Remembering Susan Turner Purvis, Artist and Teacher – by Judy Baker Goss
From the bulletin, “A Service of Resurrection and Thanksgiving to God for Susan Turner Purvis:”
In our life there is a single color, as on an artist’s palette, which provides the meaning of life and art. It is the color of love.
On July 22, there were many reasons that an overflowing crowd filled the sanctuary of Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church to memorialize the radiant life of Susan Turner Purvis. I believe that her large heART was the root of them all. A native of Hope who lived in Little Rock over forty years, Susan’s love deeply touched family, friends, fellow teachers and artists, and students.
Fortunately, I knew Susan for half a century. We met as Hendrix freshmen living in Galloway Hall, where she was the ringleader for fun. Packed three girls to a room, we were the last class to endure Hendrix’s version of orientation “hazing.” When commanded, “Button, Freshman,” we fell to a knee in dresses, one hand touching beanie cap, and sounded off, “Good afternoon, Miss Jones, m’am, I’m freshman Susan Turner from Hope, Arkansas, m’am.” An “upperclasswoman” told Susan and her roomies to “fly like birds” into the dining hall for supper, but Susan topped that comical idea. Looking adorably innocent, Susan’s impulses were extremely impish. She made bloody bandages from huge gauze pads dripping with red lipstick blood, which they taped to their knees. They boldly flapped in that evening, giggling in front of the astonished crowd! Wherever Susan went, there was laughter, and many anecdotes prove that she never sought sainthood. The blessings she showered on others, however, gave her the aura of cherished guardian angel.
Susan knew she was an artist in college, as I was stepping into theatre, and she always encouraged my dreams. We know this was her nature, too. During her twenty-eight year career as Art Specialist at Gibbs International Studies Magnet School, which she began with no classroom and, rather, one table and a box of Mardi Gras beads, she not only provided excellent art education, but she aligned her efforts with others, enhancing the creative potential of all. Discovering that a former Gibbs custodian, Eddie Lee Kendrick, was a self-taught artist, she facilitated his joining her for a year at Gibbs and then co-curated a show of his work with the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Arkansas Arts Center. When she worked with a project of the Rockefeller Foundation, UALR and the Japanese-American Museum in Los Angeles dealing with the Japanese-Americans who were relocated during World War II, especially to the Arkansas camps at Jerome and Rowher, she co-wrote curriculum for social studies and art teachers based on those internees’ experiences. Her Gibbs students made a wonderful quilt reflecting their encounters with this curriculum. Susan brought people together to move forward, through art, to greater human understanding.
Her approach to learning always demonstrated curiosity and creativity, making something new from what was at hand. By no accident did her methods produce remarkable results time and again. Her students won many awards, some in the exclusive International Children’s Art Exhibition sponsored by Pentel. In nineteen of the twenty-six years that Gibbs students’ work was accepted in the Young Arkansas Artists (YAA) exhibition through the Arkansas Arts Center, they won “Best in Class.” In 2015, Susan’s retirement year, two Gibbs group projects won awards. Also beloved by her professional peers, she was twice named Arkansas Elementary Art Educator of the Year and once as Arkansas Art Educator of the Year.
Bright and well-educated, Susan’s contributions were never limited to theory; her talented efforts blossomed through personal relationships: Susan provided her full self. She convinced students that they were artists by opening their hearts to believe it and coaxing their visions into art objects, the solid evidence. She presented core ideas which students could research and expand and for which they could imagine inclusive group participation to produce results. Their remarkable achievements sprang from authentic shared creativity. I agreed with Susan that there is no higher educational goal. The outpouring on Facebook by young adults whom Susan taught at Gibbs often referenced specific examples of her inspired teaching, which still nurtures them today.
One of my happiest memories of Susan is a joyful collaboration on a music and arts project with other young mothers at our church in 1986. We guided elementary students, including our children, to create their own Christmas pageant. They wrote a script from Bible stories, selected songs, built props and acted the play in the sanctuary. Susan and I loved the children’s interpretations, especially their decision that someone should BE the star of Bethlehem, and “it should move.” With Susan’s direction, they created a stunning orb, which was carried atop a pole down the center aisle, one of the high points in “Starry, Starry Night.” Yes, think Van Gogh, too, for Susan added art history along the way. It’s apt to say we followed Susan, our star.
Time and again, I saw that Susan’s vision of the power of self-expression was all-encompassing. It mattered to her how others experience the world, and her empathy for them, especially for children, opened the heavens for us all.
Great grief pours from great joy and love, and though the light of her life will not fade, Susan is deeply missed in this community. I treasure reminders of Susan: the faces of her family and friends, the photos and stories we’ll share over and over, her voice in my mind’s ear, and her artist’s spirit tucked deep in my heart.