Old Cars and Ancient Carvings: Inspirations of Artist Chris Turri

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Chris Turri’s mind is a sea of imagination, its ripples all of the ideas that color his world. Indeed, the Corrales artist unites his deep love of petroglyphs and Native American symbolism with his imaginative ability to bring out the beauty in what others might see as mere vehicle carcasses. Combining old car parts with other forsaken industrial fragments and metal scraps, Turri constructs unique totems, ranging from knee high to 20 feet tall.

“As far as the car hoods, they’ve got to be old, early 70s and back,” said Turri, who is 64. “All steel. Aluminum is a no-go – it clogs up grinders. And the new paint being used (on cars) is just so thin, and it doesn’t hold up. Car metal is so thin these days that in some cases, it isn’t metal, just painted plastic.”

Turri finds the requisite steel automotive objects – hoods, roofs, doors, and trunks – mostly at salvage yards. Other times he will approach homeowners and make them an offer after spotting aged autos in their yards.

“I find them with Google Earth and I will ask if they’d like to sell a piece, a hood, or a door, or something like that,” Turri said. “I buy blues and yellows and reds and oranges. I just picked up part of a ‘57 Chevy from Carrizozo that was orange, and I couldn’t believe how much paint there was beneath the top coat. Multiple colors, including metallic black. I hand cut it without burning the old layers of paint off.”

A lifelong contractor, Turri is developing into his own as an artist and enjoying every bit of the spontaneity and autonomy that art endows him with. Indeed, art has created a fresh world for him that is beyond the range of his previous routine jobs. Turri spent many years as a commercial electrician and equally as many in the construction business. In the evenings, he sometimes tinkered with silversmithing or fusing stone jewelry, though he ultimately stopped because his day job demanded too much attention.

“It was challenging to go to work and then come home and try to be creative,” Turri said. “I was usually too drained. My wife recommended that I do my art full-time.”

About 15 years ago, Turri heeded his wife’s advice and started making totems out of metal and then adding mosaic inlays and copper images of petroglyphs to them. Shortly after, he found a green hood from an old Dodge truck, popping with colorful corrosion and dignified with oxidation. He was immediately hooked on the renewable glory of automobile skins.

His main goal back then was to get his art into a couple of galleries on Canyon Road in Santa Fe. He envisioned creating something whimsical and heartfelt that would blend his interest in history, salvage, and welding. Slowly, he refined his approach and pursued it with vigor, adding details and nuances to the totems, including quirky items such as industrial snap ties to form a fanned headdress.

These days, Turri can be found in his Corrales shop, a spirit at work, letting the sparks soar, releasing his mind, broadening his view, lengthening his perspective.

Standing adjacent to a “homemade rusting chamber” – an apparatus that collects and recycles rain water using a submergible pump – Turri describes how the equipment imbues the metal and copper with “an aged look that can emulate the petroglyphs found in and caves and overhangs.”

From a young age, Turri said that he has always been fascinated by petroglyphs. He frequently hikes and backpacks to historic sites heavy with the ancient rock art in the Four Corners region of the Southwest, taking inspiration for his art.

Once he has fabricated a totemic mound from, say, reclaimed stainless steel or white painted steel from of a ditched Chevy, he will add copper petroglyphs to the statue and then conclude with a spread of paint and an oily gloss.

“The petroglyphs are different each time,” Turri said. “The lightning, the swiftness, the animals for sustenance and nutrients, rain for crops, a broken arrow means peace. In Egyptian hieroglyphics and tribes in Africa, the circle, the water symbol, the bear claw, lightning, swiftness, they are similar around the world. Perhaps all were connected at one time.”

At last, Turri presents the sprightly figure of a totem, steeped in all of the wonders of the natural world and glistening with expression.

“Since I was a kid, I was picking things up out in the desert,” said Turri, who was born in Nevada and raised in Alamogordo, N.M. “In New Mexico, it is easy to find the simplicity of getting out, petroglyphs, walking the desert, quiet and chill, and be inspired.”

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