East-West Center founder devoted to education, art
By Michael Tsai
A gifted artist and educator, Murray Turnbull left a distinctive mark on the physical landscape of his adopted Hawaii home, in the myriad galleries that displayed his work, and in the lives of thousands of scholars who passed through the University of Hawaii and the East-West Center.
Turnbull died on Aug. 22 at age 95.
Perhaps best known as the founder of the East-West Center, Turnbull was a prolific painter and sculptor and a highly influential figure in the UH system, where his keen intellect and unconventional thinking helped to expand traditional notions of education.
“He felt that making education available and important, making people curious enough to explore their world, was the most important thing,” said Turnbull’s daughter Martha Turnbull. “He also thought that formal education sometimes got in the way of it. He identified very closely with UH and the other places where he worked, but he also felt that school should get out of the way when students wanted to paint or write or pursue other ways of expressing themselves.”
Turnbull was born in Sibley, Iowa, and earned an bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the University of Nebraska. After serving in the Army Air Force in Guadalcanal and the Philippines during World War II, Turnbull returned and began a career in education, first at a high school in Montana and later at the University of Nebraska, the University of Denver (where he also earned a master’s degree) and Hamline University in Minnesota.
In 1954, Turnbull and his wife, Phyllis, relocated to Honolulu, where Turnbull found employment as a professor of art at UH. He would later serve as chairman of the Art Department (twice), acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and director of planning for the university.
It was in 1959, while serving as acting dean, that Turnbull first proposed the idea of an “international college” where people from around Asia and the Pacific could exchange ideas. The idea languished until congressional delegate from Hawaii Jack Burns successfully persuaded then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, to publicly advocate for an international university in Hawaii. In response, the school’s faculty senate convened a special committee that included Turnbull to establish what would become the East-West Center.
“Murray Turnbull was the father of the concept of bringing the young people of the Asia Pacific region together,” said East-West Center President Charles Morrison. “The East-West Center was established because of him.”
Turnbull served briefly as the center’s acting director. In an oral history collected by the center in 2006, Turnbull described the original focus of the center:
“We did not seek students or candidates in business courses and that sort of thing, making money, how you do business and so on. We were much more interested in philosophical matters, in historical matters, in religious matters, in those things that had to do with the mind and the intellect.”
Turnbull’s vision for the center was in keeping with his personal beliefs about education and the development of mind and character.
As a student of art and as an artist, Turnbull was inexhaustible in his thirst for new insight.
In an unfinished autobiography, Turnbull noted, “I have spent more than the last 40 years striving to overcome, replace and go beyond the solid traditional training … which shaped my early expectations and intentions.”
Later, Turnbull wrote: ”Only with great effort did I come to see that life and art could not be imprisoned by logic, by a binding responsibility to objects out there, that it was more important to express things from the inside out, and that what was invisible was vastly more significant than imposed visual ‘truths.’”
Turnbull, who produced more than 7,000 pieces of art during his career, had work exhibited in various one-person shows across the country. Among the many familiar pieces Turnbull has contributed around town are the famous stained glass windows at Keller Hall on the Manoa campus, the four concrete sculpture walls on the UH Music Building and the large mural on the exterior wall of Kokua Market in Moiliili.
Duane Preble, an emeritus professor of art at UH and a former teaching assistant to Turnbull, said his friend and mentor was “a wise and thoughtful scholarly artist” who inspired great enthusiasm and loyalty from his students.
“He had a following of people who loved his classes,” Preble said. “Both young and old would come back to take his classes.”
Preble recalled Turnbull’s love of New Orleans-style jazz and how Turnbull, a self-taught trumpet, trombone and cornet player, would practice in the art auditorium when it was empty because he liked the acoustics. He also remembered the unexhibited wood sculptures — “humorous pieces” — that Turnbull kept around his garage.
“I asked him about them and he said they were to keep his taxes down,” Preble said, chuckling.
Indeed, Turnbull’s lofty accomplishments in academia and the art world belied his humble, unassuming nature and the simple, sincere way in which he lived his life, Martha Turnbull said.
“He was utterly incapable of telling a lie,” she said. “He told corny jokes. He never met a baby or a cat he didn’t like. And he was inordinately proud of his family. The only thing he valued more than his work was his wife and his family.”
Turnbull is survived by his wife, Phyllis; sons John and Clayton; daughters Martha and Sarah Roe; eight grandchildren; and great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Sept. 27 at the UH-Manoa Art Department Auditorium. Aloha wear is suggested.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made in Murray Turnbull’s name to: Friends of the Library of Hawaii, 690 Pohukaina St., Honolulu, HI 96813.