Robert C. Turner - American Ceramic Artist

Robert Chapman Turner

Internationally acclaimed artist and
professor of ceramic art

A Fellow of the American Craft Council and recipient of its highest honor, the Gold Medal, Turner was also a member of the International Academy of Ceramics. Throughout his 60-year career as a ceramic artist, Turner received numerous awards for his work, and participated in a number of group and solo exhibitions, both in the United States and abroad.

His work is found in the permanent collections at museums in Japan and New Zealand, as well as The Smithsonian, The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and numerous other private and public collections.

Recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1973, Turner was also a past president and honorary member of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA).

In addition to teaching at Alfred University's School of Art & Design, Turner started the ceramic program at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, and also taught as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin. He taught summer sessions at Anderson Ranch in Aspen, CO, and the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, and served as chairman of the Board of Directors of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, ME.

Robert Turner — Shaping Silence, A Life in Clay, which contains essays by Marsha Miro, an art critic at the Detroit Free Press for 21 years, and Tony Hepburn, a colleague of Turner's at Alfred University before becoming head of ceramics at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, with a forward by Janet Koplos, senior editor at "Art in America," was published in 2003 by Kodansha International, Ltd. (Tokyo).

Born July 22, 1913, in Port Washington, NY, and raised in Brooklyn, Turner was the son of Henry Chandlee Turner, who owned Turner Construction Co., which was among the first to use steel-reinforced concrete as a building material, and Charlotte Haines Chapman Turner. He attended Swarthmore College, earning a B.A. degree in economics in 1936. He married the former Sue Leggett Thomas, who was also a graduate of Swarthmore College, in 1938.

Turner enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1936 to study painting. He received the school's Cresson Traveling Scholarships in Painting in 1939 and 1940. He completed his studies in 1941, just as the United States was entering the war. As a Quaker and a conscientious objector, Turner was assigned to the Civilian Public Service and spent the next four years at a forestry conservation camp in Big Flats, NY, and at a school for developmentally disabled children in Pownal, ME.

With the birth of his son John in 1944, Turner began questioning whether he could make a living and support a family as a painter. He decided upon a career as a potter, and began searching for a program that would give him the skills he wanted, along with an advanced degree. The search led him to the Master of Fine Arts program in ceramic art at Alfred University and the place that would be his home for more than 50 years.

Entering as a special student in 1946, Turner had a footed stoneware ashtray, made during his first year, accepted in the Ceramic National Exhibition in Syracuse in 1947, and won honorable mention in the Ceramic National Exhibition the following year, foreshadowing a career filled with honors and awards. He was graduated from AU in 1949 with a Master of Fine Arts degree.

After graduation, Turner was invited to go to Black Mountain College in North Carolina to establish the first ceramic art program at the avant-garde school. He taught there until 1951, when he returned to Alfred Station to establish his own studio, making stoneware bowls, jars, and candleholders. In 1953, he had a solo exhibition at the American Craft Guild's America House in New York City, and was named the "Potter of the Year" by the Philadelphia Art Alliance. Two years later, he was awarded the silver medal at the International Ceramics Exposition, Palais Miramor, Cannes, France.

In 1958, he joined the ceramic art faculty at Alfred University as a special instructor in pottery and sculpture and became full-time in 1966. He served twice as chairman of the Art Department and was awarded emeritus status upon his retirement in 1979. Alfred University awarded him the Charles Fergus Binns Medal for Excellence in Ceramic Art in 2000.

Swarthmore College awarded Robert Turner an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in 1987. A lifelong member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Turner and his wife, Sue, were founding members of the Alfred Friends Meeting. He was active in the work of Friends through the New York Yearly Meeting for 50 years. Turner served on the boards of George School in Newtown, PA; Pendle Hill, a study retreat center in Philadelphia; and Oakwood Friends School in Poughkeepsie, NY.

Turner's beliefs had a profound effect on his life. In a letter to Winslow Ames, who had served with him in the Quaker camp in Indianapolis, Turner wrote, "What part, if any, can and should the art world play in revitalizing people of a perhaps degenerative culture, a culture in which people seem to be morally soft, often, and unaware of their actions, insensitive to the moral religious values in situations. Have not art and those people who know its value more to say than they have said, not only to make art a more vital and integral part of community life, but to minister to the spiritual needs in the broadest sense of the term?"

That attitude prompted Turner to make one of the most controversial decisions of his professional career. In 1968, during the Vietnam Conflict, Turner, Jeff Schlanger, and Peter Voulkos were jurors for the Ceramic National Exhibition. After reviewing the slides showing a variety of functional objects, the three rejected all the entries. "I felt the absence of the power of strong conviction to match the depth of the Vietnam despair, at least in what the slides presented to us," Turner wrote at the time.

Source: Robert C. Turner obituary, Alfred University

Robert Turner: An Appreciation

by Tom Spleth

Originally published in Studio Potter magazine, Dec 2005.

The old guard, the giants in our field who arose from the dust and confusion of World War II, who found like minds in places like Black Mountain and the Otis Institute, who enlarged our ideas about ceramics, and who made ceramics into the complex art that we have come to enjoy and trust, are passing. Robert Turner, one of the unique and valuable craftsmen from that generation, who were in many ways larger than life, died last summer at 93 years. His example and contribution live on in the work of all of us because his ideas were seminal and because the morality of his endeavor and his life in ceramics provide such clear guidance. What follows are a few, hopefully telling, remembrances of a cherished friend.


Sometime in 1970, Paul Soldner and Fred Baur visited Alfred University. The students, I was one of them, threw a party later that same evening. Although we did not understand it at the time, the party marked the end of an era, a hopeful, open-ended way of thinking that disappeared forever. It was a sixties-style conflagration that lasted until dawn and included nudity, sixties chemistry, and alcoholic beverages, the cans of which were used to build complex towers in the kitchen of an apartment picked for the evening's fellowship because it was devoid of furniture. The party's attendees included all personnel of the Alfred Art Department and, for a while, became an incident with some small fame, events referred to in conversation later as happening before the Party, after the Party, and even during the Party.

I visited Paul Soldner in his home near Aspen this summer (thirty-five years later) and asked him if he remembered the Party. He said that he did, most definitely, and reminded me of the presence of Fred Baur and how Jane Ford was instrumental in inviting Paul and Fred to Alfred from the Super Mud Conference in Pennsylvania. But most important, Paul said, was a letter he received afterwards from Bob Turner, on the faculty at that time and in a somewhat controversial gesture, thanking Paul for coming and for being a catalyst for the Party, which was, Bob assured him, something the school needed just then, a kind of artistic and psychic civil disobedience that was true to the historical moment.


I was a neighbor of Bob's and lived down the road from him in East Valley near Alfred, New York, for about fifteen years. While I have always felt his presence as a powerful influence, I cannot say that we were pals or that he was even a mentor of mine — we did not see each other that often. But our paths crossed occasionally simply as a product of being nearby and because my wife at that time, Harriet, was raised in the valley and the Turner family was part of her upbringing. For example, Bob's old friend Sam Maloof was visiting one summer and they all attended our wedding, a kind of accidental guest list that became part of life in the valley because of Bob. Later on, Sue, Bob's wife, would invite us up for drinks and there would be Michael Cardew or David Shaner, maybe.


Bob Turner taught at Penland School many times. One of his classes, held thirty years ago, was attended by a then fledgling potter, a bare beginner and regular guy named Bobby Kadis with a professional career in real estate. Bobby had run into ceramics later in his life and his wife had encouraged his new-found enthusiasm by suggesting that he take a class at Penland. Bobby's first real class in ceramics was being taught by Robert Turner. Lucky. As an assignment Bob asked the class to bring in something ugly. When the objects were gathered together, Bob began to speak and transformed each object into a thing of value and beauty. Bobby, who continues to make pottery to this day, tells me that that exercise forever changed the way he sees the world. Finally, a student asked Bob what he considered ugly. "The only thing that's ugly is not to care," Bob replied.

At a recent class at Penland, (Bob was eighty eight) I listened to Bob discuss at length the space above the lid and beneath the handle on one of his jars. He held the interest of the class with ease. While his teaching was legendary, knowing Bob as a neighbor let me see that he was all of a piece and that the discussions he led as an educator were simply an extension of his everyday personality. It was through momentary informal exchanges and almost throwaway comments of his that stick in my mind, that I learned the most from Bob. He was at his best riffing on a word or an idea.


One time, early in the morning, I went up to the Turner house, not on a quest for the history of American ceramics or for an insight into the nature of contemporary practice in ceramic art, which always seemed to be in the air up there, but to borrow an egg. Bob was standing in the gravel driveway in front of the barn that housed his studio, bent over sharply and a bit awkwardly at the waist, rolling one of his leather-hard pots around in the gravel with great care. He had the most distinctive hands — long, sensitive — his intelligence always seemed to carry right into his fingertips. He paused and stood appraising his handiwork. It was clear that my presence was unnecessary and I did not tarry because Bob's power of concentration and magical ability to find meaning in the seemingly mundane was in full force right then. He did look up and speak, however. Bob was always most gracious and elegant in his interactions and he quietly said something to the effect of, "What is going on here seems to be very important, I think." This was not said in defense of his actions, Bob never had cause to be defensive, but rather, he wanted me to know that the random marks being made by the gravel on that pot were telling him something.


For a few years after he retired, Bob and Sue had a small place in Santa Fe to which they would retreat during the harsh winters of western New York. They owned an old Mercedes and they would drive out to Santa Fe because, while in Santa Fe, Bob would make some pots but he would need to bring them back two thousand miles to East Valley to fire in his kiln in the barn. One spring, he and Sue returned and I saw the car before it was unloaded. Sitting on the back seat, in a row, like children, were five of Bob's post-African semi-cylindrical thrown pieces in delicate unfired greenware without packing or so much as a towel between them. They rode the entire distance unprotected in careful glory. I knew that they had been placed on that car seat with the same attention and emotional quizzicalness that informed the work when he made it and to have covered the pieces in bubblewrap and boxes would have altered their very existence in the universe. It was here, looking into the back seat of Bob's car, that I began to understand that every moment counts.


Bob had a well-developed and ever-present sense of humor. It could be subtle and understated but, if you got to know him, you began to realize that he did not take himself or the world around about him with unmoderated seriousness. Underlying his gentle, ever-questioning mind, however, was a fierce independence. I believe his independence enabled him to be a member of one of America's most powerful family of builders and to hold his position therein as a potter. I met his brothers, once, and I remember them as calm, serious executives in good gray suits. He was a Quaker and elected to be a non-combatant in World War II, serving instead as an orderly in a hospital. Bob and Sue occasionally used the Quaker "thee" and "thou" in conversation with one another but they never belabored the antique style. Rather, it became a joyous, respectful, and humorous way to address one another domestically. Socially, Bob was good company. He was quick in conversation, informed, and authoritative. You could depend on him to bring something to the table that no one else had thought of. He enjoyed parties and dancing. He always ended up putting something on his head, a basket, a valuable old Chinese pot, something made of paper. This behavior delighted him. It was never sloppy or the product of excess, but seemed to complete the moment and make him and all of us happy.


One of my last memories of Bob from the Alfred days was momentary as many of my observation of him were. I was driving my truck past his house very early one morning on my way to meet Bob's neighbor, John McQueen, to execute some project that John and I had cooked up that required an early morning rendezvous. No one else was out. Dawn was upon us, but the sun was not up yet. All was still, the light was blue. Bob, in his seventies, thin, ascetic, disciplined, full of life, was on the road in sneakers and sweats, jogging.

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Background images: (Top) Robert Turner in his Alfred studio, 1997/ John Wood, photographer. (Right) Robert Chapman Turner, ca. 1965 / unidentified photographer.
Source: Robert Chapman Turner papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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