By Mara Van Ells
After two and a half years of posting colorful artwork and poetry on the fence surrounding his home, Gary Turchin is at a loss.
Turchin’s work — excerpts from one of his self-published books and other vibrant pieces of digital artwork — were recently stolen from where they were stapled to the six-foot, tall brick-red fence surrounding his home on the corner of McKinley Avenue and Addison Street.
“It’s not like stealing a car; you get money for that. I find myself laughing. They’re not going to get any money for this — I couldn’t get any money for it!” said Turchin.
The theft is a loss for the neighborhood, according to Jai Jai Noire, a friend of Turchin’s who lives in the area.
Noire said there was an “outpouring” of support when Turchin mentioned the loss of his artwork on the McGee-Spaulding nextdoorneighbor.com website.
“One person said it became a landmark in the neighborhood and they would purposely walk people they were walking with by it to show them,” Turchin said.
Noire said many people who walked by the fence would pause and read the stories and poems. “It’s a way of connecting to people in the neighborhood,” she said.
Over the years, Turchin has received about 15 scrawled notes that passersby have left in his mailbox. He saved a handful of them. One person simply wrote, ‘Thanks for the poems’ another read, ‘I was just walking by and I saw your fence. Thank you for making my day.’
Turchin was “touched” by the notes. “It actually meant a lot because I wasn’t asking for anything. It’s nice when people did that,” he said.
Noire described Turchin’s poems as whimsical and playful and his art as colorful and bright. She said the art was very accessible and in a format that anyone could read.
“It does feel like sort of a violation against an artist to take it and not even leave a note,” she said.
When Turchin arrived home from a New Year’s Day event on Jan. 1 he saw that his fence was bare. Not one scrap of his artwork — 18 panels in all — remained. He searched the street and nearby garbage bins but the only thing he found was an empty tequila bottle. He figures the pieces disappeared either on New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. Turchin filed a report with the Berkeley Police Department, but the theft hasn’t been solved yet.
Turchin, an artist, poet, performer, writer and teacher, humbly describes himself as “just a guy putting up art on a fence.”
“It was evolving. I didn’t know where I was going next,” he said, of his now stolen artwork.
Turchin has been posting his artwork publicly since he moved to Berkeley from Oakland two and a half years ago. Parkinson’s Disease has made it difficult for him to drive and, in Berkeley, he is closer to friends and can walk most places.
For Turchin, the decision to move was difficult: his Oakland home was more spacious and, as an artist, he needs studio space. Even before moving to Berkeley, he had the idea to post his art to the fence. It was a “carrot” that helped him decide to move, he said.
“I could put my art in public and change it and do whatever I want,” he said.
Turchin, who is originally from New Jersey, moved to the Bay Area in 1974 after graduating from college where he studied art and psychology. “I wanted to see what life is like in California and I never left,” he said.
For years, he worked as a house painter to pay the bills. “I reached a point in the late ‘80s when I said, ‘I’m going to be an artist or nothing!’ I literally stopped my painting business overnight,” he said.
Turchin’s first artistic endeavor was selling t-shirts, cards and prints at craft shows.
“I had done these drawings anyway and was trying to find a way to market them. So I printed them on t-shirts and people handed me money,” he said. “Well, this was a revolution!”
At one point, Turchin, who enjoys writing funny poems, wanted to be the next Shel Silverstein. He wrote his poetry into his own show called ‘Gary T’s PoetTree.’ In 2000, he began performing at school assemblies, entertaining and teaching kids about poetry. For several years, he did between 20 and 50 gigs per year.
From 2000 until 2004, he also wrote a weekly column for The Montclarion, an Oakland-based newspaper. In 2004, he got a “real job” as a writer for the Children’s Hospital where he wrote newsletters and public relations articles and took photographs for the hospital until he was laid off in 2010.
In 2011, he self-published the book “If I Were You” one of three books that he has self-published in the last few years. Now, he mostly performs poetry for adults — he reads regularly at Expressions Gallery on Ashby and at Poetry Express on Monday nights.
“I’ve done everything you could possibly do, if you want to know the truth. And here I am on a fence!” he said.
Turchin said he likes the freedom of posting to his own fence and of being his own editor. “I determine what goes up and…I don’t determine what comes down, unfortunately,” he said.
Deborah Green, owner and resident of Turchin’s home, said she enjoyed Turchin’s poetry. “Everybody loves it,” she said.
Green pointed out that Turchin’s poetry has won awards. “These were gems,” she said of the stolen poetry. “Not just random musings.”
Turchin said he was surprised by the theft, although one other piece had been stolen before. He replaced that particular piece but it was stolen again; he didn’t hang it up a third time.
“I figured somebody stole one. So what? I didn’t expect somebody to come and take them all,” he said.
He said it was “audacious” for someone to take the pieces, given that he lives across the street from the Berkeley police station. Turchin hasn’t heard whether the police have video footage of the theft.
Turchin said he plans to put up new art but he’s in no rush. His new postings will probably be mostly poetry, since Parkinson’s has made it harder for him to produce art. “I’ve kind of lost my dexterity. I’m losing my hands,” he said.
Up until six months ago, Turchin studied digital printmaking at Berkeley City College, which had given him easy access to an affordable printer. Now, he’s not sure how he will replace his digital art. The stolen artwork might be an impetus to return to school.
“If I’m going to print again, I have to get over there because printing is very expensive to pay for each piece as you go,” he said.
Previously, Turchin’s artwork only covered a fraction of the fence. “There’s a lot more of it [the fence.] I’m only getting started,” he said.
Mara Van Ells is an aspiring digital journalist who is pursuing a master’s degree at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.
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