PURE DETROIT — Chris Turner grew up on the west side of Detroit. He won't begin to touch on his childhood, but he will speak openly about his 16+ years doing "the art thang" in the city of Detroit as both a painter and sculptor (along with dabbling in a slew of other mediums). He has been commissioned to do massive public art installations for the city of Detroit. He has attempted to sell drug paraphernalia as artwork to Vice. He has seen the city change for better and for worse, but is quick to acknowledge that today — at this very moment — there is a ridiculous amount happening in the city for the positive.
We briefly spoke with Turner at his Cass Corridor studio (where we can attest to some of the magnificent work he'll be unveiling in the next few months) about the changing Detroit arts scene and the delicate relationship between making art and having that art make you money.
PURE DETROIT: You work in a multitude of mediums.
CHRIS TURNER: I work in metals, architectural work, some paintings, collage installation, furniture, even some structural steel. I dabble around, you know? Even a little bit of photography and that schmittle bittle type stuff.
PD: And it seems you’re a bit skeptical of digital media.
CT: Well, I apologize for that. It is what it is. I’m still getting used to it, you know?
PD: Do you think all of the diversification of your mediums is a natural progression or is that more about having to branch out to make a living?
CT: It’s a natural progression. Actually now, I’m coming to realize it is a duality. It didn’t mean the latter until the last couple of years. The making a living thing is on the outside, but I started off in metal work. You meet other artists with like minds and these are people that work in many different mediums. I get the same thing from them that they get from me, you know? And then we get to have that friendship thing (laughs).
PD: Doing it for 16 years, do you ever find yourself playing a mentor role to younger artists?
CT: Not by choice, but that has happened quite a bit. I’m trying not to do that so much. People have to learn on their own. That’s the only way there is any value to learning.
PD: What changes have you seen in the artistic climate in Detroit since when you began to now?
CT: There is a lot more attention being paid to local art and ideas. There is definitely a new influx and generation of people doing things, which is cool. There are more endowments, grants and things being thrown around, too. Those are definitely three things that weren’t really happening ten years ago.
PD: One could argue that the opportunity with the Millenium Bell, those types of grand scale art projects seem a bit more far and few between.
CT: Those things come once and a great while, but they do come. They are not always put out there for public consumption. For as much as I am informed about, there is probably three times as much that I’m not hip to. Sometimes, those public commissions are years in the making. While we are sitting here talking, there is already shit going down. When it comes to public commissions, it depends on who is pushing for it and whose listening and who knows you besides, like, who you know. That whole 'who you know' thing is bullshit. It’s about who knows you.
PD: What is your take on the idea of more institutions flooding money into the art world?
CT: Simply put, it takes money to make those things. The artists get paid after the work is finished. That money puts artists reputation on the line because they have to produce, they have to produce the piece that, at the end of the day, someone paid for. Everything changes when someone's money comes into the picture. You have to be a good artist, sure, but you've also got to manage a budget that isn't your own to create something that is totally your own. Sometimes, the artists get away with making a good coin, but it’s not close to what the public perception is of that. Because if it was, I’d be a fucking millionaire.
PD: We were talking about the idea of Detroit receiving all of this media and love and it’s attracting a lot of people. But everything comes in cycles and, at some point, the limelight will fade. Is Detroit’s re-birth through the arts a fad or a lasting ideal?
CT: I wouldn’t say fad. There is a lot going on — film, music, art, writing, visuals. It’s hot right now, but if it hasn’t ended yet, I would advise not to sit around talking about the end and just keep going on. It’s defeatist to think about the end. It fucks with what you are making and what you are trying to create. I always thought, you know, that things come and go and that nothing is permanent. But you have to deal with your own truth and not try to commit or get wrapped up in all of this attention and love and have it be your end all, be all. I dig it, but I’m not trying to be all about it either.
PD: Have any opportunites come knocking on your door?
CT: Yeah, kind of. There are many things in the works from perspective public art stuff to paintings and installations and stuff like that.
PD: One thing that you are wrapping up is the narration of an upcoming documentary about Detroit.
CT: It’s a mockumentary about abandoned land in the city — like the Belle Isle Zoo — and how those lands and structures are being taken back over by nature. Plants that weren’t there before start appearing again. Wild life that you didn’t see before because it was kept zoo are starting to come back … and how those types of environments relate to the DMZ in Korea and the space between east and west Berlin. I’m doing the voice over for this project. They liked how I sounded, so that’s what I have to add to it. My job is to do the best narration I can.
I don’t have a title. I don’t know much else about it. They are keeping that information from me, but I can tell you that it will be cool. It’ll be a lot of nature. It’ll be a lot of visuals you can identify with. In between your giggles, you’ll be hearing my voice and learning a thing or two (laughs).
PD: Ah, yes. The flora and fauna of Detroit's nature.
CT: Yeah! That was in the script. How'd you know? | PD