Cooley Turner, a Cedarville custodial services employee for 28 years, is a man of many stories.
He’s climbed from poverty in the hills of Kentucky, spent time in the Peace Corps, earned a plaque on the wall of Cedarville’s Dixon Ministry Center and dabbled in the arts — from pottery to painting to poetry — for most of his life.
And he’s done all that without obtaining a college degree.
According to his daughter, Turner, 68, has used his artistic talents to enrich lives, including his own.
“You don’t have to have an art degree to have that be a part of your life or to enrich other people’s lives,” said Turner’s daughter, Jeananne Turner Smith, a kindergarten teacher in Yellow Springs.
But as each piece enriches, Turner said he likes it to tell a story.
“I like to give a story behind everything,” he said.
Chuck Clevenger, senior professor of music and fellow artist, said Turner’s work comes out of his own experience.
“Maybe it comes out of struggle, maybe it comes out of an expression of his faith, maybe it comes out of just whatever theme is going on in his life,” Clevenger said. “I just notice that whatever — it just kind of bubbles up.”
Clevenger met Turner one day when Turner came to clean his office. Clevenger said he noticed Turner observing the paintings in his office and could tell right away that he was a fellow artist.
“I said, ‘You’re an artist.’ He said, ‘Yes, I’m a potter,’ and we began talking,” said Clevenger, whose love for art lies in watercolor and music.
Clevenger said the two have had several brief conversations since then about art, music and family.
Turner has dabbled in writing music, singing and playing the Autoharp. However, Clevenger said Turner’s experience in the craft of pottery runs deeper.
“He’s an amateur in music; he is a past master in ceramic art,” Clevenger said. “What he doesn’t know about it isn’t worth knowing.”
Turner’s artistic abilities first came as he took an interest in drawing, courtesy of his older sister. But Turner soon discovered a greater artistic love.
“I wanted to make things,” Turner said, “and so clay was my big love even when I was little, and (my sister would) bring me home colored clay to play (with).”
Turner was given the opportunity to work more substantially with clay while at Berea Foundation Academy, a school in Kentucky for kids from broken homes and those in the impoverished Appalachian region. When he was 15, Turner and his three siblings became orphans.
Turner attended high school at Berea, and at age 16, he made his first pieces of pottery. He said he would visit the “pot shop” to learn about how to pull the clay to make bowls and other pieces of pottery with a Greek-and-Roman-design.
Turner’s teacher was a 24-year-old ex-convict employed by the school but lacking a high school education. Turner put some of his pottery up for sale in a shop in the mountain area, and the money he received from the sales went towards his tuition at Berea.
Though he didn’t finish high school until later in life, Turner did a two-and-a-half year stint with the U.S. Peace Corps upon dropping out of Berea his senior year.
“It was a means of being able to take care of myself, because I had no place to go when school was out,” he said.
Turner did pottery demonstrations as the group traveled.
He said the Corps worked with the Appalachian people and the mountaineers to learn industry, since at the time, the only hope this people group had was to work in the coal mines or become a drunk.
“I’d do pottery demonstrations on the wheel and show they could start an industry, and there was a lot of clay in the hills,” Turner said.
He said today Berea is considered one of the largest craft towns in Kentucky.
“And that’s kind of neat,” Turner said. “Some of those mountaineers came down and started making stuff, and I don’t know if I influenced them or not.”
After the Peace Corps, Turner came to Ohio to be nearer to his sister. At age 25, he married his wife of now over 42 years.
Smith said Turner enrolled himself in local pottery classes so he could keep learning the different techniques of the craft.
But after experimenting more with pottery, Turner moved on to sculpture, photography, music, poetry and songwriting.
“I graduated a bit from pottery because I got bored, and I decided to start doing different things,” he said.
And one of these things he tried his hand at was painting on leaves and feathers.
“I took my granddaughter for a walk and she was five years old, I think,” Turner said. “And she started collecting leaves in the park and she brought them to me and she said, ‘See, Poppy, God paints on leaves.’ And I says, ‘Sure he does, doesn’t he?’ because they were all different colors. So when I got home, I kept thinking, ‘Well, I can paint on leaves. I can’t make a leaf as good as God, but I can use what God gave me and paint on leaves.’ So I started painting on leaves.”
Turner also became involved in music.
His whole family got involved with singing in local churches, and Turner joined a songwriting club and a poet critique, though singing remains his musical forte. In fact, Turner has begun singing again in local churches after a 12-year hiatus.
“I’ve just decided that I was going to do what God led me to do, because I’ve been an odd chip off the old block,” he said.
What’s more, Turner gives away nearly all of his pieces of art, keeping just photos of them for his portfolio.
“Cooley will give his art as gifts,” Clevenger said. “He really, really, really considers this a part of himself, so he is giving you a part of himself.”
Smith said this speaks to how generous her father is.
“Most of everything he makes he gives away, so there’s that kind of generous spirit that he has, that like all of his friends or family have something in the house that he’s made,” she said, “so that’s kind of special.”
But while Turner’s art experience is extensive, he said he has plans to keep working with pottery, specifically that of an Asian design, which he loves exploring.
“I’m not done yet,” Turner said. “I have some ideas. I just haven’t been over to the pot shop because I haven’t had time.”
And Turner is not done serving the Cedarville campus either.
Though he said he plans to retire in a few years at age 70, he said working with college students has kept him young, and Cedarville’s focus on the gospel has kept him encouraged.
Turner’s long-time devotion to the university is evidenced by a plaque in the Dixon Ministry Center and by the number of training program certificates he’s received. Turner said the one of 18 or so certificates he most appreciates is the one dubbing him an International Executive Housekeeper.
Cedarville has allowed him to gain an education in chemicals, research, microbiology, pest control, communications and music composition theory through both classes the university has presented and training sessions Turner has attended.
“Cedarville educated me, that’s for sure,” Turner said. “When I came here, I was an orphan of everything.”
And when he came to Cedarville, Turner said he was told he would find his job to be more like a ministry. But he said he hasn’t thought of it quite like that.
“I just thought that you have to go to work to put food on the table,” he said. “But how nice is it to be able to put food on the table and know that you’re getting all the spiritual food that’s going to help you in life.”
And Turner said he’s thankful for the opportunities, artistic and other, past and present, he’s had in life.
“It’s been an enriched life that I’ve had,” Turner said.
Anna Dembowski is a junior journalism major and managing editor/arts & entertainment editor for Cedars. She likes nearly anything that is the color purple and enjoys spelling the word “agathokakological.”