The Mystifying Marble of Elizabeth Turk

Elizabeth Turk's gravity defying sculptures test the limits of her medium's fragility.

Elizabeth Turk: I think I am a little obsessive. I mean, I must be. Look at this work! It's ridiculous. Who in their right mind would do that?

Elizabeth Turk's marble sculptures seem to exist at the very edge of gravity. She coaxes her delicate material to such extremes by moving slowly and listening.

Turk: It's a conversation. You walk in with a concept, and you might get a certain distance. And then you notice there are...you know, a bubble stream. Or it's an organic material, so there are inconsistencies. And that's the best part about it. You can't go in with a singular idea or a singular intention. It pushes back.

This MacArthur Genius award winner has proven well up to the challenge. In 1996, after getting an MFA in metalwork, she was placed in a group show alongside the legendary French sculptor, Louise Bourgeois. Turk both felt driven to leave her own artistic mark and to find a new medium. Living in Washington, D.C., she didn't have to look far for material inspiration. A leftover chunk of marble from the Lincoln Memorial became Turk's first sculpture. She would experiment for the next five years before she reached a turning point with her Colors series.

Turk: Those pieces were started right before 9/11, and they didn't become extreme until that event happened, because nothing really mattered. It didn't matter if I pushed them to an extreme, and they broke. It was more a soothing process, that was, in some ways, a way of protest of something that was so large, so loud, so aggressive. The more I walk down that path, the more fragile, the more, kind of, intimate they became, the more extreme they became. Will something hold together when you strip everything away? That's what I'm looking for.

But for all her meticulous effort, Turk is surprisingly comfortable with surrendering control. She routinely offers up her sculptures to Mother Nature's scrutiny.

Turk: I truly thought that the first of the collars were going to break, and that the art itself would be the video of watching that matrix fall apart. But then, it held together, so that made it all the more cool. But the change of context incited the idea of letting go and letting something larger than yourself start to shape it further. You can start to see where the salt water found imperfections, popped out some of the crystals—things like that. And it's cool. I like that.

But it's not only nature that's left a mark on Turk's sculptures.

Turk: The first column, it was lying on a table, and I got a phone call from my mom that my dad had cancer. And I stepped back, and I hit the tip of it. It's the first piece that I broke. And I kept those cracks there, because it will always remind me of that moment, and I can feel it. It was significant. It shaped it. It shaped that whole piece. I think that's what adds...it's what adds to all of us. I don't want a shiny, perfect item out there, because that's not our life. Nobody's like that.

Not to imply that Elizabeth Turk's process doesn't involve precision, skill, and plenty of forethought.

Turk: I have a piece of paper. And half of it is an enormous to-do list, and the other half is sort of an analysis of associative thought. Like, "Why am I doing this?" The "where is it going?" The complete delve into structure. "How far can I go with this? Where does gravity end? Why is the shape of gravity consistent? Is it consistent? Where's the tipping point? Where's the boundary in that? What makes it more interesting? Do you see first the line that I'm leaving, or do you see what's not there?"

And that is the essence of Elizabeth Turk—the paradox of presence and absence.

For the full experience, watch the video at the top of the page.