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Costal Living Article - May/June 2002

A giant leap of faith transformed one couple into successful artists and landed them in a Northern California seaside village

Ark to Triumph
by Susan Haynes

John Turnbull did everything he could to get fired, " I tried attitude problems," he says. That didn't work. "I told them I was too old for the pace, not the right guy anymore. " Still no luck. "Finally, I just had to resign, " says the former regional sales manager.

With a comfortable lifestyle in upscale Saratoga California, near San Jose, things were going well for John and his wife, Debbie. But after 12 years of constant travel and pressure, he wanted to turn his world inside out.

Debbie was equally inclined to bolt, and their destination was clear: Mendocino, on the coast about 155 miles north of San Francisco. For years, the 50s-something couple had treasured their weekend visits to this historic New England-style village. They especially liked the town's penchant for the arts.

John himself had evolved into a spare-time artist since his boyhood, when he made wooden toys as a hobby. As an adult fascinated by the biblical story of Noah, he carved pine animals to replace broken creatures in his grandson's store-bought-ark set. Neighbors began saying, "You know, you could sell those."

The idea gained momentum on a bright October Sunday in 1993 during one of their Mendocino trips. Leaving a postcard-perfect church by the sea, Debbie said to John, "Let's take this step," and they drove to a real estate office. A listing five minutes from Mendocino's Main Street cast its spell. "Once I saw this house," Debbie says of the home they've now lived in for eight years, "I had to have it." The property's 5 acres, however, dashed their hopes of leveraging the Saratoga home's equity into a mortgage-free life. "We'd lie in bed thinking, 'How can we make this work?'" Debbie says, "And we had the same vision at the same time." Like Noah, the Turnbulls decided to build an ark. John served as master craftsman; Debbie, the mistress of color and detail.

By August, they had a booth in the San Francisco International Gift Fair, a mecca for retail trendsetters. John and Debbie nervously set up their display: four different tabletop-size Noah's Arks decked with pairs of animals.

"By the law of average, with 10,000 trades people going through the show, we would surely have some interest," says John. "But after the first day, we had nothing. Back in the hotel room that night, I thought, 'What have we done?' By that time I had quit my job and we had a new mortgage." While Debbie poured a glass of wine and called the children to rave about the good time they were having, "I went into the bathroom, closed the door, got down on my knees, and prayed," John says. Whether it was Debbie's optimism or John's faith, the next day's show became their last trade fair. "We got orders from clients we still have today," he says.

Debbie modestly claims no artistic background and says painting the critters is simple. "She is totally wrong, " John protests. "It's thanks to her that we are gallery level." Precision goes into every piece they create and sign, and "each animal gets a kiss before it goes," says Debbie.

That's a lot of kisses. To date, the Turnbulls have shipped more than 430 arks with some 43,000 painted pine animals. The number of pairs varies with different models. Aided only by a scroll saw, sander, drill press, and paints, the couple won't expand the ark labor force beyond their two pairs of hands. More workers and an assembly line "would turn what we do into manufacturing," John says. "It would undermine everything we came here for."

Scenic beauty and peaceful spirit were the obvious lures. Beyond that, the Turnbulls thrive on the town's diversity and tolerance. As part of the creative community, "we're totally accepted here," Debbie says. "What more do we need? We're making a living from our art, and living where we want to live."


Mendocino Ark