The perennial question of whether a craft can be art is one that Robert Chapman Turner wrestled with for many years. Should a piece of pottery be purely functional, made in a “production” shop, or can it be something else? He recalled that around 1965, “I was floundering, even though I liked some of the big pieces I was making.” As his career evolved and he became acquainted with pottery from the American Southwest and Africa, he determined that pieces made from clay can indeed be works of art.

Turner was born in Port Washington on the north shore of Long Island, New York. His father owned Turner Construction Co., which was among the first to use steel-reinforced concrete as a building material. Studying economics, he graduated from Swarthmore College in 1936. Changing gears, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to study painting, earning William Emlen Cresson Memorial Traveling Scholarships in 1939 and 1940, allowing him to study in Europe, Mexico, and the Southwest. During World War II, Turner, as a Quaker, was a conscientious objector and non-combatant who was assigned to the Civilian Public Service, with stints at a forestry conservation camp and a hospital for developmentally disabled patients. With a family to support, and using the GI Bill, he redirected his interests again and went to the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University in western New York state, receiving a master of fine arts degree in 1949.

Following graduation, between 1949 and 1951 he held his first teaching position at Black Mountain College in western North Carolina, where he established the ceramics program. Even though Josef Albers believed that the study of materials was critical for artists, he did not favor the teaching of ceramics because he thought clay was too malleable and too easily abused. By 1949 Albers was no longer at the school, which Turner described as “a strange but special place to start a family. Black Mountain was a microcosm of the ‘50s with the happenings staged there and the anticipation of social unrest. All kinds of things that came with Black Mountain eventually affected my work—Abstract Expressionism, yogurt on the stove, social action.” He further recalled how John Cage “pulled silence into his music,” and how Merce Cunningham “created dance from observing how people pass each other coming out of the subway.” After he left Black Mountain College, Karen Karnes and her husband David Weinrib became the potters-in-residence in the fall of October 1952.

After two years, Turner returned to Alfred, New York and worked as a studio potter before returning to his alma mater, teaching at Alfred University and serving twice as chairman of the School of Art and Design. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin. Summers were often spent in Aspen, Colorado, at the Anderson Ranch, or at Penland School of Crafts in western North Carolina beginning in 1969. Upon his retirement ten years later, Turner began to spend winters in Santa Fe, New Mexico, enjoying a more temperate climate than upstate New York. His visits to the Canyon de Chelly, a National Park in Arizona, and his encounters with southwestern pottery significantly impacted his work.

Gradually he moved away from the production of purely functional pieces, creating more inventive objects. “I do what the clay accepts. My love of material and ambiguity, of shape and form. Useful objects with an affinity for simplicity. I thought of a way to avoid handles; you could pick up my casseroles under the rim. … Often when I make something I don’t really know what it’s about; I give it a name later.” Typically, Turner preferred stoneware with semi-monochromatic surfaces, sometimes sandblasted and intentionally asymmetrical. He made a series with “domes” (lids) and late in his career he added strips of clay to the body of his pots, emulating African examples.

Turner garnered recognition for his skills as an educator and an artist; from Alfred University in 1974 he was presented with the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and Swarthmore College awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Fine Art in 1987. He received the Gold Medal for Artistic Excellence from the American Craft Council in 1993, and in 2000 Alfred University presented him with the Charles Fergus Binns Medal of Excellence in Ceramic Art. Turner also served his field, as president of the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts and as chairman of the Board of Directors of the Haystack School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine.

In an autobiographical article published in 2000, Turner declared: “What technology can’t do is adjust whole systems to match new truths. But we potters can. We may screw up a pot, then see another, better piece in the accident.”