On March 13, 2024, NOW Art Founder Carmen Zella sat down with artist Elizabeth Turk for a live conversation about public art on Instagram (@nowart_la). We’ve been having a blast chatting with our favorite arts leaders and artists in Los Angeles, and we hope you’ll join us for future talks. RSVP here.

Below is a transcript of the video:

Carmen Zella (CZ): Hi everyone, thanks for tuning in again to another one of our live IG talks. I’m here with Elizabeth Turk, who is a phenomenal artist, and I’m excited about the talk tonight so that you guys can have an opportunity to hear from her, learn more about her. As we go through the conversation and the talk, I’m just going to keep letting you know that you can put any questions in the chat that you have for Elizabeth as we’re going through the talk so I’m going to grab my bubbly and scooch down on the couch with Elizabeth. 

Elizabeth Turk (ET): And I’ll do the same!

CZ: Yeah. Cheers. 

ET: Cheers. Thank you Carmen. This is such a nice pleasure. 

CZ: Yeah, it feels like a Friday or a Monday, but we’re just in the middle of the week. Happy middle of the week, everyone!  

ET: I wish it were Friday. 

CZ: I know, right? So, Elizabeth, I wanted to start off with just, you know, tell us a little bit about who Elizabeth Turk is – the artist, the background, the little bit of bio.

ET: Yeah, yeah. So, I’m a native Southern California gal. I went to the Claremont colleges and thought I would study something as far away from art as possible because I love making art – It’s always been my safe place – and to create a career or business out of it seemed like that would be asking for torment my whole life. It seemed like such a, I don’t know, a brutal space to live in. But then I went and tried a few other things and just completely failed – including getting married – like, there was no way out. And so I ended up always running back to art because it was how I wanted to spend my time. I think that’s always been the case. In the most difficult times of my life, I’ve run to art. Anyway, so then, my family, I have the opposite story. My family all said, “Oh, finally, you’re going to try and be an artist.” Yeah, so I was lucky to have the reverse story of a real supportive parent influence, which was huge. Because it’s hard to get started.

So, fast forward, eventually went to graduate school. And then up to New York and started this pretty traditional studio practice, sculpture. And that eventually has become larger and larger and has expanded into the development of the non-profit and experiential work. So, it’s been a long sort of, challenge, journey, I guess. 

CZ: So you didn’t start off in sculpture or did you start off in sculpture when you decided to make the leap into an art career? 

ET: I was working, I was actually working in DC and somebody gave me – a friend of mine – gave me sculpting wax, and I started just messing around doing small figures and selling them in my office and to other lobbyists. 

And that kind of gave me enough money to start understanding bronze and then metal. And then I went to graduate school. So it was circuitous, but it was always sculpture. I felt more confident in the human interaction with space, I think. 

CZ: And molding something that’s 3D in space. 

ET: Yeah. It also is therapeutic, I think. At least for me, it’s more therapeutic than drawing. Somehow there’s a magic to it and a physicality that I really like. 

CZ: And so what are the, what’s the mediums that you’re working in now? Can you tell us a little bit about…? 

ET: One of my biggest projects right now is really exciting because it’s out in Claremont and it’s a plaza project.

It’s called Suspended Meditation. And it’s an intersection of what I like to call an image of disruption. So it’s a limestone that was carved by water. And then the interior I’ve carved out and made to look almost like a root structure. But the inspiration came from Edgerton photographs of the atomic explosion. 

And it is suspended over an infinity pond. And so the reflection, I mean, we spent almost a year looking at lights to manifest this reflection of…so the reflection was as real as the stone itself. 

CZ: How large is the stone? 

ET: The stone itself, probably three to four feet. So, you know, circular. The pond about five feet, a little bit more than five feet in diameter. And then the masts that go up and hold it will suspend it, probably about 16 feet. Just so it has a dangling line and hopefully you just see the line when you walk out of this, the building. 

CZ: Wow. Is it in a plaza or? 

ET: It’s in a plaza. Yeah. The trees sort of hide the armature, you know, the masts of the piece. I’m excited to get that off the ground, but they’re right now –

CZ: Literally off the ground!

ET: Literally! Yes! They’re building the pond and pouring for the masts this week. 

CZ: Oh my gosh, amazing. So your work is so…it starts off with weight and mass, a lot of the pieces that I’ve seen in terms of sculptural. And then you create, like you basically thread out a lot of the mass from these stones, and then what ends up happening is that they look almost weightless, or like you change the structure without changing the structure.

It’s so exquisite, your work, it’s just absolutely so beautiful. And I wonder, have you ever gone…how do you make sure that the stone doesn’t break? Because in terms of it being therapeutic, it seems like it must take such a delicate touch to not go into, like, one of the threads or, you know.

ET: At the end, it’s not as therapeutic. It’s more therapeutic at the beginning. Although with stone, there’s always more space. But I always like the analogy, it’s just like people. If you come in directing exactly what you want to do, how the relationship is going to be is, if you come in with your heavy boots, there’s no friendship that will develop.

It’s the same with stone. If you go in exactly this is how it’s going to be, you can’t take it to the extreme because you’ll create fractures, bruising as they call it, bruising on the interior – that enters too far, you know, and it weakens the structure on the inside. So for me, I look at it as a lattice, really.

So there are a lot of points where the structure can hold itself. And then you can decide, once you decide up, down, you know, which direction that’s going to hold the weight, you can decide how light you’re going to make the surfaces. But I wanted…the goal is really to have a conversation with gravity.

CZ: So you’re not predetermining your sculptures necessarily? 

ET: No, it’s such extreme carving that you have to work around weaknesses that you find that are integrated into the stone itself, part of its own property, because it’s not consistent like steel or other, or aluminum, or other materials that are easily milled.

CZ: So how do you select your…

ET: All the stone is… 

CZ: How do you swipe left and right?! 

ET: It’s all on purpose. I work at my studio, it’s incredible. It’s in the middle of a marble yard and has been that way for about, over, almost 20 years. So I use all the reclaimed pieces. It started off that there was a great story from the stone that I used originally, and I just liked that.

I liked that stone was beautiful, that it was natural, that people were discarding it as if it had no value or essence that could move us. And so I liked picking the discarded pieces. So, the one body of work, the Script body of work, were carved all out of the Getty discarded marble bases.

So they were quarried in the seventies and then kind of around LA and I’ve left little bits and pieces of why or how they were used previously in the sculptures that I made. So they have this layered history, much of these pieces. 

CZ: So speaking about impact and sort of like concepts, let’s segue a little bit into more of your experiential public artwork that you’ve been doing.

So tell us about the journey of how you got from working as a sculpture artist in stone to what propelled you into more like activations. 

ET: It’s interesting. There are many threads that are thoroughfare. I think the first is stone is materiality, really, just like we are. It’s so easily forgotten just what a material being we are.

So I always gravitate towards stone scenarios and I kept thinking about Zen gardens and the placement of not only the gravel, but the stones that create that concept and the idea of seeing everyone in totality from above. So that was one thoroughfare or bridge into doing experiential art, or two, I guess. And then another one was, was the idea of kind of creating a stage where you’re kind of balancing on a border.

You’re having a conversation that you maybe didn’t think through. It comes from your soul. And that’s a lot of my marble sculptures. You don’t realize that they’re stone. You approach them as if they’re not stone. So, it’s kind of, I love that place where a border is a paradox. Where emptiness defines weight.

You know, or weight, like there’s something really interesting. So, when I jumped into experiential art, I wanted people to become a part of the project, non-artists becoming performers, etc. before they are inhibited by self doubt. Like they’re already in it and having a good time before they realize that they are performing actually.

And so creating a stage on the parameters, really, of the Zen Garden, I thought maybe I can do that, where people are balancing on that edge and interacting materially first. I don’t know. Does that make sense? 

CZ: It does. Yeah.

ET: Because many people say like, are always asking, this marble doesn’t look at all like Shoreline Project or Ridgeline, but yet if you see the drawings and the conceptual evolution, they’re very, very integrated.

CZ: Wow, that’s extraordinary. So tell me a little bit, so just explain to the viewers what Shoreline and Ridgeline is. And then I have a book about the Ridgeline project, which I’ll just flash some images, but yeah, I’d love to hear. 

ET: Well in 2018, I just decided that I needed to get out of the studio. And although I love to speak through objects, there needed to be a faster, more, I don’t know, momentary interaction with art making. And I wanted to bring more people into art because I so believe that in creativity, we always face challenges optimistically and we actually get charged that, when we ladder up ideas, it’s this, that, and I wanted to try and bring that to people that didn’t think of themselves as being creative. And so we created this non-profit so I could make a project that was something to be proud to be a part of and then to gift the props, which are these really cool, weird umbrellas.

CZ: They’re not weird, they’re phenomenal umbrellas! I’ll show a picture of them. 

ET: But we wanted to be able to film dispersal patterns and we hope to be able to collect images of people using the umbrellas out in life later on, that these would have a wonderful life outside of ourselves.

And that when you met somebody with one of these umbrellas, then you would know that you had had this intimate relationship with a thousand other people creating these really beautiful images together. Because the patterns that people make, as they realize that the drones are filming them at different heights – they’re blooming flowers, or they’re spinning, or they’re following one another. And they look like moving constellations. They’re just stunning. 

CZ: So how long does the activation happen? Tell me about how it’s orchestrated? 

ET: We’ll spend about a year, sometimes more, actually more, pulling it all together, but then the event is – 

CZ: Developing the props? Do you have choreographers as well? 

ET: We’ve been working with the Assembly Dance Company for years and she has done – Lara Wilson – has done outreach to other dance groups, but we go from the most professional to the local dance studios, which has been fantastic. And we’ll give them umbrellas first so they can practice.

And then they’ll be embedded throughout the group, the larger group, so that people understand like to open and close their umbrella or just to get a few ideas. 

CZ: So the first one was Shoreline, correct? And that was in Laguna Beach? 

ET: It was on Laguna Beach, yeah. 

CZ: And what year was that?

ET: 2018. 

CZ: And then since then, that was such a huge…so I live adjacent to Laguna Beach, and I actually have one of the umbrellas. And so I, you know, whenever I walk at night or whatever, with this lit up umbrella, the amount of people in the community that recognize it and they say, “Oh my gosh, I was there.”

And we just, it’s like this conversation piece. It’s totally extraordinary, but it’s a gorgeous umbrella. I mean, these are not, sort of like, toss away items. They’re real keepsakes. And so I love the fact that you’re gifting people like this beautiful object. 

ET: And I sign and number all of them. 

CZ: Ah! I want to see what edition…

ET: They also have the image on the top – is a whole nother story because they’re x-rays of seashells. And as a kid, as a Southern California kid, we went down and collected seashells and I think everybody in my generation is just so heartbroken that we would fill a globe with seashells because they were so beautiful.

And so it was also my way of bringing back to the coastline that which I took away. And also understanding it more. So, I wanted that conversation to grow as people went to the event, and it was like sunset for about an hour, maximum. Ran around with their lit umbrella, and then the next morning we sent out films of kind of an edited version of a few minutes of everybody doing what they did, so that they can see themselves as this total group.

CZ: So where can we find the Shoreline information and Ridgeline information?

ET: On the website, etprojects.foundation. And you can see all the different projects that we’ve done and pretty soon, next November, we have another one coming. It’s called Invisible Skies. 

CZ: I’m so excited to talk to you about it.

ET: It is so cool. It’s going to be so cool. I can’t reveal the venue yet. But it is in Orange County, and so actually we’re hoping to do two projects for Invisible Skies. But they’re iconic. We always look for an iconic place. So that the participatory, the day of experience, is really fun and interesting.

And then, so that the footage afterwards can be seen on…our goal is to have it seen on billboards. And we want it to be recognizable. 

CZ: So is the end product of these activations the video, would you say?  

ET: I think there are two. I think the end…it’s the igniting creativity and community and just a weird participatory event that you don’t even know how you get bound into.

And then you have this unusual time. So that’s one. Then the second one is the goal of doing takeovers of basically public space – that public space that’s been infiltrated with advertising. I really want these up on those walls for a while so people can recognize themselves, their umbrella, their community, in that space, in the billboard space.

And we’re just getting to the point where we actually have enough footage to make it an interesting several minutes or less, we’ll see. We did a test run in Times Square this fall. That was so much fun. It was really cool. 

CZ: So all the billboards in Times Square?

ET: Not all the billboards yet. We just did one because I wanted to test our editing and our resolution. So, yeah, so we just did one.

CZ: There’s that organization that does the…

ET: Yes, Times Square Alliance. They are my goal as we accumulate all the footage from all these different communities. 

CZ: And we have to do it here too. 

ET: I would love to do it. Yes. Through CODAworx, I’ve met Paul England. And the downtown LA area has really developed a cool billboard passageway where you can have that interaction. So, yes, that’s definitely on our radar. 

CZ: And West Hollywood as well.  

ET: You tell me! 

CZ: Yeah, yeah, we’ll be talking. So, I’m going to check to see if there’s any questions or comments. Sorry everyone if I put my face really close to the screen. Okay, so there’s no questions right now, but oh, there’s Richard. Hi! 

So, Elizabeth, just to sort of finish off, is there anything that you wanted to share about public art, you as an artist, any takeaways that you’ve had as kind of like, takeaways of why people should do public art or what your personal experience has been or thoughts about the future of public art?

ET: Yeah, I think right now the arts are in such an exciting time. It’s so gratifying to see the leaps and bounds that public art is taking for the space in between, you know, in so many ways. It’s not the “pop” art that it was back in the day. It’s so expansive – from the intimate to the overwhelmingly huge.

And I just love everybody that I meet, and I mean, it’s like a drug. Everybody in that art space is excited about the work that they’re trying to do. And they meet amazing, overwhelming challenges every single time. And you always want to know, well, okay, how did you deal with this or that?

And everybody seems to be so open in the public art space. It’s shaping itself. It feels like a good version of the Wild West in a certain way. Because it encompasses a palette of just about everything, you know, that you can…for me, I can come from the stone, very traditional hard, you know, where you need to hire trucks to move anything, to this world of light and I can just put it in a USB drive and it’s impactful.

And I think one of the biggest rewards was working with the retirement communities during COVID and seeing the impact of joy and all the good things that we forget about in the frenzy of it all right now. So, I don’t know, I think maybe I digress a little bit, but… 

CZ: No, I think you’re hitting the nail on the head because I feel that we just need to reinforce, like we need to share our experiences with public art more and just continue to carve out, really, like a path forward for the future and the work that you’re doing is really a part of that. So I’m very excited about your next…because sometimes when you do your first public art activation, and yours had how many people?  

ET: We had a thousand participants and we had, we ended up guessing by photography, there were about 4,000 people because the great thing about Shoreline was that we had the cliff. So people were looking down at the event and that was kind of what originally we had envisioned, bringing the Pacific rim together. But COVID got in the way. So that each event was really a performance, kind of changing the idea of stage so that everybody could view and everybody was audience and performer, but you could view from the cliff. So in a way, people became audience. I mean, the audience became participants in some ways. And I heard a lot of stories of people walking out and gifting their umbrella to onlookers and then they were running down to participate, which made me feel all the more amazed and like something happened there.

CZ: And the response from the public is just so overwhelming, right. And so like, the level of appreciation and yeah. 

ET: And it’s lived on. Every once in a while I’ll get umbrellas, stories of umbrellas, but photographs of people, like you said, bumping into one another or it diffusing – there was one of my favorite stories, I told you that in that talk, was diffusing a car accident situation because there was a Shoreline umbrella and they all happened to have been there. And so, it just was a vehicle for conversation. And I think public art has that possibility. It can interrupt you like nature, the solstice can, and bring you together in an unexpected way. I just love that. Sounds kind of Pollyanna, but I guess because we’re so inundated with everything else, but it’s a really wonderful space to work in.  

CZ: I love it. Thank you everybody so much for tuning in and the amazing Elizabeth Turk. We are going to be posting the full length of this IG live in case you only popped in or popped in momentarily. 

And yeah, thank you all so much for participating and joining. 

ET: Thank you, Carmen. This is so nice. Thank you so much for the opportunity. Lovely. 

CZ: Alright, well tune in two weeks from now, Wednesday. Bye.