By Gina Malone
Like many artists, sculptor Holly Turner has had to find her own path to creating— and find the time to do it. Drawn to sketching as a child, she saw herself as a children’s book illustrator, a dream that has stayed with her to this day.
She left a college art program when she felt that her own skills were lacking in comparison to those of her fellow students. “I didn’t realize at the time,” she says “that making good art takes more than technical skills. You have to develop your own feel for your artwork, and that takes a lot of time. For me, it has taken more than 20 years and I’m still working on it.”
In pursuit of a hobby one summer in Florida while home from college, she picked up a package of Sculpey polymer clay. “I was hooked from the moment that I started working with it,” she says. “It was addictive to me to try to make human and animal forms with it, and to sculpt expressions onto these little beings.
Fashioning a lump of clay into a thing that looks like it is alive and smiling up at me seemed magical.” Her family had visited Waynesville and, loving the area, Turner moved to a house there in 1993. She worked a variety of jobs including as a lift attendant at Cataloochee Ski Area where she met Jeff Turner who would become her husband.
In 2000, Turner’s parents started a Christian retreat, Mountain Top Experience, in Waynesville and turned it into a nonprofit organization. With her children in school by that time, Turner began helping her father build and develop the retreat. “He taught me to sculpt the land with excavators which is still one of my absolute favorite things to do.” All through the years, however, she continued to sculpt, she says, “in between the duties of everyday life.”
Her father passed away in 2008 and her mother developed Alzheimer’s. Turner now manages the retreat along with its board of directors. “Working amidst nature on the mountain for God’s purpose,” she says, “is absolutely life-inspiring to me.”
She and Jeff have two children: Lindsey, 20, a student at Western Carolina University, and Nick, 17, a senior at Tuscola High School. Lindsey is following in her mother’s footsteps as an artist and plans to become an art teacher. A niece, Missy Dubois, is also an artist. “It’s nice to have a bit of an artist community in our family,” Turner says.
She finds this an exciting time. “I’m at a place in life where I’ve been able to find more time to dedicate to my artwork, in between my work at Mountain Top Experience and being a wife, a mother and a caregiver to my mother. I find that I am enjoying life and the balance of family, the work at the retreat and the intricate nature of sculpting.”
Ideas for sculptures come from everywhere, she says. “I like to sculpt figures to look like they belong in old fairy tales, in a folk art kind of way.”
Her process begins with a block of polymer clay. Using a wooden sculpting tool and her fingers, she starts to shape the clay, beginning most times with the head and face. An armature she makes of wire acts as a skeleton to support the figure. “After the head is attached to the armature, I proceed on down the body, bulking it out with clay. When the basic form is complete and the composition is good, I fine tune it and add details. After many hours, when I am happy with the form, it is ‘fired’ in an oven.” Working with polymer clay requires only a household oven, rather than a kiln. “The polymer clay bakes to a hard, ceramic-like material,” Turner says. “At this point, it can be painted with washes of acrylic paint and sealed with wax.” For the lower parts of the pieces, she often uses found wood—sticks from around her house and driftwood from Lake Junaluska.
Working on a piece, she says, she feels “a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Often I will fall into ‘the zone,’ and just let my hands and subconscious mind decide what to do instead of thinking about it.”
It was her father, Turner says, more than anyone, who taught her lessons about life that helped her become the person and artist she is today. “My father, Martin Haymond, taught me through his actions that if you are going to do something, it is important to do that thing to the best of your ability.”
She is inspired to create, but her creative work also inspires her. “I feel that God has built into each of us abilities and passions, and I am fulfilling one of the purposes for my existence by using my abilities and passions the best way I know how.”