Material Girl

Material Girl

Julia Turner Portrait

Over the course of her career, Julia Turner has moved fluidly among mediums, while expressing a singular vision. Photo: Mark Tuschman; Hair and makeup: Shana Astrachan of Fox & Doll

Over the course of her career, Julia Turner has moved fluidly among mediums, while expressing a singular vision. 

Among the dozens of objects arranged on an 8-foot table in Julia Turner’s sun-washed jewelry studio are bowls of beads, chunks of wood – some natural, some stained colors ranging from canary yellow to cerulean blue – a roll of safety-orange duct tape, postcards, a shard of shiny black record vinyl, several books, and a carefully trimmed and shaped lump of charcoal salvaged from a backyard barbecue. Vignettes, color stories, and contrasting geometries play out across the 32 square feet, which, viewed from above is like the love child of Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers. 

“It’s my living sketchbook,” says Turner, one of eight artisans offered a berth in Heath Ceramics’ huge industrial building in San Francisco two years ago. “A mish-mash of finished pieces, found objects, false starts, and experiments with new materials – like that broken record. Some are ideas I want to pursue now, others are to play with later. Because once I file something away, it’s gone forever.” 

Turner’s catholic approach to materials embraces wood, enamel, and steel, all of which she sands, carves, engraves, scratches – and sometimes smashes – in the interest of reaching a new level of intimacy. No stranger to getting rough with metal, Turner studied smithing at Miami University in Ohio, where she earned her MFA in 1995, creating hollowware vessels under the tutelage of Susan Ewing. “Raising metal is kind of monastic. I spent two years locked in a basement, basically hammering all night and sleeping all day.” 

Immediately after graduation, Turner moved to San Francisco to teach. Her migration to jewelry occurred during stints at California College of the Arts and the Revere Academy of Jewelry Arts, where she taught smithing and dropped in on master’s symposia in engraving, stone setting, diamond grading, and wax carving. 

After a few years of working exclusively in metal, Turner became frustrated with that material’s sheer weight and turned to other materials, seeking more warmth, color, and volume. “The same burrs that worked on metal were perfect for wood, and instead of carving wax, I just dug right in.” Ultra-fine sandpaper rendered the wood satisfyingly smooth, and Turner also played with faceting and staining the pieces, as if creating an ersatz gemstone. One large round brooch from that period is punctuated with white-capped pins, the turquoise wash gently abraded along the facets to reveal the golden maple below. 

In much of her newer work, Turner is more interested in celebrating wood qua wood: “I’m letting go of the signs and symbols of ‘I am a jeweler’ and allowing the material to speak for itself.” Instead of seeking the cleanest pieces and minimizing the grain, she stockpiles cutoffs from sawmills, discards from furniture shops, and sticks from the forest, and highlights the patterns, cuts, breaks, and burns instead of smoothing them out. “I learn about the wood by smashing it up, and the exposed structure is incredibly beautiful.” While the rough-hewn results make no attempt to resemble gemstones, neither are they unmanipulated. “I select and trim and paint and combine – adding and subtracting parts to arrive at these small ‘situations,’ which I eventually pin together and fasten with steel.” 

As she works, Turner engages in a kind of call and response with the piece in progress. For example, the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster passed while she was working on the Berg brooch, prompting the gesture of a tiny metal safety rail affixed on top of a jagged white shard. Some pieces convey even more of a narrative, such as Three Days Walking (Mourning Brooch), created for a show at Velvet da Vinci called “La Frontera,” which featured work from artists on both sides of the US-Mexico border, as well as from other countries. Made of maple, oxidized steel, and 350 entomology pins — each capped with a torch-enameled red top — the brooch alludes to traditional Victorian mourning jewelry and was inspired by the warning maps created by the NGO Humane Borders to illustrate the dangers of the desert crossing. The maps are clustered with red dots, each representing the location of a death. As Turner explains, “These stood out to me in their sadness and simplicity. Each dot represents a human experience that no one could wish for another, regardless of politics. The small enameled pins are arranged in an abstraction of a cactus flower, which grows in the Arizona desert and stands out from the landscape with a brilliant red.” 

Turner’s most recent metal jewelry is as light as her earlier work was heavy. Her sgraffito pieces start as powder-coated steel panels that have been overlaid with white enamel. Turner uses sandpaper, X-Acto knives, and other tools to scrape through to the black underneath, creating patterns that resemble electrical storms or Rorschach tests. “It’s reductive drawing, like those scratchboards we had as kids. Instead of putting down a mark, you remove something to make a statement. It’s a different way to approach the blank page – more about discovering rather than imposing something.” Turner skims the large compositions with a small frame to excavate earrings, pendants, and brooches, seeking places “where a small interaction of shape and line suggest a tension, or excitement, or sadness that fits what’s on my mind.” 

For a recent show at the Shibumi Gallery in Berkeley, Turner included a collection of her enamel Hive pendants in lollipop colors, as well as wood jewelry. And she completed a series of tabletop objects for a group show at Heath a few months later. The blown-up gemstones and mini-factories with tiny smokestacks were made from salvaged wood, including material she rescued during the Heath renovation. “We’re in a time of greater fluidity, supported by the whole DIY movement and this idea of embracing the renegade. I used to think of myself as a metalsmith, and then a jeweler, but it’s more interesting not having these barriers. After you put in your time – your so-called 10,000 hours – that muscle knowledge is there, and it’s not such a leap to change materials – or scale.”

Deborah Bishop is a writer in San Francisco and a frequent contributor to American Craft.