Stockton native Ray Turner arrived in Pasadena in 1982 to study painting at Art Center College of Design and never looked back. The moment he earned his BFA, Art Center hired him to teach painting, which he did for sixteen years, while working on his own paintings and building a career.
During this time he became close friends with fellow painter and Pasadenan Richard Bunkall. As Bunkall became increasingly debilitated with ALS, Ray helped him to get around and continue working; after he died, Ray and Bunkall’s widow, the esteemed painter Sally Storch, stayed close. The two eventually married, and Ray became the stepdad to the three Bunkall boys, now in high school. Today they all share a Madison Heights colonial, where Ray paints, venturing out to hike the San Gabriels, walk Madison Heights, and see the boys’ soccer games.
I talked to Ray about his work and his life in Pasadena just before the opening of the show of his portraits at the Pasadena Museum of California Art. It’s a remarkable triple-header of a show — besides the dramatic massing of 125 of Ray’s 12 x 12 portraits, all painted within the last couple of years, there are retrospectives of California painter Wayne Thiebaud and pioneering color-block artist (and Pasadenan) Frances Gearhart. All three shows run through the end of January.
After seeing the show, make sure to stop in the PMCA store to check out his new book, Population, which includes portraits both from the show and going back as far as 1983.
You’re known for big, brooding landscapes and images of cities and trains, so these portraits seem a total departure. Why the human face?
I’ve actually been painting portraits since 1983, when I was a student at Art Center — they were quite a bit smaller then, just a few inches square. I’ve always painted portraits, but I just don’t show them very often, and I decided it was time. They’re my first love. And no one really knows that.
The most obvious appeal of the face is that it’s what we see first, and it’s where we communicate — as they say, it’s the window. But also, I just love the architecture of the head. Think about it! Think about the shape of the skull, and having a nose and ears — it’s a fun and funny thing. Along with the humor there’s a lot of complexity and history on our faces, and that’s something I was looking at when painting these.
Are these all local folks? How did you find your subjects?
Except for the one of Vincent Van Gogh, they’re all people I know — from casual friends to people that I know intimately. Most of them are Southern California folks, especially from around Pasadena, although a few live in Northern California.
I did not paint all my family members, because they’re kind of scattered. But I painted the boys, several times, and I painted the back of Sally’s head. Everyone who sees it and knows her says, “Oh, there’s Sally.”
Did you get any grumbling from people about what they look like in the final paintings?
Well, I had a lot of people who were nervous, even panicked, about posing beforehand. Primarily the women were the most sensitive about it, especially when I first started. In fact, for that reason I thought at first that I’d only paint men. But then more of my friends started warming up to the idea. I emphasized that these are really portraits — an image that I’m going to project about you, as opposed to a straight picture of you. Also, I painted a few of myself first, and showed them to people. I leaned toward the tougher side on my self-portraits, so they could see where I was going.
Did your subjects then want to own their portraits?
I wasn’t doing these paintings in hopes of selling them to the subjects. I just wanted to do them as a series. But a few did want to buy their own. And three people bought multiple portraits of other people, who they didn’t know at all. One person bought 25 of the portraits, but unfortunately they aren’t in the exhibit, because the owner is still having them framed.
Where do you go around Pasadena to find beauty?
You don’t have to go far! I’m amazed how much beauty I find my own backyard. I love the sunsets on Glenarm, looking west from El Molino. And I find beauty in things that have a tough aspect — like the 210 Freeway, which doesn’t seem beautiful, but the panorama of the mountains from the 210 is amazing. Devil’s Gate is beautiful.
I don’t go to the mountains to work — it’s too up close to paint what I like, which is big horizons — but I go there to hike and soak in the beauty. And I love the Rose Bowl. And the museums.
They’re going to cart both Sally and I out of Pasadena in a wheelbarrow.
What’s your perfect Pasadena Sunday?
I love going to the Norton Simon. It’s just off-the-charts wonderful. I love barbecuing for the family. I love going for a walk around the neighborhood. And I love going to Mass at Holy Family or St. Phillip’s or St. Andrew’s, which is so incredibly beautiful inside. If you’ve never been inside St. Andrew’s, you have to go.
Find out more about Ray Turner at rayturner.com.