Milwaukee artist Khari Turner uses locally sourced water in his paintings


Growing up in Milwaukee, rarely far from Lake Michigan, artist Khari Turner thought about water “all the time”, including its central role in the composition of the human body.

During a residency in Venice, California, he used some water from the Pacific Ocean in a painting.

Then his brain “exploded”.

“What places can I put in there? I can now physically put the real story in the paintings somehow,” he said in an interview at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. , where his works are exhibited.

“If I go to a place where maybe a massacre happened, or maybe a baptism took place, I can put the water in that place in this work and then talk about that space at the same time. weather.”

Milwaukee native Khari Turner exhibits new paintings at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.

“Mirroring Reflection” at MOWA in West Bend brings together 20 of Turner’s recent paintings, which blend abstraction with a realistic depiction of black lips and noses. While he focused on these facial features at first 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 something that matters”.

Plus, given the past two years of mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s surprising, even surprising, to see lips and noses featured rather than hidden.

Turner said he painted “Jackson Pollock style”, with canvases laid flat on tables. Water comes first, he says. “It’s only after the water has set and dried that I start working on color, texture and everything else.”

Incorporating natural water sources is not just a token gesture. The mineral composition of the water in rivers, lakes and oceans affects the paint. Ink dropped into a jar of tap water will scatter and “roughly diffuse”, he said. But ocean water will create crystals and particle effects, Turner noted.

True to his Venice Beach epiphany, Turner 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 Senegal. It also uses water from Lake Michigan, the other Great Lakes, and the Milwaukee River.

Give credit to Lake Valley Camp

Turner, 31, thinks he always knew he wanted to be an artist, although 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 an art specialist.

“It gave me the opportunity to be myself without any type of judgment,” said the artist, who would like to one day create a holistic community center that could include art activities for children as well as a pantry and shelter.

Turner graduated from Brown Deer High School. During the non-summer months, he worked in retail stores and warehouses, their routine softened by his experiences as a Milwaukee Bucks cheerleader and team member for the Rim Rockers.

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 statement on her website. “I paint to bring the stories and stories with images carrying an elegance and chaos that comes with this existence.”

After:Ck Ledesma and Nirmal Raja named artists of the year by the Milwaukee Arts Board

After:‘Anyone can be an artist’: Children are invited to help create a mural at Menomonee Falls Village Park

Contact Jim Higgins at Follow him on Twitter at @jhiggy.

If you are going to

“Khari Turner: Mirroring Reflection” is on view through July 10 at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, 205 Veterans Ave., West Bend. For information, visit or call (262) 334-9638. Khari Turner will give an artist talk at 2 p.m. on June 18 at the museum.


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