Student Spotlight: Kelsey Turnis uses art to explore environmental crises

First-year undergrad Kelsey Turnis isn’t taking her time at the UI for granted—from using her art to advocate for environmental issues to experimenting with new artforms such as tattooing, Turnis is trying it all.


Addie Bushnell, Arts Reporter

Kelsey Turnis is only in her first year at the University of Iowa, but she’s already making waves in the Iowa City art scene. Turnis, who hails from Cedar Rapids, is comfortable in several mediums, including ink, watercolor, and acrylic. A set of her ink drawings, which features the skeletal forms of four different animals, hangs in High Ground Cafe, where she works as a barista.

Despite her artistic talents, Turnis is not an art major. In fact, Turnis has never taken an art class in her life. This hasn’t kept her from honing her craft and experimenting in as many mediums and styles as possible — and she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.

“I really love all kinds of mediums of art,” Turnis said. “I want to do every single kind I can before I die. I’ve done animation, I’ve worked with clay, acrylic, oil, watercolor — I recently got into tattooing as well.”

Turnis stated that she is interested in taking art classes at the UI, specifically in printmaking and woodblock printing, in the future. Turnis is currently directing her artistic talents towards creating posters and merchandise for musicians in the Iowa City music scene.

Turnis’s involvement in the local music scene can be partially attributed to her living arrangements. She lives in a housing collective that holds shows for local bands and singer-songwriters. Recently they hosted Cowpoke, a two-person band made up of UI student duo Elli Bandstra and UI alumn Aaron Longoria.

Along with hosting concerts and honing her tattooing skills, Turnis is using her time at the UI to study environmental science, which is the inspiration behind much of her artwork.

“I love the natural world; I pretty much only draw animals and plants,” Turnis said. “I think the natural world has endless inspiration.”

Turnis’s Instagram page features much of her artwork. One of her most recent posts is a watercolor painting that honors her family dog. The rich brown hues of the dog, which sits in the foreground of the painting, contrast the wash of greens and oranges of the agricultural landscape and the rust red hills in background.

Related: Geometrical landscapes and foreboding futures: Drew Etienne’s inspirational artwork comes to life in his small studio

Turnis also said that she often just creates “art for the beauty of art.” She grew up in an artistic family — both her mother and her grandmother were painters. She said they greatly influenced Turnis on her journey to becoming an artist, which began during her high school years.

“I started off doing mostly art for bands and designing posters and merchandise for the music scene in Cedar Rapids,” she said. “Then I got into painting and drawing, and after starting my major here, I got into creating art that related to environmental issues, and that’s where I want to take my art in the future.”

Turnis said that she would like to use her art to bring awareness to the environmental crisis. She stated that because there’s so much information online and in the media, it’s hard to get people to pay attention. Turnis’ environmental artworks often feature earthy tones mixed with ink, simple renditions of animals and plants, and activist slogans penned in bubble letters.

According to Turnis, art is a platform that she said can use to bring tough issues to light.

“Throughout history, art has played a big role in shaping political movements or articulating social and political commentary,” Turnis said.

Although she is only a freshman, Turnis has big goals for her future career. She plans to stay in Iowa and work in sustainability or environmental advocacy. She was recently inspired by a lecturer from Iowa City’s Office of Sustainability who mentioned that one of Iowa’s biggest environmental issues is that many sustainability majors leave the state after graduation. Turnis plans to break that pattern.

“Being such a huge agricultural state, there are a lot of environmental issues that people aren’t really aware of here,” Turnis said. “We really need people to fight to protect our resources and our land.”

Fast Facts:

Hometown: Cedar Rapids

Top artist at the moment: Remember Sports

Dream place to live: Scotland

Dream place to work: any National Park

Favorite place for a late night bite: Yacht Club has the best chicken nuggets

Favorite movie: Moonrise Kingdom

Last song stuck in head: Jurassic Park Theme Song