Postmarks From the Edge
Artist Chases Dream on
the Open Road
Staff Writer - Chicago Sun-Times
Sunday, January 18, 1998
Ken Turmel had 35 different
jobs at the Oklahoma City post office between 1979 and 1994. He was a box clerk.
He delivered express mail. During the day Turmel had the world in his hands. But
one night he dreamed of how to make his mark in the world. Turmel saw himself
traveling around Oklahoma. He was collecting postmarks on a sheet of paper. A
Dream? It sounds more like a hazing.
But Turmel's vision has
materialized into "Route 66 and More…", a majestic 2-by-3 foot print
that features more than 250 postmarks from every post office along old Route 66.
The postmarks have been signed, sealed and delivered on a map of the eight Route
66 states. There are even postmarks from towns that no longer exist, like the
dried-up railroad town of Cadiz, California. Turmel obtained the postmark from
the shack like post office in Cadiz on December 29, 1995, it's last day of
Turmel, 41, calls his work
Postmarkart. President Clinton, country singer Reba McEntire and Moody Blues
members Justin Hayward and Michael Pinder are among those who own Turmel's
prints. Isn't Life Strange?
"I had never collected
stamps," Turmel said from Midwest City, the Oklahoma City suburb where he
lives with wife Melissa and their six children. "I never collected
postmarks. The Cherokee Strip postage stamp for the centennial of the Oklahoma
1893 land run had just come out. It was the spring of 1993. Compelled by the
dream, I spent 10 months [driving 5000 miles] obtaining all the centennial
postmarks and putting them on one piece of paper. I felt this [the dream] was
from the Lord. A lot of people don't like to hear that, but I'm never going to
In the mid-1980's Turmel was a
songwriter-keyboardist in the Precedents, an Oklahoma City-based Christian pop
band. By the spring of 1994, word had gotten out about Turmel's Cherokee Strip
"Adventure Centennial Document" Postmarkart. Postmasters, collectors
and museums from across the heartland tracked down Turmel, asking where they
could obtain copies of his work. "I never intended to make prints," he
said, "That's what initiated lithograph limited-edition prints."
At the same time, he met Route
66 author-historian Michael Wallis, who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Wallis urged
Turmel to postmarkart Route 66. "I said, 'Michael, it took me so long to do
one state,' " Turmel recalled. "And you want me to do eight? I wasn't
sure I could handle it." But in the intrepid spirit of Wallis, Woody
Guthrie, Will Rogers and other children of the Mother Road, Turmel took off down
The passage to postmarks began
in September, 1995, when the Route 66 Museum opened in Clinton, Oklahoma.
"They had a pictorial postmark commemorating Route 66 and the opening of
the museum," Turmel said. "I drove there and got the first official
postmark from Clinton."
Turmel tooled around the old
road in his 1986 Toyota 4-Runner. He listened to cassette tapes by the Beatles,
Julian Lennon, the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Nat King Cole, who covered the
song "(Get your kicks on) Route 66". It was impossible for Turmel to
drive Route 66 in one swoop, since pictorial postmarks are only issued at
certain times of the year for specific celebrations. "I had to jog
constantly from state to state to get all the First Day of Issue postmarks I
could," he said. "And I drove the 4-Runner [old Betsy] for the entire
project. It's got 208,000 miles on it." Turmel finally completed the Route
66 Postmarkart piece last May.
He titled his work "66 and More…" because it includes a few non-66
diversions, including postmarks from the Grand Canyon, Disneyland in Anaheim,
California and all the state capitals from the Route 66 states. That meant
Turmel drove all the way to Sacramento, California, just to get the politically
correct postmark. Turmel figures the "66 and More…" Postmarkart cost
him more than $6,500 for gasoline, oil, tires, phone calls, motels, and - last,
but not least - postage stamps.
If it was good weather, I always tried to find a campground," he said.
"It was to save some money and actually stay to the idea of being outside.
One night I just slept on the side of the Rio Grande River while in
Like the postal service itself, nothing could stop Turmel. He absolutely had to
obtain a postmark at the Supai, Arizona, post office, where mail is still
carried by mule. The postmark commemorated the 100th Anniversary of
Supai, an Indian Reservation town nestled in the Grand Canyon. The old road ends
eight miles before the town begins. Supai has no paved streets and no one in
town drives a car.
"You have to park your
car and take a horse down…," Turmel explained. "Or you can take a
helicopter, or walk. I wanted to be authentic. I took the horse. It's a
four-hour journey. I had a mule pull behind me for my gear and artwork. I made a
wax container for the artwork so it would be watertight. You can't take any
chances with this art. One time it gets wet, it's ruined."
"Once down in Supai I
asked the postmaster if anyone was crazy enough to bring such a large piece of
work in to collect postmarks. Just like all the other 250-plus postmasters, he
said, 'No one has ever come in here with something like this.' I stayed in the
canyon overnight and transported the artwork back on the helicopter the next
Turmel was born just a few
blocks from the end of Route 66 in Santa Monica, California. (It's never the
beginning, since the migratory path went westward from Chicago). "When I
was a kid I was a nut about traveling on that road," he said. "It
wasn't so much [at that time] that it was Route 66. It just happened it was the
road my mom and dad traveled to go back to New Hampshire every year. The man in
me met the child in me during this project. It got more personal than I thought
it would. I met a lot of people on the road that reminded me of days gone
President Clinton heard about
Turmel's work from Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating. A friend of the
postmarkartist, Keating has Turmel's prints hanging in the governor's mansion.
Turmel recalled, "President Clinton came to Oklahoma City to speak at the
Murrah Federal Building bombing victims ceremony. The governor presented the
president with my 'Oklahoma and Friends' print [a 1995 piece featuring postmarks
from Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas].
Three weeks later I got a hand-signed thank you in the mail from President
Turmel is not into art to make money, just to sustain his search for postmarks. "Money coming in now from
the Route 66 project will help finance my next one, which is the California Gold
Rush and Statehood," Turmel said. "January 24 is the 150th
anniversary of the day carpenter James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's
Mill. I'll be there in California on January 24 to get that 150th
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