On July 3, 2007, a renowned Croatian American artist, Josip Turkalj, died at his home in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. Besides being an exceptional husband and father to six sons, he was a brilliant sculptor, educator, wonderful man, and a friend to many of us.
Turkalj was born on August 10, 1924 in Rakovica, Croatia. Already in his childhood he showed an interest in sculpturing, and being the son of a carpenter gave him the opportunity to carve wooden figures in an early age. Thus, as a 12-year old he helped repair an old wooden statue of an angel, that was damaged by fire in a local church, by carving its new wings.
Turkalj received his higher education at the Fine Arts Academy in Zagreb. Soon after graduation (1952), he left the country in pursuit of freedom and came to Italy. In Rome, he studied at the Academia delle Belle Arti and Scuola Del Medaglio, and received his Masters degree in 1954. The same year, he won first prize for sculpture at the National Student's Exhibition in Milan, Italy.
His talents and works were noticed by the late Ivan Meštrović, and he offered the young Josip a position as his assistant at the University of Notre Dame. Turkalj worked with Meštrović from 1957 until the old Master's death in 1962, and then he continued to teach at the university for three more years. Josip was very close to Mestrović and he used to share with us interesting stories from the Master's life in the final years. He, then, accepted a teaching position at Gilmour Academy and moved to Cleveland in 1965. There he laid the foundation to its art department and led it successfully for decades to come.
During his teaching tenure, he sculptured numerous works that are found throughout America in private collections and public places. Suffice to mention a few: an eighteen-foot bronze Moses on the campus of Notre Dame, two marble statues of Mary (Our Lady of Peace and Our Lady of Bistrica) at the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., a bronze statue of George Washington in the city of Buffalo, also the statues of St. Paul (Croatian church in Cleveland), Cardinal Stepinac (Croatian Home, East Lake, Ohio), St. Francis' Stigmata (Windsor, Ontario), Immigrant Mother (Toronto, Buenos Aires, Zagreb), etc. His works are also found in: Worthington and Duluth, Minnesota; Gary, Indiana; Dubuque, Iowa; Rochester, New York; Villa Maria, Pennsylvania; Detroit, Michigan; St. Thomas, Ontario, and many other public places.
After he retired (1989), Turkalj worked diligently in his studio in the old Croatian neighborhood of the city of Cleveland, where friends and visitors were welcomed to see him at work and to engage with him in delightful conversation about art, the symbolism of his new works, history, and culture. He worked almost to the last day of his life, always full of inspiration and love for creating. During this phase of his life, he produced a large number of smaller and modern sculptures full of harmony, meaning, and splendor.
Turkalj has won a number of prestigious awards, including the above mentioned first prize for sculpture at the National Student's Exhibition in Milan, Italy (1954), the award for best garden sculpture at a joint exhibition of the National Arts Club and The National Sculpture Society (1961), and John Gregory award (1965), an award based on an artist's entire body of work. He was a member, and then a Fellow, of the National Sculpture Society.
Josip Turkalj was a well-known name among the Croatians in America, not only as an artist but as an active member of the Croatian American community and he belonged to several Croatian organizations, including the Association of Croatian Studies. Because of his generosity and involvement among his native people, he received (1999) from the Croatian government the Presidential Award for the Advancement of Croatian Culture.
Those of us who were fortunate to know Joso Turkalj a little closer can attest that besides his professional successes he was a wonderful human being. He was cordial, candid, soft-spoken, and above everything a humble man. His art reflects the deeply cherished values that were imbedded in him from his childhood: love of life, its beauty, and its Creator, love of family, love of his native land, Croatia, and of humanity at large. Each of his sculptures is a reflection of his beautiful soul. Through his works he expressed the most profound human values, and connected himself to the ultimate and eternal Source of love and life.
Not too many people are aware that Turkalj was much interested in studying Croatian medieval ornamental art, its symbolism, and even the question of the origins of the glagolitic script. I recall the times when I would visit him in his studio at the Gilmour Academy after school hours, and we would spend hours talking about such themes. He had a thick folder of pictures and drawings, texts from journals and books dealing with earliest Croatian art history. However, he never found time to publish his findings and conclusions. Joseph Turkalj, or to many just Joso, had a very successful and fruitful life. He and his wife Julia raised a wonderful family, his beautiful works of art are found throughout this country and many other places, he was a well respected man in his community and among his professional colleagues. He has done God's work, done it well, and the Creator has called him home. He will be missed by his wife and his six sons, three daughters in law, his four grandchildren, his brother in Croatia, and his many friends. He has left us, but his love, his gentleness, and his art will always bear witness to his greatness as an artist and human being.
Dr. Ante Čuvalo - President
Association for Croatian Studies