the Benton Plaza, where she would live the last years of her life.
“She partied there and then she died there.”
Elwess called her mother a part of the history of Corvallis.
“She lived her entire adult life in Corvallis, and Corvallis was not always kind to her,” she said.
Elwess said her mother was eventually diagnosed manic depressive schizophrenic and struggled with feeling very low on her medications.
“She’d go off them and become a party girl again,” she said.
Elwess said her mother spent time in a mental hospital and eventually moved to the Benton Plaza, which offers housing for low-income disabled and elderly people.
‘A sense of value’
Elwess said it was at the Benton Center that her mother, a lifelong doodler, began to get more serious about her art and began entering pieces in the state fair. Elwess said she has a bunch of drawings by her mom that won blue ribbons for in the fair.
“(Art) gave her a sense of value, especially when she could enter the fair and win blue ribbons for it.”
Mary VanderLinden, who does case management work at the Benton Plaza, said not many people knew about Turner’s artwork.
“She was not the kind of person who would open up to strangers. She was very protective of herself.”
VanderLinden said she got to know Turner as a kind, caring person with a good sense of humor and a tough edge that was a response to a tough life, but few people got to really know her.
“A lot of people just viewed her as that strange lady outside the Benton Plaza with the beehive, who smoked,” she said.
VanderLinden said for Turner, the hair was a kind of self-defense mechanism
Elwess said her whole life, her mother didn’t want to go out unless her hair was done up, which could take hours to do from scratch. Elwess said when her mother stopped being able to do her own hair up, around the year 2000, she stopped going out. At that point Elwess said she started buying her mom bouffant wigs, twice a year. And she started going out again.
“We could always tell, the more insecure she felt, the bigger the wig. The bigger the mask,” said VanderLinden.
Both Elwess and VanderLinden said Turner was lonely.
“She didn’t get too involved in the world because the world hurt,” said VanderLinden.
However, her art, full of happy faces interconnected by webs of lines, was a way to cope, VanderLinden said.
“I think it was a kind of therapy,” she said.
VanderLinden said Turner once gave one of the other caseworkers at the plaza a drawing, which they found amazing because she was very protective of her work.
“To Amy they were her masterpieces and they were worth a lot of money and she protected them,” she said.
The piece continued to hang in the office VanderLinden uses at the Benton Plaza after Turner died in 2014, and Elwess inherited the rest.
Culturally significant art
Turner’s works remained relatively unknown in the years that followed.
That is until Bruce Burris, director of CEI ArtWorks, which has a studio and gallery space at the Benton Plaza, was working on putting together an exhibition of artwork by the building’s residents in early 2017. As he was working on that exhibit he was shown the Turner piece hanging in the office.
“I was really intrigued,” he said.
Burris said VanderLinden connected him to Elwess who brought out her mother’s works for him to see while visiting Oregon later that year. He said he immediately began planning the show after that. Burris said he thinks Turner’s works have a cultural and regional significance, in that her work also includes Pacific Northwest imagery.
“She had a very complex life, and that’s what you see in her work,” he said.
He added that the works tell a story if you look closely at them.
“Her work is great because it’s very accessible on the surface, but has depth and is really strong.”
Burris said he hopes the show inspires an interest in Turner’s life and work, and that he can convince museums to collect some of her pieces so they can be preserved for the future. He said Turner left behind 100 to 150 drawings, plus two or three notebooks each containing 50 or so small drawings and collages.
“I know these are important drawings for our region,” he said.
Burris, who moved to Corvallis in the summer of 2013, said he never met Turner, but he does recall seeing her with her distinctive wigs.
“This is my favorite exhibit I’ve worked on in Oregon,” he said.
Isabelle Havet, an art historian at Linn-Benton Community College, wrote a narrative about Turner's work at Burris' request. Havet said she viewed Turner's work knowing very little about Turner's life deliberately, so she could view her work without having her interpretation of it colored by her knowledge about Turner's life.
Havet said Turner's work is interesting because it on the surface looks like doodles, but it has a lot of depth and consistency to it.
"There is this visual language she uses again and again," Havet said.
Havet said 50 to 75 years ago art historians would not have taken Turner's work seriously because her work appears to be from an artist who didn't have any formal training. However, Turner said today art historians are very interested in artists like Turner, who create art with an outsider's perspective.
Havet said the fantastical imagery and smiling faces might have been how Turner saw the world or how she wished other people saw the world.
"Amy Turner’s drawings defy easy interpretation and classification. We are offered vibrant yet fragmentary visual experiences of the artist’s kaleidoscopic and tesalated perceptions. Teeming with life and energy, these drawings present worlds in which each form appears interconnected. Interwoven figures, objects and decorative shapes overwhelm the page in intricate visual tapestries," she wrote in her essay.
Visit https://bit.ly/2MIM8YZ to read the full text of that essay.
VanderLinden said a lot of the residents of the Benton Plaza are outside the mainstream and people tend to judge them without getting to know them, but she hopes the exhibit of Turner’s work will make people have more compassion for those outside the mainstream.
“What I would like people to learn or takeaway is that there’s a deeper story once you open the cover. I think because of (Turner’s) appearance and her toughness that people made assumptions about her.”
Elwess recalled that people sometimes made fun of her mom’s appearance.
“Corvallis can be cruel because every year there is a new influx of people who are young and don’t understand,” she said.
Elwess said it was wonderful to have Burris get in touch to express interest in her mother’s art.
“To have somebody on the outside give value to it is exciting, especially somebody who knows about the art world.”
Elwess said she hopes the exhibit gives people a chance to get to know who her mom was beyond just her hair and mental illness. She talked about how when she looks at photos of her mom when she was young she can see a spark in her eyes, something most people never got to see.
“She was just like everybody else when she was young. She was full of hopes and dreams. She wanted to have fun and be respected, just like everybody else.”
"I See Faces – Drawings by Amy Turner," opens Tuesday and runs through March 19. For full details see the sidebar to this story.