Words: Linda Nathan, Wood Review editor
Photos of Neil Turner’s work: Victor France
Portrait photography of Neil Turner: Lloyd-Smith Photography
Jumping into a new career is pretty much like reinventing yourself. If you’ve reached an age when you tend to be older than most of the people around you that can be daunting. First you’ve got to convince yourself that you’ve got what it takes to go in a new direction. Then you’ve got to convince others you’re doing the right thing.
Neil Turner, 55, a third generation wheat/sheep farmer, decided three years ago that he could either stay on the land that his grandfather and father had cleared and tended, and ‘not enjoy it that much’, or he could change, accept the unknown, and give flight to the creative spirit that increasingly came to inhabit his thought processes.
Neil Turner’s turned and carved forms have been acclaimed since he first started exhibiting them in the 90s. After he became a full-time maker, he started making furniture as a means of boosting his income earning potential. In 2010, to learn the required skills, he enrolled for a Diploma in Fine Furniture from then-operating Australian School of Fine Wood at Dwellingup, WA.
Last year Neil felt honoured to be chosen for the Bunbury Regional Art Galleries’ South West Showcase which annually features the work of a local artist. As a nod to his new life as a full-time artist and move into furniture making, Neil’s exhibition of sculptural and furniture forms was titled Unfolding, and was displayed at the end of 2012.
Neil started turning wood when he was 19 years old. Farmers are creative people by necessity. When something breaks down you have to figure out how to fix it or get it going again somehow. It’s more practical and quicker to just do it yourself. And that’s how Neil acquired the skills to build his first three wood lathes.
In and out of the seasonal flow of farm life Neil nurtured and developed his interest in shaping wood. But it wasn’t until 1990, after doing some workshops with Vic Wood and in particular Stephen Hughes, that Neil came to understand that much more was possible. By using carving and embellishing techniques you could just express so much more.
Neil’s work took off, and the flame motif that frequently appeared in his carved and turned forms got his peers, gallery owners and buyers to take notice. Just where had he appeared on the scene from?
As a farmer, Neil says his inspiration came from ‘wind and fire, and the environment’. After Neil and his wife Suellen had split the farm within the family and moved to Bunbury there were different visual inspirations to take hold of, the sea and seashells for a start.
Looking at the body of work that Neil has created over a three year period, during which all his furniture making skills were learnt, a remarkable lack of fear is apparent. Or perhaps it’s just that one so used to working with curves and volumes would naturally translate those concepts into furniture, ignoring an overwhelming tradition of straight lines. Mostly his new work is sculptural. Solid wood has been curved and shaped with spokeshave and powercarver, thin sections have been laminated and bent.
For Neil in some ways the most important part of the exhibition was when former teacher Malcolm Harris critiqued his work. ‘A lot of people said they liked it—and that was great, it’s nice to get those accolades—but at the end of the day you need to be prepared to take on board things that people tell you.’
Neil likes to say that his wife is his greatest critic (‘I always know when I haven’t “made it”, because she’ll say: “that’s a nice piece of wood dear”.’) but it’s obvious the greatest critic title belongs to Neil himself. ‘I haven’t reached where I’d like to get yet. I really and honestly don’t think I’ve done (a piece of furniture or carved bowl) where I think, “yeah, I’ve nailed that”. I think if you’re not hard on yourself your work won’t improve.’
As a result of hard work and his leap of faith it seems Neil’s star will continue to rise. Within the next six months he will participate in a collaborative events in Ireland and in the USA. He will continue to make for the galleries that represent him in Australia and the US and he will start work on a collection of works for a Perth CBD exhibition that will take place in 2014.
In spite of that Neil takes nothing for granted and remains modest about his talents. ‘It takes a while for your reputation to get out there. I’m an idiot if I think that’s going to happen overnight. But hopefully I’ll get more proficient…not many people have heard of me, I’ve been under a rock a fair while.’
Making the decision to leave the family farm and a forge a new direction is not something he regrets. ‘At the end of the day it’s funny how things have all come together. We had the choice of staying where we were or saying bugger it, we’ll have a go and see what happens. Life’s about taking a chance and if you don’t take that chance you’ll never know.’
Learn more about Neil Turner at www.neilturnerartisan.com.au
First published in Wood Review magazine issue 78, March 2013