Multimedia artist Shawn Turner’s work studio is a feast for the eyes. The garage/work shed at the rear of his Ardsley Park home is filled to bursting with shelves of doll parts, taxidermy forms, glass domes, bird cages, crazily upholstered chairs, chaise longue, and finished or half-finished fantastical creations of all kinds: birds, deer, pumpkins, bears, horses, skulls and more. And everywhere, and I mean everywhere, there is fabric.
“I’ve always liked fabric,” Turner tells me. “I like the tactile textures, the array of colors. In a way it is easier than painting because the fabric is already created, and I just start mashing it back together to make it something new and different.”
I first saw Turner’s work at an Isle of Hope art show and have since purchased eccentrically quilted drapes, a hand painted chair, a fabric mushroom under a glass cloche, a custom shower curtain and a collection of fabric fishes. I crave more pieces; the man’s imagination is limitless.
“Once you start working in fabric, people come forward with odds and ends they’ve held onto,” Turner says. “I very rarely buy fabric unless it’s for something very specific. I am constantly upcycling.”
The bottom shelves of his crowded workspace are filled with large fabric sample books.
“That kind of happened by accident. A couple of my friends in town are high-end interior designers, and I asked them one day what happens to all the samples when they get discontinued. They said, ‘Oh, we throw them away.’”
Not anymore! The first time they called, Turner got “a wheelbarrow of stuff” and a month or so later when they were cleaning out their samples closet—a lot of remainder fabric from design jobs they’d completed—he picked up a “small pickup truck load.”
Originally from a creative Midwest family, quietly spoken, Tuner tells me, “My grandfather was a master woodturner and previously a professional draftsman—back when you actually drafted by hand.
He could take things apart, make an incredibly detailed mechanical pencil drawing and then put them back together.
Like me, he wore a lot of hats, but he always worked with his hands, loved gardening and working with wood.
My mom was a professional tailor—a very unusual profession for a woman, not like being a seamstress at all.”
Growing up with a mother who made high-end men’s suits now strikes him as ironic.
Ironic, because just as it was unusual for a woman to be a tailor, “when I’m out showing work, some people are surprised that my stuff is made by a man.”
Another misunderstanding is evident in Turner’s next remark: “It’s hard when you work in fabric—people tend to think of it as just a craft or a hobby, not really an art form.”
Doubtless drawn to fabric because of his mother’s tailoring, Turner started in weaving at Memphis College of Art and then spent another year or two as a painting major at the Univ. of Illinois.
“I was really quite good, winning several scholarships, making Dean’s list, etc.,” but, he tells me, he was on the “eight-year plan” and interspersed his education with waiting tables and bartending. After art school he ran a high-end catering service before finally deciding that he needed to change his life.
“A friend said, ‘Well if you’re so miserable, do something about it.’ And I think that was the wakeup call I needed. So, I sold off everything I owned, packed up my few belongings and my dog and moved to Savannah.”
Turner had visited a few times over the years and loved the feel of the city, the historic district, the art community, and the ease of getting around from his central Ardsley Park location.
Turner and his husband lived for a while in South Carolina and that’s where he really started to focus on his art, fabric and sewing.
“It was very isolated, and I had time to focus. Now, six years later, I look back and really see how much my work has changed and grown because I had the time to devote to my craft and give my full attention to detail. My skill level has really improved. I do some machine work but mostly its crafted and always finished by hand.”
Turner started out making a line of multi-purpose tote bags and utilitarian items. Then he started covering furniture in his crazy patchworks.
His grandfather had done upholstery work and Turner says he can “do the rudimentary/artist version of upholstery.”
Gradually though, he moved away from furniture and started creating more and more animals after discovering the “tapestried creatures” created by French multimedia artist Frederique Morrel —taxidermy forms covered in richly colored old tapestries. Inspired by these fantastical, mythical beings, Turner first started making little birds.
“The birds are really my favorite. They are a lot of work and it’s really hard to get something so delicate to balance on these two little legs.”
Recent beloved creations include a waist-high giraffe in opulent tapestry and velvets and a large standing crane. Turner buys taxidermy forms and finds bears and other stuffed animals in thrift shops to use as the basis for his potpourri fabric designs.
Recently he came across a stash of horses from American Girl dolls.
He tells me with glee, “There was a pile in the thrift shop, and they were like $2 apiece!”
Turner’s imagination runs wild…His studio has a corner of birds…birds perched on branches…birds in cages…magical deer heads with collaged fabric racks of horns...a hodgepodge of fall-inspired pumpkins with wooden stalks… and my favorites—tapestry cups, saucers and teapots that look like miniature Claes Oldenburg soft sculptures for a Mad Hatter’s tea party.
“I finished a couple of coats this spring. I like making clothing, but it’s an incredible amount of work. During the pandemic I was fortunate to receive several commissions which carried me through the whole lockdown,” he says.
“I don’t usually do commission work, but it was within my purview and what else was I going to do? I made eight different custom lampshades, a jacket, a vest, and shipped a lot of pieces to a boutique in Illinois that represents me. But my passion is to make the creatures.”
You can find many of Turner’s fabulous creatures at his booth at Merchants on Bee, at Marsh & Company on Wilmington Island, downtown at Gold Coast Design (beside Webb Military Museum) and at Instagram.com/smtrovestudios.
The accomplished mixed media artist will also be participating in Marsh & Company’s Holiday Market on Sat., Nov. 13 at St. Andrew’s School, 601 Penn Waller Rd.