Bronze sculptors hundreds of miles apart practice the art of an ancient craft.
By Martha Wessells Steger
Special to the Eastern Shore Post
Whenever I arrive at an out-of-state destination and discover an Eastern Shore connection, I conclude that all roads must lead to my native Eastern Shore. I experienced another occurrence of this geographical phenomenon while visiting Seagrove, N.C., on assignment in early June. Ed Walker, founder-owner of the Carolina Bronze Sculpture Garden and Foundry, not only knew of the Eastern Shore’s renowned bronze sculptor, Dr. William H. Turner, but owned a piece of his work.
Not having been a follower of the art of bronze-making — which dates back at least 5,000 years — I was hooked by the connection between these two bronze artisans several hundred miles apart. Besides being a sculptor, Walker is the owner of what has arguably become the number-one arts foundry on the East Coast, with 20-plus full-time employees and 15,000 square feet of space, including room for other metal sculptors to work. The foundry is a good source for sculptures of all kinds – fabricated, cast, carved, abstract or realistic, ranging in sizes from tabletop to monumental.
Walker enjoys giving free tours as time allows — and I luckily found myself there at the end of his workday. He indulged my interest for an hour-plus tour — not including my walk around the sculpture garden, a certified plant habitat, open to the public free on the foundry’s grounds. With more than 60 bronze sculptures complementing the native plants and trees chosen to attract wildlife, the walking trail, complete with benches and picnic area, loops around a 1.25-acre pond. (Spoiler alert for travelers to this part of North Carolina: The Asheboro area comprises the North Carolina Pottery Trail, a compelling collection of potteries within a 5-mile radius of Seagrove; maps are available at https://discoverseagrove.com/)
Unlike Turner — who, with his son, David, produces wildlife sculptures at their studio and gallery in Onley —Walker’s commissions are abstract as well as figurative, such as the 6-foot bronze Minuteman at Virginia’s National Guard Headquarters in Richmond. He has been commissioned to create a 7-foot statue of the first Black mayor of Lynchburg, Va. — M. Thornhill Jr. to be completed by summer 2023.
Gallery prices in a just-opened, second location (Carolina Bronze East Studios — CB East — 365 Fernandez Loop, Suite 205, Seagrove, NC 27341) range from $15,000 to $20,000 (open by appointment at present). Commissioned works usually cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Pieces of work for sale in the Turner gallery in Onley range from $95 to $180,000 — with commissioned works usually costing a good deal more — a long way from the “$1-a-dozen” mullet William Turner says he remembers catching and selling as a boy growing up on the marshes of Occohannock Creek and the Chesapeake Bay.
Although Turner Sculpture on Route 13 — which has eight employees including the father-son team — doesn’t have a sculpture garden, the expansive facility — a renovated former restaurant building — includes a foundry, gallery, mold room, metal shops, and woodshop, along with storage. Visitors taking a self-guided tour of the gallery see wildlife sculptures ranging from loggerhead turtles and flying geese to a black bear and an African lioness with her cub — which shelf-, wall- and floor-space display.
In 1998 Bill Turner wrote a memoir, “East of the Chesapeake,” about authentic Eastern Shore characters, as well as places and events that helped mold him into the person he became. Turner has a bent for storytelling; Bob Hutchinson at the Norfolk Virginian Pilot pondered, “Are all the stories true? Are they all fiction? Are they a mixture of the two? Does it really matter?”
Turner is well represented in Robin R. Salmon’s book, “Brookgreen Gardens.” The garden comprises 9,100 acres just south of Murrells Inlet, S.C. His artist’s proof of the Great Blue Heron standing on a tree branch with the artist’s usual attention to detail – two lily pads floating at the base of the branch, one supporting a small frog with throat-sac inflated — was Turner’s gift to the gardens after he cast a limited edition of 25 for sale.
Another superb example of Turner’s attention to detail was his completion, in sterling silver, of a bonefish with each scale on the plaster model hand-engraved to ensure clarity in the finished work after it had been cast with no detail in plaster. He presented the sculpture to President George Bush at the White House in 1989.
“Brookgreen Gardens’” biography of Turner explains that the Northampton County native, born in 1935, carved duck decoys and wooden likenesses of the animals he observed; he was building boats and assisting his father in a cabinet-making business by the age of 14.
Turner said in an interview his personal interest in taxidermy was heightened when noted taxidermist and sculptor Robert Henry Rockwell came to live nearby after retiring in 1942 as curator of the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City. Informal study with Rockwell increased Turner’s knowledge of animal anatomy and sparked the desire to make a record of the vanishing American wildlife in sculpture rather than in taxidermy.
He completed a degree in anthropology at the University of Virginia in 1957 but pursued a degree in dentistry from the Medical College of Virginia (1969) to enable him to return to the Eastern Shore and work while pursuing his love of sculpture. He benefited from his relationship with Rockwell until his mentor’s death in 1973.
His initial figures were porcelain ones sold to galleries and major retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Neiman-Marcus, and Cartier. For four years he designed limited-edition wildlife figures for the waterfowl conservation organization, Ducks Unlimited; word also spread about his art through his personal interest in the Nature Conservancy.
By his fifth year of working in porcelain, he made a big decision. “I became disenchanted with the limitations of the porcelain medium,” Turner said, “and I realized I could make much more money doing bronze work.” His first bronze sculpture commission came in 1979 when, after a nationwide search, Anne Morrow Lindbergh asked him to create a memorial to her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh; the life-size bald eagle cast in bronze is at the Lindbergh Museum in Little Falls, Minn. He also designed a medallion featuring the Lindbergh Eagle, presented to recipients of the Charles A. Lindbergh Foundation Award.
In addition to many works in private collections, William Turner — and later collaboratively with son David — has an impressive number of works in public spaces, ranging from the Chicago Botanic Garden to the Collier County Conservancy in Naples, Fla., and the campus of the University of Virginia. The father-son team created, in 1984, School of Lookdown Fish, a species native to the Chesapeake Bay, for the Virginia Marine Science Museum at Virginia Beach, where it was placed in the museum’s reception area.
“Nothing in sculpting wildlife substitutes for hours of observation of living creatures,” Turner said. “Anyone working from photographs limits his perception to what the camera saw – which is one-dimensional.” Although he recommends studying skins or wildlife mounts over images, he sees many young sculptors copying mistakes made by taxidermists.
An active painter as well as sculptor, he supports environmental causes and continues to devote time to wildlife observation. He, like Ed Walker, cautioned that “fired” isn’t the appropriate word for bronze sculptures, which do spend time in a kiln but for the “lost wax” process: That is the method of metal-casting in which molten metal is poured into a mold created by a wax model; once the mold is made, the wax is melted and poured away.