Turner, Janet Elizabeth (1914–1988)

By: Kendall Curlee

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 1995

Janet Elizabeth Turner, artist and teacher, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 7, 1914, to James Ernest and Hortense Turner. She developed a love of the outdoors through nature studies at summer camps and botany classes in high school. While studying Far Eastern history at Stanford University she became interested in art and took a few basic art classes. After graduating with distinction in 1936 she visited the Orient, where she was exposed to Eastern printmaking. Upon her return she enrolled in the Kansas City Art Institute. For the next five years she studied under regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton. Turner followed his practice of methodical preparation throughout her career; she made clay models for some works and preliminary sketches so detailed that they were sold as finished compositions. Upon receiving her diploma in 1941, she returned to the West Coast. There she taught art at the Girls' Collegiate School and studied painting under Millard Sheets and Henry McFee at Claremont College, where she earned a master of fine arts degree in 1947. At Claremont she worked to develop her own style. Her initial efforts in oil were unsuccessful, and she soon switched to an egg tempera medium. Although her early works defer to Benton's regionalist style, her close-up examinations such subjects as Sweet Corn (1947) and The Duck (1947) presage the detailed studies of animal and plant life characteristic of her mature work.

In 1947 Turner accepted a position teaching art at Stephen F. Austin State College in Nacogdoches, Texas, a post she held until 1956. During this period she began to experiment with printmaking and exhibited her work extensively. In tempera works such as Wash Day (1949), On the Banks of Yellow Waters (1950) and Peach Tree Politics (1953) she adapted Benton's style to East Texas subject matter. She also meticulously catalogued deteriorating buildings in paintings that she termed "constructions." Her mature style, however, came into focus in printmaking. In 1948 she began to produce prints on a small press owned by the college. Her earliest prints, produced with multiple linoleum blocks, present Texas wildlife in minute detail. As Turner's style developed, certain characteristics emerged. Her compositions frequently fill the picture plane, with pictorial elements cropped at the edges. Repeated motifs such as a bird's bill or the twining branches of a tree create a complex rhythm that draws the viewer into the picture. In experimenting with such graphic techniques as lithography, serigraphy, etching, and relief printing (woodcuts and linocuts), she capitalized on the intrinsic qualities of the methods she used. In Study of Monkey, for example, she used the graininess characteristic of lithography to suggest the velvety texture of animal fur; in Picking Cotton (1954) the sharp, black and white contrast of the scratchboard medium evoked the harshness of the sun's glare. When working in color Turner favored muted gray, green, and fawn colors to accentuate the varied textures created by the printing process; her monochromatic color schemes also served to unify her active compositions. She frequently used natural forms to express man's relationship to others and to his environment symbolically. In her 1952 linocut Guinea Fowl (the Climbing Conformist), for example, birds vie for the uppermost part of the tree in a competition clarified by the painting's subtitle.

Turner exhibited her work throughout the state and participated in exhibitions sponsored by the Texas Fine Arts Association (1948–52, 1954–55), the Southwest Printmakers' Exhibition (1948, 1950–51), the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (1949), the Wichita Art Association (1950, 1953), and the Texas Watercolor Society (1952–53). On the national level she exhibited with the National Association of Women Artists (1950–52), Northwest Printmakers (1952, 1954), and the Society of American Graphic Artists (1952–55, 1957), among others. Her work was included in the Ninth National Exhibition at the Library of Congress in Washington (1951), and in two exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York-American Painting Today (1950) and Watercolors and Prints (1952). She also exhibited her work in various exhibitions at the National Academy of Design in New York City. In 1952 she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship that enabled her to experiment in combining serigraph and linocut techniques to depict the vegetation and animals of the Texas Gulf Coast. The combination linoleum block and serigraph became the technique for which Turner was best known. In 1954 she illustrated Frank E. Smith's book The Yazoo with seventeen scratchboard drawings, the originals of which are now in the Special Collections department of the Steen Library at Stephen F. Austin State University.

Turner left Texas in 1956 to attend Columbia University, where she was awarded a doctorate in education in 1960. From 1959 until her retirement in 1983 she taught art at California State University in Chico. The California landscape, supplemented by classes she took in ornithology and natural history, provided a wealth of material for her printmaking. Her reputation continued to grow as she exhibited her work internationally; her prints were included in exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Accademia Leonardo da Vinci in Rome, the Fourth International Bordighera Biennale in Italy, and graphic exhibitions in Yugoslavia, Belgium, Panama, and Tokyo. In 1975 she was corecipient of the California State University System's Outstanding Professor Award. She became professor emeritus in 1980. At the time of her retirement she had exhibited her work in more than forty countries around the world and had more than 200 solo exhibitions to her credit. She was a member of many professional organizations, notably the National Serigraph Society, in which she served as president (1957–59) and vice president (1959–62). Janet Turner died on June 28, 1988. Her work is included in the collections of the Dallas Museum of Art; the Museum of East Texas, Lufkin; the Library of Congress, Washington; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City; the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Visit the Texas Women Project's standalone website

The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.

Visit Website
Marianne Berardi, Under the Influence: The Students of Thomas Hart Benton (St. Joseph, Missouri: Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, 1993). Barbara Edmonson, "Janet Turner: A Sister's Remembrance of the Artist," Diggin's 33 (Chico, California: Butte County Historical Society, 1989). C. S. Felver et al., eds., Janet Turner, 1914–1988 (Chico, California: Chico Museum, 1989). Ann Fischer, The Art of Janet Turner (M.A. thesis, California State University at Chico, 1975). William Krause, Janet Turner (Lufkin, Texas: Museum of East Texas, 1989). James McManus, ed., Janet Turner: Selected Works, 1948–1983 (Chico: University Art Gallery, California State University, 1983). Time, June 30, 1952. Who's Who in American Art.
  • Education
  • Educators
  • Art and Architecture
  • Visual Arts
  • Printing
  • Printmaking
  • Women

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Kendall Curlee, “Turner, Janet Elizabeth,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/turner-janet-elizabeth.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: