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Irma Turtle: “Be the change you want to see…”

Shea Stanfield~ 12/3/2014

“I personally measure success in terms of contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.” A standard set by the American Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Mead certainly describes local artist and author Irma Turtle.

Irma grew up in Newton, Mass. and attended Smith College, taking a major in practical art. Irma was a huge fan of the abstract expressionist painters, which no doubt contributes to her somewhat graphic, whimsical, and abstract qualities in her drawings, paintings, and written expressions throughout her life.

Upon graduation in 1967, Irma took off for Mexico with the determination to paint for what she calls “an undetermined amount of time.” Her original destination, San Miguel de Allende, was passed over to help a friend with her Spanish, who was traveling further south to Isla de las Mujeres, off the coast of Yucatan.  Irma’s intent was to help out for a few days returning to San Miguel de Allende. As fate would have it, Irma was captivated by the primitive beauty of the island and its enchanting, pristine space; only one small problem confronted her: she had left all her paints behind, anticipating a short turnaround. 

Fortunately, Irma’s friend lent her a set of rapidograph drawing pens. Irma was immediately drawn to the pens and quickly developed her new unique style of expression working in black and white only. Irma called these drawings her “landscapes of the mind.”  After nine months, Irma returned to Boston to pick up a job in the art department of a publishing company, continuing her new black and white drawings at night.  She managed to obtain showings in a gallery in Boston, as well as New York, but the sales were not enough to support her.  By 1970, Irma quit art all together, having “nothing further to say.”

In 1974, Irma moved to New York City for a career in both advertising and publishing.  This work sent her to Brazil from 1981-84, running a small advertising agency for an international company.  But alas, this was not soul-satisfying work, so she quit the white collar world of Madison Ave in 1984.

In 1985, following a trip to southern Algeria to view the spectacular ancient rock art of Africa and meet the Tuareg nomads of the Sahara desert, she started her own adventure travel company, Turtle Tours. Over 12 years Irma traveled to her most popular destinations: Niger, Mali, and Ethiopia, each of which had fascinating tribal groups. Returning often, she became well acquainted with the families, communities, and culture of the areas.  Irma found there was tremendous need across all three countries, so she began to help them with basic supplies. Her travelers often pitched in, as well. By 1997, Turtle Tours had bloomed into the humanitarian foundation known as TurtleWill. For the next 16 years, TurtleWill tirelessly provided aid for education, healthcare, and economic development, with Irma at the helm.

In 2005, she felt the need to pick up her pens, and revisit “self.”  As Irma drew, the challenges, insights, and joys of her work spilled onto the pages. Whole journals began to emerge as a testimony to the land, its peoples and their cultures. 
Then in 2006, a special friend gave her the simple message, “the most important thing you bring to Africa is Love.” Her new drawings turned into color overnight with primary focus on bringing light and love into the world by illustrating Universal Love in action. She called her new style, “Folk Art of the Heart.”

Today, Irma Turtle lives in Cave Creek. Her new book “Nomads I Have Known and Loved” is a masterful collection of stories and photos that celebrate these special indigenous groups of Africa who have retained their cultures and traditions, against all odds. It is a testimony not only to their tenacity to remain as they are but also to their ability to open their homes and hearts to a traveler from a distant land. To Irma they freely confided their wisdom and love. Through them Irma learned to speak with her eyes, listen with her heart, and give with her spirit in the common space of being human. 

Irma Turtle loves the thrill of discovering new opportunities and experiences and watching them evolve. Presently she is working on the theme “random acts of kindness” in an illustrated book of her poetry.  She is living her life with mindfulness in her favorite quote by Mahatma Gandhi “Be the change you want to see.” 

Visit TurtleWill’s African legacy at and Irma Turtle’s Drawings of Universal Love, “Folk Art of the Heart” at Purchase her book “Nomads I Have Known and Loved at or by contacting Irma at or (480) 488-4804.

Contact Arts Columnist Shea Stanfield at