The Turnbulls: ‘A Good Collaboration’

"We were lucky that at a point in our lives all this came together.”
Sarah and John Turnbull enjoyed a break in winter’s weather outside their house in Bridgehampton. Morgan McGivern

John and Sarah Jaffe Turnbull both arrived on the East End in the early 1980s, but they didn’t meet until 15 years ago. “I heard that John taught a karate class for children, so I called him to see where the program was. My son Max started taking classes, and one thing led to another.”

Married for 13 years, each pursues a number of different interests, including ceramics for her and martial arts for him, and both are committed to public service. “We have a good collaboration,” Ms. Turnbull said.

She was born in Connecticut and moved to Burlington, Vt., when she was 9. After living there for 20 years, practicing law as a public defender and an assistant attorney general, she settled in Sag Harbor in 1983, working for the Town of East Hampton on affordable housing and then for the law firm of George Biondo. Her father had summer homes in Montauk for many years.

After two years and the breakup of her first marriage, she was about to move to Washington, D.C., when she met Norman Jaffe, a prolific and influential architect who worked primarily on the East End. “My bags were packed for the move,” she said. “But that changed my life. We got married in the mid-1980s, had Will a few years later, and Max a few years after that. And a few years later, Norman died.” Jaffe drowned in 1993, while swimming in the ocean off Bridgehampton early one morning.

Mr. Turnbull, who retired five years ago after teaching for 30 years in the Southampton School District, was born and raised in a working-class neighborhood in Queens. “When I grew up,” he said, “being a professional was frowned upon. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school.” Then, with a laugh, he added, “And the first to travel to India.”

In the late 1980s, Mr. Turnbull spent a summer in Calcutta working with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Theresa’s religious congregation. “That was a great, great experience. I worked in a place called Prem Dan, a home for the sick and dying that housed tuberculosis victims, deformed people, deranged people, and people with skin ailments. My work there for the summer was to bathe and feed the patients. And I was the barber. I shaved and gave haircuts.”

The road from Queens to Calcutta passed through the U.S. Army, City College, Harvard, and Columbia. Mr. Turnbull studied philosophy and filmmaking as an undergraduate, then received a fellowship to the Carpenter Center at Harvard to study and make films. “I soon discovered I didn’t have the level of talent I was satisfied with in order to make films, but I was interested in films and critical theory, so I went to study in the comparative literature department at Columbia.” He earned master’s degrees from both Harvard and Columbia.

While in New York, he worked with Lionel Rogosin, an independent filmmaker who also owned the Bleecker Street Cinema, one of the city’s most important art houses. In 1980, while teaching English at Columbia but in search of an alternative to city life, he too moved to Sag Harbor.

After her husband’s death, Ms. Turnbull did some legal work but also became interested in psychology and social work. She was on the board of the Hampton Day School, which her children attended, and was involved with the founding of the Hayground School in 1996, after which “I didn’t go back to work in any full-time capacity. Then, I just casually became interested in ceramics.”

She studied functional ceramics with Nancy Robbins, whose studio, Round Pond Pottery, is in Sag Harbor. “She is a good teacher and is very knowledgeable about glazes and chemistry.” About four years ago, Ms. Turnbull moved from making vessels to figurative, sculptural work, producing several series of heads, including one of baby heads, in porcelain and stoneware.

“When I started I liked a rough clay look, then I got into Raku, then my palette expanded,” she said. Some of the glazes look so metallic that a juror of a competition in which Ms. Turnbull won a prize thought the piece was bronze.

More recently she has turned to what she calls “structural or architectural pieces, which I think of as forms of a building.” Those works are accumulations of abstract, geometric elements, stacked in complex configurations. At the moment she is experimenting with plaques, reliefs that suggest aerial views of topography and can be hung on a wall.

“Costantino Nivola had plaques that were framed in a way that you could hang them, which was a whole new way to deal with clay art,” she said. Ms. Turnbull’s sister, Katherine Stahl, is married to Pietro Nivola, the sculptor’s son. The structural pieces in Ms. Turnbull’s studio sit on pedestals she inherited from Nivola.

Since 2010, her work has been exhibited in 15 shows, including a solo show at Lear Gallery in Sag Harbor and, most recently, the Long Island Biennial at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington.

Ms. Turnbull currently serves on the boards of the Hayground School, the Hampton Library, and the Clay Art Guild of the Hamptons. Both she and her husband were trained as hospice workers and worked at the East End Hospice summer camp for many years. He now teaches meditation and tai chi to youth in the substance-abuse program of the East End Regional Intervention Court.

An only child, he said his father and uncles were very good boxers, who taught him well enough that he boxed in school, at amateur venues, and while in the Army. “When I got out of the service, that was it, I was finished with boxing, but I missed the training regimen. I had some experience with Asian martial arts in the Army, so I found a karate instructor. And I stuck with it.”

He was being modest. Mr. Turnbull has taught martial arts for more than 30 years and, after teaching in schools and gyms, opened his own dojo in Southampton, the Aikenkai Shotokan Karatedo Federation. He is a seventh-degree black belt in traditional Japanese karate and a member of the international executive board of the World Japan Karate Association.

While he is retired from the school system and she no longer practices law, the Turnbulls can hardly be said to have slowed down. “But I’m not like John,” she said. “I’m more of a sidekick. We were lucky that at a point in our lives all this came together” — “all this” including five grown children, three of his and two of hers, one wheaten terrier, and a French bulldog.

“Chaos”, left, is one of Sarah Turnbull’s ceramic “anemones.” Her structural pieces, right, are architectural in character. Gary Mamay Photos