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1-2-3 blast off
After raffling her ride, local artist activist is ready to launch
Artist Melissa Turner raffled off her 1989 Toyota Van Wagon to raise funds for her upcoming residency in Denmark.

As a connoisseur of art cars, those odd vehicles whose owners have chosen to paint wild colors or say, affix myriad objects upon, I have great admiration for Melissa Turner’s vibrant minivan.

With its bright blue panels, purple roof and rocket ship insignia, it’s hard to miss. And that’s exactly what Turner was going for when she commissioned local signpainter Leonard Miller to jazz it up last November.

The 31 year–old artist also had Miller pen the phrase “Launch Me into Space” along with “$10 Raffle Tickets” in sunny yellow. So this isn’t just art for art’s sake – it’s a van with a plan.

Technically, it’s not even hers anymore. Turner recently raffled off the 1989 Toyota Van Wagon to raise funds for her upcoming residency in Copenhagen, Denmark, where she’ll participate in a five–month collaboration with city planners and other artists from around the world. The project, spearheaded by the School of Critical Engagement, aims to find creative solutions to urban problems like mobility and use of greenspace — challenges also found here in Savannah.

A visionary who has always sought practical ways to implement change, Turner studied printmaking at SCAD and spent eight years in humanitarian aid, working on a hospital ship in the Philippines and building houses in Mexico. While in Copenhagen, she’ll live with low–income families to discern how their spatial needs can be improved. She’ll also need cash for food, traveling expenses and a really warm coat.

She sold about 75 raffle tickets for the splashy vehicle, mostly to Savannah’s community of independent artists who understand the value of what Turner will learn in Copenhagen–and hopefully bring back to Savannah. The drawing was held at Foxy Loxy Cafe on Dec. 10, and musician Dare Dukes held the winning ticket.

“I’m thrilled to finally have a cargo vehicle large enough haul around my collection of broken dreams and American sneaker memorabilia,” wrote Dukes in a Facebook message. “I hate to have accomplished this on the back of a starving artist, but I love Melissa and I’m happy to have been a part of her path to art–making in foreign lands.”

Though he adores Miller’s mobile mural, Dukes says he’ll probably repaint the van to avoid confusion about a raffle that’s already past. Turner will turn over the van sometime before Jan. 12, when her flight to Denmark leaves from New York (she’s looking for a ride to JFK airport anytime before that, if you’re heading that way.)

As she pares down her possessions, Turner is overflowing with ideas about how art informs society. Though she calls herself a nomad, she also has plans to develop the non–profit Launch Me Into Space into its own Savannah–based urban–residency program.

As one weird van lady to another, I sat down last week with Turner at Foxy Loxy as she prepared to launch.

So you’ve basically sold everything for this experience.

Melissa Turner: It’s been pretty much a total liquidation. I sold my art supplies, everything I own. I thought the van raffle would be a fun and interesting way to gain support.

What skill set will you be using in Copenhagen?

Melissa Turner: My submission was based on my application for the Fulbright Program, in which I presented myself as less of an artist and more as a researcher. I worked in humanitarian aid for many years, in slums, basically, where people make spaces with whatever is available. I’ve created installations based on that, and this project is a practical application of my research. It’s process–oriented work. I’m into anthropology, into psychology, definitely into space. I don’t have the mind for architecture and I don’t have the ability to sit still and be a planner, but I think I can assist those people to think outside the box.

What in the world is a “spatial intervention”? Is that like Trading Spaces?

Melissa Turner: Kind of, actually. This residency collaboration involves city planners and architects, and they want to artists to come and live with residents for ten days at a time and see what people’s needs are and come up with creative ways to implement them.

The planners who work with the city are trained in a very specific school, same with architects. As artists, we don’t have those rules or responsibilities, and the city wants us to contribute that kind of thinking to their urban plan. We’re trying to make people more mobile and make better use of space. This is just phase one a five year project.

How can this work be applied to Savannah and where?

Melissa Turner: This work can be of use in some many places here, especially west of MLK and east of Broad Street. There are so many vacant lots, so many people who don’t have jobs and so many ways we can build more community. We can start off by asking residents what it is they need, whether it’s free wireless access or cultivating local food resources. Half the people here don’t even have internet. That’s the new social divide – the access to information.

Our elected officials need to support people who want to plant gardens, build networks and feed kids healthy food instead of blocking those efforts. The city needs to respond to the way a community feels, not just with a few people at the top dictating regulations.

There’s a group called Civic Center in New Orleans that does social and spatial interventions that would work well in Savannah. For example, it would go into one of these boarded–up projects and spray paint a sign asking what the neighborhood would like to see there. I proposed that New Orleans should be the big sister of Savannah because there are a lot of parallels geographically, historically and socially. Savannah could learn so much from what they’re doing over there right now.

Who is Leonard Miller?

Melissa Turner: He’s a Savannah sign painter who’s been doing it since ’81 — a lot of seafood places and barber shops have his hand–painted signs. He’s also known as “The Sand Man” because he does those special sand castles out at Tybee. I was introduced to his work by Susan Falls, who’s an anthropology professor at SCAD. Ironically, her husband, Dare Dukes, is the person who won the van!

I tracked down Leonard’s number from a muffler shop and told him I wanted to paint my van and call it “Launch Me into Space.” He loved the idea. I only wanted to do half the van at first because I was nervous, but once I saw it I told him to do the whole thing. I kept saying “This is incredible. And ridiculous. And awesome.”

Do you think artists have a responsibility to society as much as they do to their inner vision?

Melissa Turner: Definitely. As artists, we translate things. We translate things from society back to itself. You also have to be responsible to your gift or you’re making nothing but shit. You can spray paint it gold and make it pretty and sell it as a commodity, but in the end you’re not building anything.

I think there’s a real shift in art happening right now because the way artists used to make money isn’t available anymore, unless you want to go to New York and do that hustle. If you want to stay here, you’ve got to get your fingers in the social action aspects of life. You need to cultivate a lot of skills and gather a lot of different tools not only so you won’t starve, but so you can be a part of the community. Be available to do your art, participate in the Savannah Bicycle Coalition, support the farmers’ market.

I have no fear of failing; I’ve already hit the ground a hundred times. I don’t just want to be known as an artist. I’d like to collaborate with the UN someday. I didn’t just go to school to paint pictures and sell things — I want to make things better. 

Though her van is no longer up for grabs, you can still support Melissa via her Facebook page, at local Ameris bank branches and She’ll also be keeping a blog at