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Ray Turner, Painter

Oct 14, 2009
Ray turner 300x200 Ray Turner, Painter Sally Storch Richard Bunkall Ray Turner Pasadena Museum of California Art Pasadena artist painter Art Center  photo

Ray Turner at his PMCA opening; photo by Bill Youngblood

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.

ray turner locomotive4 Ray Turner, Painter Sally Storch Richard Bunkall Ray Turner Pasadena Museum of California Art Pasadena artist painter Art Center  photo

Locomotive #4, by Ray Turner

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.”

ray turner book 300x233 Ray Turner, Painter Sally Storch Richard Bunkall Ray Turner Pasadena Museum of California Art Pasadena artist painter Art Center  photo

From Population, Ray Turner's new book of portraits

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.




5 Responses for “Ray Turner, Painter”

  1. MEETING YOU IN AKRON,OHIO—-SOUTH STREET MINISTIES—- FRONT PORCH.. INDEED WAS ONE OF THE MOST ( MEDIA-REAL ) EXPERIENCES FOR THIS 61YR. OLD . THE INSIGHT OF THE FRONT PORCH VISION YOU HAVE CHOSE TO CAPTURE . IN IMAGE, IS MORE THAN EXCITING IT’S PLAIN DEVINE &TIMELY.—– IT IS RARE TO MEET SOMEONE GIFTED ,ON POINT WITH OTHER PEOPLES VISION OR VISIONS. AND , MADE THAT TOUCHABLE TO OTHERS NOT IN ANYWAY DIRECTLY CONNECTED. BY THE WAY— PASTOR DUANE “BUSTER” CRABBS MAY HAVE TOLD YOU I LOVE TO MAKE UP WORDS —-ie {media / real ?} THANK YOU.— PAT IN
    T-TOWN ,OKLA.

  2. Cynthia Phelps says:

    Ray,
    I hope you get around to reading this. My grandmother is Edith Fleming and she just raves about you. I recently found quite a few pieces you painted for her and I asked her about you. I know it has been a while but my grandmother is still at the same address if you would write her again she wishes to contact you.

    Thanks so much,
    Cynthia Phelps

  3. Ray Turner says:

    Hi Cynthia, Thank you for the post. I love your Grandma. I loved your great Grandpa, I learned to paint by painting him. I also loved your Aunt Elizabeth. I was very fortunate to be adopted for a period of time into the Beghetti family. Thank you for taking the time to write a note. Hello to your grandma and much love to her.
    Best,
    Ray

  4. Carol (Wilson) Castro says:

    Hey Ray:
    I wish I still had the oil painting that I bought back at the Eastern Oregon University Art Show that your mom and I attended way back when. I am so proud to see that you have become the successful artist that I always knew you would be. Who would have thought? Was thinking about you the other day since your birthday is in a few, can’t believe after all this time I still remember it. If you were still around here I would have baked you some of the brownies that you always liked. Anyways, I am glad you are well. Your works are amazing!

    Carol (Wilson) Castro

  5. Ray Turner says:

    Thanks Pat , it was fun taking with you and getting to paint your head.

    Thanks Carol, Great to hear from you. I hope you are well.

    All the best,
    Ray

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