A thriving career in black artwork

November 15, 1991|By Monica Norton | Monica Norton,Evening Sun Staff

WHEN BETH Turpin retired from her job with the federal government in 1975, she said she wanted to find something to occupy her time.

What Turpin found was a second full-time career: Beth's Art Studio. And, in the space of about 10 years, the Pikesville resident and artist has been increasingly in demand.

Turpin's works hang in the chambers of five Baltimore City judges as well as several area homes. She frequently gives showings for sororities and fraternities, the NAACP and the Links social-service club. Her folk-style paintings, which frequently depict 19th century blacks engaged in everyday activities, recently were on display in her native Washington at a black collectibles show. Next month, she'll be exhibiting and selling her paintings at the Eubie Blake Cultural Arts Center on Charles Street in Baltimore.

Turpin never expected her "hobby" to turn into business. She says painting was just something she had done all her life.

"I studied painting at Howard University when I was younger," says Turpin, who does not reveal her age. "I was the only woman in the class. At that time it was pretty unusual for a woman to be studying art, and the teachers made it clear they did not think I would make it.

"Then, I studied art at the University of Massachusetts. But I never really had the chance to pursue it. I started working. I got married. I had children. There really just wasn't the time [to paint]," she adds.

Turpin continued to live in Boston -- working and raising her family. When she was finally able to retire from her job with the Department of Labor, Turpin went back to her art -- this time as a teacher. She taught batik and other art forms to evening students at her alma mater. Later, after she moved back to Washington, and eventually to Pikesville to be closer to her children, Turpin says, she began painting pictures of flowers and outdoor scenes for recreation.

But during the early 1980s, friends made a request of her that changed the entire focus of her work.

"My friends started asking me, 'Don't you have any black artwork', " Turpin says. "Now, this was about 10 years ago and black artwork was just beginning to be accepted into people's homes."

For her friends, she began painting the images that she is known for today. Her first painting, "Sunday Morning," depicts blacks in 19th century clothing on their way to church. Hats adorn the women, bows are in the hair of the young girls, and men and boys are neatly dressed. The painting proved so popular that she's made it countless times, sometimes different in size or in the number of people depicted. However, the vibrant colors and theme remain the same.

"I chose a church scene because this was a time when the church was the focal point of black life," Turpin says. "I think that's part of its appeal. People want to have that type of focus again."

Emphasizing the church's role in black life also led Turpin to paint a group of black children viewing "Sunday Morning" in a museum.

Turpin, who uses acrylics, also has taken some scenes from popular books, movies and television shows and placed them on canvas. One of her paintings came about from a description in Alice Walker's book "The Color Purple." It shows two young girls playing in a field of lilac and purple flowers.

Another painting derived from the television miniseries "Roots." Turpin painted a scene from the movie where enslaved African Kunta Kinte holds his daughter up to the star-filled sky on a moonlit night.

"Most of my ideas come from people," Turpin says. "I had one woman from Oklahoma call me and ask if I had any paintings of a pea picker. I said, 'Pea picker?' And she told me she wanted a picture show ing how the older people in the South used to sit down in a rocking chair and shell peas.

"Well, I took a painting I already had of a woman sitting in a rocking chair braiding her daughter's hair, and used that as my model," she adds.

Turpin says she often spends time at the library leafing through books to come up with a picture of 19th century life for blacks in America. But her painting is not limited to black life, she says. She also paints pictures of Asians and South Africans.

Usually, Turpin says, she paints every day. She has to because the orders steadily come in. Depending upon its size, a painting usually takes about a day to complete, Turpin says. Once she paints the background, all that remains is to sketch and then paint her characters.

"When my kids were young -- [she has three] -- I didn't have the time to paint," Turpin says. "It's only now that I have the time that I can devote so much time to it.

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