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Growing up in Milwaukee, rarely far from Lake Michigan, artist Khari Turner thought about water "all the time," including its leading role in the composition of human bodies.
While doing a residency in Venice, California, he used a little Pacific Ocean water in a painting.
Then his brain "exploded."
"What locations can I put into this? I can now physically put actual history into the paintings in one way or another," he said during an interview at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, where his artwork is on view.
"if I go to a location where maybe a massacre happened, or maybe a baptism happened, I can put the water in that location in this work, and then talk about that space at the same time."
"Mirroring Reflection" at MOWA in West Bend brings together 20 of Turner's recent paintings, which blend abstraction with realistic depiction of Black lips and noses. While his focus on those facial features began with a different motivation, it became "an opportunity to talk about beauty, or to talk about breath and liveliness … an opportunity to talk about something beautiful, and about something that matters."
Also, given the past two years of mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is surprising, even startling to see lips and noses featured rather than hidden.
Turner said he paints "Jackson Pollock's way," with canvases lying flat on tables. Water comes first, he said. "It's only after the water is set and dry that I start actually working on maybe the color and texture and all that other stuff."
Incorporating natural sources of water is not only a symbolic gesture. The mineral composition of river, lake and ocean water affects paint. Ink dropped into a jar of tap water will disperse and "pretty much diffuse," he said. But ocean water will create crystals and particle effects, Turner noted.
True to his epiphany at Venice Beach, Turner has sourced water from the coast of Virginia, where the first slave ship landed in 1619, and from Alabama, where the remains of the Clotilda, the last slave ship, were discovered along the Mobile River. A friend brought him water from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Senegal. He also uses water from Lake Michigan, the other Great Lakes and the Milwaukee River.
Giving credit to Lake Valley Camp
Turner, 31, thinks he always knew he wanted to be an artist, though he spent time trying to figure out how he could make art without being poor.
A formative experience in his life was the 13 summers he spent as a camper, mentor and counselor at Lake Valley Camp in Boscobel, run by The PEAK Initiative, including two years as the art specialist.
"It gave me an opportunity to be my full self without any type of judgment," said the artist, who would one day like to create a holistic community center that could include art activities for kids as well as a food pantry and shelter.
Turner graduated from Brown Deer High School. During non-summer months, he worked retail and warehouse jobs, their routine alleviated by his experiences as a Milwaukee Bucks cheerleader and member of the Rim Rockers crew.
But Lake Valley galvanized him to go to Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, where he earned his bachelor's degree in fine arts, followed by a master's degree at Columbia University in New York.
"I focus on Black history to celebrate my ancestors for surviving the challenges they faced, not to display their pain," Turner writes in an artist's statement on his website. "I paint to bring the stories and histories with images holding an elegance and chaos that comes with this existence."
If you go
"Khari Turner: Mirroring Reflection" is on view through July 10 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. For information, visit wisconsinart.org or call (262) 334-9638. Khari Turner will give an artist talk at 2 p.m. June 18 at the museum.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee artist Khari Turner uses locally sourced water in paintings