Everyone has an ethnic background — it’s what defines us as a culture and as individuals. For some, the ability to celebrate and express their culture is not only a freedom, but also an art and a journey.
Samuel Adu-Poku is an associate professor in art education at Youngstown State University as well as the coordinator of the annual African American History Month Art Show. In the past 10 years, Adu-Poku has collaborated with Victor Wan-Tatah, director of Africana Studies, to give African American artists in the region the opportunity to celebrate their heritage through artwork in an exhibit at the Bliss Hall Gallery.
“Sometimes, these talented African American artists have struggled to gain access to existing traditional American museums and galleries,” Adu-Poku said. “So this project has been a very successful collaborative venture between the [College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences] and [the College of Creative Arts and Communication] to reach out to artists from our minority communities.”
This year the work of local artist Maple Turner III, “The Journey, 1972-2014,” is on display. What sets Turner apart from other artists who have been invited to showcase their work is that he is the only invited solo artist who is a YSU alumnus from Youngstown.
Turner, who first won recognition for his artistic ability while still in high school, was recommended by Al Bright, former YSU professor of painting, and Adu-Poku, who was drawn to his unique style, versatility and skill in multiple mediums — including sculpture, ceramics, textiles and painting.
Turner’s journey began when his father, a retired Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co. foreman, introduced him to Woyo symbolic tribal masks from Africa. The images of nails — spiritual symbols from the Kongo — and birds — representations of freedom — had a great influence on Turner.
Turner also took an interest in ceramics. When sculpting his pieces, Turner placed holes in them before they went into the fire. When the wind blew through the holes in the ceramic works, they created sound.
“When I was in City College [of New York] one semester, I did 65 of them and they were on the table in the ceramic room and we had these gigantic windows and they were old windows, you would open them and the air would just come down and they would just play music,” he said.
After Turner completed East High School in Youngstown, he continued his education in YSU where he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1999. His journey did not end there — it took him to many places, including New York and Paris, France. In Paris, he created a series of French-inspired paintings and upon his return to the U.S., he continued his education at Parsons School of Design, earning his associate degree in fine arts in 2001. Turner returned to New York and completed his Master of Fine Arts degree at City College in 2005.
For some artists, the journey to success is not an easy one. Due to a lack of funds at times, Turner resorted to using unorthodox supplies to give form to his visions.
“When I didn’t have money for art, I took Jell-O that was left from the cafeteria, let it melt and put it on post office white paper, and then I took black paint and scratched it into the image,” he said. “I used mustard, soy sauce, hot sauce [and] blue, red, orange, yellow Jell-O. I used that liquid because I didn’t have money.”
Turner is set to retire, but plans to open an art school. He will continue his journey, sharing his artistic talents with younger artists. His work will be on display in the Bliss Hall Gallery until Feb. 28.