Standing on a ladder, Adam Turman looked into the eyes of his latest mural.
He dipped his brush in black paint and, with its narrow edge, outlined the face staring back at him: the football player's helmet, his wrinkled brow. Each stroke was smooth, precise, quick.
Turman is fast. He needs to be. As another day's worth of paint was drying on this mural, at the Palace Community Center in St. Paul, the illustrator sketched new work for the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn. Readied a print for an upcoming art show. Screen-printed posters for a holiday craft fair. He is just one guy, working out of his St. Louis Park garage turned studio. But lately, he is everywhere.
His bright, graphic takes on Minnesota and its characters — a saucy bicyclist, a grimacing Paul Bunyan — span the sides of Minneapolis restaurants and breweries. His mural surrounds the bar of a new, hip hotel. His prints pop up in living rooms and lobbies, on a wall in the White House. He's selling pint glasses now, jigsaw puzzles.
"The work gets around," Turman said, his easy smile softening the bags under his eyes. "That's what's so cool about it."
The ubiquity still surprises him, causes the 41-year-old to shake his head. He's stoked, of course: The murals, in particular, are huge canvases for the business he's been expanding, client by client, since he left his day job almost four years ago. But the California-born, Edina-bred illustrator also worries about overexposure.
So Turman is pushing his work into new directions and looking beyond state lines. Where does an artist who's known for illustrating Minnesota go next?
"I know Minnesota, and I love it," Turman said. "Places I've done artwork of — I've been there. But I feel like I maybe need to start branching out, depicting other areas and other things."
Gig posters and pinups
Inside the Radisson Red hotel in downtown Minneapolis, dozens of crows fly across an orange and red sky that wraps around the bar and restaurant. The biggest birds perch in the corner, their wings defined by thick black lines, their feathers highlighted by slashes of blue and white.
It's a scene straight out of Minneapolis — Turman's take on the crows that gather over Interstate 394 near the Basilica of St. Mary. The highway runs along one wall, the church's grand dome rises above it. But the piece, its birds squawking and a little sinister, is darker than those Turman became known for.
In the early 2000s, Turman's illustration work got going when he hooked up with a poster collective called Squad 19, creating gig posters for rock shows.
He stumbled onto something bigger in 2006, bringing to No Coast Craft-o-Rama a new series of three screen-printed posters featuring iconic Minneapolis signs: Gold Medal Flour, Grain Belt and Pillsbury. He remembers selling dozens of each, people pressing cash into his hand. More than once, he sent his father-in-law back to the house to grab more prints.
"They work really well together, they look cool together, and I sold the crap out of them at that fair," Turman said. "Why not make more pieces like that?"
The following year, Charles Youel recruited Turman to be a part of the first Artcrank, a pop-up bike art show. As Youel was asking around, six or seven people recommended Turman, Youel said. "Everything is kind of out loud with him," he said. "He projects things he cares about and loves in every facet of conversation. So people who knew him thought, 'Yeah, that's a guy who likes bikes.' "
Turman drew a woman and her bicycle, her mass of brunette hair and the Hennepin Avenue Bridge behind her. The poster, screen-printed in rich oranges and reds, is a play on a 1902 Art Nouveau poster called "Cycles Perfecta." It sold out.
"He has this ability to represent Minneapolis in a way that is at once very realistic but also kind of idealized," said Youel, Artcrank's creative director. "Whether it's through the use of perspective, color or composition, he can take these familiar places and present them in a way that makes them feel almost magical.
"It is the best of what you would hope art about a place could accomplish."
Posters led to bigger projects. A mural on the side of Surly's old Brooklyn Center brewery, spotted by the co-owner of Butcher & the Boar, led him to paint that Hennepin Avenue restaurant's side: a babe on a bicycle, a starry Minneapolis skyline. That mural led to another, then a dozen others.
Time-lapse videos capture Turman creating murals — squeezing hours into seconds, years into minutes. His painting shorts are splattered with more colors these days, the tattoos now cover his arms. But he still blasts Iron Maiden, lately via earbuds.
Minneapolis-based Art Force suggested Turman for the Radisson Red, a hotel catering to millennials.
Radisson wanted to incorporate local artists' work throughout the hotel and was looking for "the hottest and most exciting artist currently working" for its mural, said Jennifer Lindgren, a senior art consultant at Art Force.
She had discovered Turman's work in her neighbors' place a few years back and liked "the urban vibe he has with the breweries and the biking." Working with him, Lindgren was impressed by his business sense and quick, clear communication.
"Doing artwork and doing the business of artwork are completely different mind-sets," she said. "To see someone who can work in both worlds is interesting."
Sure, Turman wants to make art he's proud of, Youel said. But he also wants to please his clients, to help them accomplish their goals.
"I think he is the antithesis of the pretentious, standoffish, self-centered artist," Youel said. "I don't know if that person exists, but he's completely on the other end of the universe from that."
Turman had 70 hours and help from an assistant to paint the 1,200 square feet. Because of union rules, he worked from 3 to 10 p.m., switching on shop lights after sunset.
He finished with five hours to spare, he said. "Give me a deadline, I'll hit it."
'My biggest fear'
Turman doesn't call himself an artist.
He's an illustrator, he said, who focuses on his clients: "their brand, their audience, their message, their limitations." His background in graphic design — he graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1999 — made him appreciate those parameters, deadlines.
After a few years of working for design agencies, Turman spent more than a decade in marketing at the U's College of Continuing Education. He staged photo shoots, designed catalog covers, made direct mail pieces. He also built his freelance career, working on posters and projects late into the night.
"Those years doing graphic design, he learned so much and gained so many skills related to client work and deadlines," said his wife, Sara Turman. "But it wasn't his first love. It's always been making posters, or just art in general.
"When I first met him, his favorite was making his mom cry," she said.
Through the years, Turman has drawn or painted gifts for most members of his family. He proposed to Sara with a pen-and-ink drawing that said, in ornate script, "She's my fairy tale." When his stepmom's dog passed away, he painted a portrait that she still keeps on her mantel. For his dad: a pencil sketch of Clint Eastwood.
Last year, for Christmas, he painted murals in his daughters' bedrooms: a unicorn galloping through a forest for his younger daughter, three species of hummingbirds for his older daughter, an amateur birder.
"He's always had that love of giving something to someone," said Sara, a speech pathologist in the Hopkins School District. That extends to his work today: "If it makes other people happy, it's still his dream come true."
That extends to clients, too. Brian Geihl has assisted Turman on a dozen large-scale pieces, starting with that Butcher & the Boar mural. The pair begin with a grid, outlining the design with pencil or chalk, then blocking in colors. ("Paint by numbers," Turman calls it.) Every hour or so, they step back. Assess.
Over the years, Geihl has picked up a host of technical skills from Turman, many of which he's incorporated into his own design and screen-printing at Dogfish Media, he said. But one of the first things he learned from Turman was "how to be a professional," he said. Turman is driven, Geihl continued, and "wants to make sure the client loves the work."
Those clients have included the Guthrie Theater, the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, the Spam Museum. Last year, Turman painted a massive owl inside the A-Mill Artist Lofts.
Does he worry that at some point, people won't feel like they're getting something special?
"Yeah, I worry about that all the time," Turman said. He paused. "I think the style is changing." He paused again. "It's a really hard question because it's something I'm battling.
"It's my biggest fear."
While he never wants to forget his gig poster roots, Turman is pushing himself to depict new subjects — birds among them — and broaden his style. He brought up the Beatles: "I think what's so cool about them is that they started as one thing and ended as a completely different thing."
It's something he discusses with Youel, who has become a good friend, as they bike 40 to 80 miles each week. The two are part of a "cheesy little bike gang" called the Gents, a play on their politeness and the fact that they don't race. ("We're not really a team," Turman said. "We're just friends with matching outfits.")
To Youel, the Radisson mural shows how Turman's style is evolving, how it might adapt to other cities.
"Somebody who's lived in Minneapolis for a while knows there's this particular murder of crows in the Uptown area," he said. But the local angle is "really secondary to the dramatic scene he's able to create."
It's Minnesota, without a bike, bridge or Bunyan in sight.
Want to take a tour of Adam Turman's many Twin Cities murals? Go here for a fun interactive map.