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&‘&‘This is where my entire life really began," says artist Tyler Turkle, handing over a worn Ziploc bag containing a black-and-red flat plastic square about the size of a sheet of paper. Rubbery to the touch, it contorts to any shape you can bend it.

As he describes his "Eureka moment" of discovery, you can almost hear the classic film quote from the 1960s — the generation when Turkle came of age — as a character in "The Graduate" offers a vague snippet of career advice: "One word: Plastics."

But Turkle, 65, would take the cheap synthetic material in his own unique direction. Pouring and molding liquid acrylic, he made art out of black silhouettes on glass window panes, plasticene puddles of color that lie on the floor and rubbery curtains emblazoned with "Visa" and "MasterCard" as commentary on our national obsession with plastic.

Explaining his unusual liquid acrylic process, he seems entirely different from the Tyler Turkle who, as the new executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County, was walking around just an hour ago with bibles in hand and introducing two needy families to their new homes at a Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County dedication ceremony in Sebastopol.

To him it seems normal. For over a decade, he has walked the line between artist and bureaucrat, allowing each side to nurture the other. He chalks it up to "a healthy dose of time management" and "making sure you do the things you have to do in life."

The recent transplant from Tallahassee, Fla., where he was executive director of the Big Bend Habitat for Humanity, told the crowd in Sebastopol, "I can truly say this is a kinder, gentler place. Even though the South is known for its gentility, it's gotten really weird."

For the past 40 years, he's documented Southern eccentrics in Northern Florida, from hard-living rebel novelist Harry Crews to diehard football fans and the politics of a rattlesnake roundup — all featured in his short film documentaries.

His experimental cinematic works have been shown in film festivals and art exhibits, including the yo-yo film "Walk That Dog" featured in a 1970s group exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His filmography is collected in a three-DVD set through the Canyon Cinema film cooperative in San Francisco.

"Wherever you find yourself, you work with what you've got," Turkle says over a cajun scramble breakfast at the Hole in the Wall Restaurant in Sebastopol.

"And that's what I had. For 40 years I had things like "Swine Time" in Climax, Georgia, or the Rattlesnake Roundup or the Gnat Days Festival."

<b>Small town</b>

Born and raised in the east Ohio steel belt, Turkle grew up in the town of Alliance, pop. 22,000. His father's side of the family ran a funeral home and his mother's side were farmers.

He would later work a short stint in the local steel mill during college. After graduating with a degree in history from Mount Union College in Alliance, he studied film at Kent State University with experimental filmmaker Richard Myers, who is best known for his film, "Confrontation at Kent State."

From Myers, he learned that "structure could be whatever you wanted it to be. They were just images and you could make what you wanted out of them."

In the mid-1970s, Turkle started experimenting with liquid acrylic, first pouring it on velvet-wrapped plywood for the 1976 work, "Mona Breakfast."

As his process evolved into life-sized silhouettes of spaghetti Western-era Clint Eastwood, or motley puddles of plastic layered on the ground, his work began to show in museums and travel overseas. He's been featured in the 41st and 44th Biennial Exhibition of American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., along with exhibits at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota and the Rooseum in Sweden.

"His work has an edge — it has content and humor and cultural commentary — and it looks good," says Tallahassee curator Tricia Collins, who has placed Turkle's work in galleries and museums in New York, Paris, Italy, Germany and France.

"All audiences can relate to it. You don't have to know the art history behind it, or all of Tyler's wit, to get it."

In a 1996 review of a Corcoran biennial, a Washington Post reviewer described his work as "all paint and no canvas."

Other reviewers used terms like "paint skins" and "vinyl peels."

Turkle came up with the term "Plastometry" as a way of describing the malleable and ubiquitous presence of plastic in our lives.

"It's durable and transformable, but beyond the physical properties there are so many social and political connotations that go with it," he says.

While teaching art and film at Florida State University from 1975 to 1987, he would also occasionally take on odd jobs like managing a local gym or driving fuel trucks or unloading Montgomery Wards trucks.

When academia began to feel "too sheltered from the larger community in Tallahassee," Turkle started volunteering and serving on boards of local nonprofits like the Tallahassee-Leon County Cultural Resources Commission and the Edward F. Marsicano Literary Trust. Eventually he was appointed executive director of the Leon County Schools Foundation in 1999.

When he took over as director of the Big Bend Habitat for Humanity in 2007, the economy was just beginning to collapse. But even in the worst housing market in decades, Turkle and the team would build 30 houses in his five-year tenure.

Big Bend Habitat for Humanity board member Greg Thompson chalks it up to Turkle's passionate style of management.

"He's very engaging and you really get that when you meet him for the first time," says Thompson. "Tyler helped us rethink our management style in the office and it really boosted employee morale."

Turkle still remembers the first family he worked with in Tallahassee — a handicapped single father raising four children.

"When you're helping a family like that, a family that never expected to own a home, ever in their life, right there in that moment — that was pure heaven to me," he remembers. "And I could easily see myself doing that for the rest of my life."

<b>Help build</b>

As the new executive director of Habitat for Humanity in Sonoma County, Turkle will hammer nails as a construction volunteer, along with overseeing the ReStore retail operation, the real estate program that obtains new properties, fundraising campaigns and the Habitat's role as mortgage lender.

"The most noticeable difference from where I came from is in Tallahassee there were hundreds of volunteers and here it feels like there are thousands," he says.

<b>New homes</b>

One of the bigger challenges he'll face in Sonoma County is getting back to building new Habitat homes as the housing market begins to rebound. Lately, the Habitat trend has been to rehabilitate short sales and distressed houses and then re-sell them.

Another challenge will be obtaining land for new homes. In Tallahassee, Habitat for Humanity has built 170 homes since 1983. During that same time period, Habitat for Humanity of Sonoma County built or rehabilitated only 35 homes.

"The main reason is the cost of land," he says. "It's so much cheaper in the South."

To understand the personal impact of Habitat for Humanity in Sonoma County, look no further than county supervisor Efren Carrillo, who Turkle introduced at the Sebastopol home dedication ceremony several weeks ago. Carrillo's family was the first recipient of a Habitat home and his parents still live there today.

"It's moments like that, that make you realize why we do what we do," says Turkle. "It's like the saying goes — it's a helping hand up, not a handout. We're all in this together."

(Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@sideshowvideo.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.)

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