Meet a Mustang: Brooks Turner '08

Brooks, tell us about your journey after graduating from Breck in 2008. How did your Breck education help you to follow your passion in life?

I think Breck really set the stage for my future pursuits. My teachers encouraged my creativity and curiosity and fostered an environment of interdisciplinary thinking. I went to Amherst College after Breck and majored in Art and the History of Art. At Amherst, I found a similar atmosphere in their approach to the liberal arts. I took classes in philosophy, politics, and black studies, which deepened my interest in how art can connect different theories, stories, and world views through aesthetics. After Amherst, I attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for a year before heading to Los Angeles, where I received my MFA in Sculpture from UCLA and met my wife, Tamara. After UCLA, I was commissioned by the artist Charles Ray to write a book about one of his sculptures, and then ended up working for him as a research assistant. Three years ago, Tamara and I moved to Minneapolis, and we just had our first child, a baby girl, in September.

I knew when I was a student at Breck that I wanted to be a teacher—the mentors I had inspired a love of learning and a desire to foster explorative thinking and making. I've been an Adjunct Professor at St. Cloud State University since moving back, and recently was hired to chair a brand-new visual arts program at St. Paul Conservatory of Performing Arts. Teaching is entangled with my art practice—they feed off of each other.

Your new exhibition “Legends and Myths of Ancient Minnesota” opened on October 25th at the Weisman Art Museum. What can you tell us about your work? 

Most of my art projects are interdisciplinary in nature, usually beginning in research and reading. This project really goes back to 2o15 when I first started reading the phenomenology of Martin Heidegger. I found his writing inspiring—as did some of the greatest humanist thinkers of the 20th century—but was deeply disturbed by his affiliation with Nazism. After creating and exhibiting a sculptural installation that attempted to address this contradiction, I met Boris Oicherman, a curator at the Weisman Art Museum (WAM), who asked if I knew of any histories of Naziism in Minnesota. I didn't but couldn't resist investigating. Having grown up here, I was shocked by the depths of Fascism hidden in plain sight.

About two years ago, I started visiting the Minnesota Historical Society and going through archival boxes. The center of my investigation was the Silver Legion of America (AKA Silvershirts), the first American Nazi organization, founded the day after Hitler became Chancellor. While the Silvershirts were based in North Carolina, Minneapolis became a hotspot for Silvershirt organization and public sympathy. The documents I encountered implicated popular Minnesota politicians, academics, and institutions in a web of Fascist ideology and action that was never fully countered.

It's hard to define Fascism; so many different political movements have used this moniker, and so often it is casually hurled as an insult. But, as I looked through those dusty boxes, I started to think that perhaps the failure in defining Fascism was a reliance on language and specific set of tenets—perhaps it is aesthetics that offers the best definition of Fascism.

This project is an artwork, but it's also a proposal on the nature of Fascism through the specificity of Minnesota history. I am interested in how art can be used to stitch together narratives and histories that have evaded—or been erased from—public memory. For WAM, I created a 32-page newspaper composed digitally of drawings and collaged historical documents. The drawings bring to life actual and speculative moments from our history, inviting the reader/viewer into past events that have profound resonance with today. Fascism, locally and globally, is on the rise. I wanted this artwork to present a history of American Fascism to make it easier for Minnesotans—and Americans more generally—to identify Fascism when they see it.

How has your work as an artist changed or adapted due to the pandemic, and have you found ways to be innovative given the circumstances?

The original plan for my exhibition at WAM was to exhibit my digital drawings and collages printed on newspaper alongside the actual documents loaned from the Historical Society. When the pandemic hit, that very quickly became impossible because the MNHS shut down and staff were not available to process the documents. I had already been making these digital drawings and collages for over a year. Boris Oicherman, one of the WAM curators, suggested we try to get my newspaper inserted in the Star Tribune. So we approached them, and they were willing to work with us on the project. I ended up reworking my collages into an "Exhibition-in-Print" that was mailed out to 36,000 subscribers in Minneapolis on October 25th with the regular Sunday Star Tribune. The insert also appeared in the digital edition published on their website.

I actually think that adapting to the pandemic made this work more interesting. Many of the pages in my artwork include newspaper clippings from the 1930s. The content connected past and present through the medium of the newspaper. So many of the news articles that you have to pass in order to get to my insert resonate with the aesthetics of Fascism in my artwork. We were able to reach thousands more people through the insert than if it had just been an exhibition—the Star Tribune estimated that we reached over 100,000 readers. There is also a stack of a few thousand newspapers at the Weisman. As a sculpture it becomes monolithic, but visitors are allowed to take the paper, slowly deconstructing the mass. This became a poetic metaphor for how Fascism is countered--people engaging in small but direct actions to deconstruct a monolith. And even though the museum has closed due to Covid, you can go to WAM's website and order a copy mailed to you.

Do you have any words of advice for our current student or members of the Breck community who are interested in pursuing a career in the arts?

I think I have two suggestions. The first sounds cliche, but be true to your interests and ideas. I think many people might not consider Legends and Myths of Ancient Minnesota to be an artwork in the traditional sense. But I don't think that really matters because it had an impact and I am interested in that interstitial space between art and something else. So, make the kind of art that you want to make, even if it doesn't look like art to people on the outside—not only will you be happier, but you will make better art. The second is to make art part of your everyday routine, whether that's drawing everyday, reading, researching, visiting museums, etc. The more you can integrate art into your life, the more making art will feel like a natural extension of you. For me, this has been essential in developing an art practice—which is necessary in order to have a career in the arts—and I find I am happier with the work I make through this structure.

Brooks can be reached at: https://brooksturner.com/

His artist talk can be found here.

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