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Ken Turmel

Ken Turmel


Postmarks From the Edge

Artist Chases Dream on the Open Road

By Dave Hoekstra
Staff Writer - Chicago Sun-Times
Sunday, January 18, 1998

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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 business.

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 deny it…"

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 Route 66.  

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 Texas." 

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 day."  

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 by."

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 Clinton."  

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 year postmark!"  


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