A giant leap of faith transformed
one couple into successful artists and landed them in a Northern
California seaside village
by Susan Haynes
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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,"
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.
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."
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."