Living with History

Raymond Turknett creates models of American nostalgia and Jacksonville history. 

Raymond Turknett’s roots in Jacksonville’s Westside go as deep as the 1700s. The end of the Wesconnett portmanteau is attributed to his family name; the neighborhood was made up of family farms until the Naval Air Station was built nearby. 

By the time Turknett was born in the early 1950s, suburban sprawl was set in motion. Schools and subdivisions, parking lots and gas stations cropped up on what was once the rural land between Blanding Blvd. and the Ortega River. 

This new landscape inspired much of what would become Turknett’s pandemic pet project half-a-century later. Childhood nostalgia led him on a search for photographs of buildings that had been repurposed or demolished since his youth. He scaled them down and took to cardboard, paper and foam, making models of his memories. 

Of the 60-or-so pieces that he’s made in the last year, about a dozen of them are based on local buildings. Burger joints, convenience stores, and candy shops render the joy of mundane American life from his perspective. 

Most of the rest are material fantasies of places he’s never been to: Disneyland attractions, storefronts along Route 66, venues and theaters of New York and Los Angeles. 

They range from a few square inches to a couple of feet wide. Each piece features hundreds of little details, some so small that they’re barely visible. 

Turknett never had any formal training in 3D art, but the precise artistry in his work would suggest otherwise. His career set him up for success as a modeler, though: He worked as a drafting engineer for 26 years, drawing blueprints for the City of Jacksonville, then did graphic design for a software company and as a freelancer. 

Natural craftsmanship runs in his blood. His father painted signs for a local grocery store as a kid, and made Turknett’s household a creative one. “He did landscape painting and portrait painting,” he said. “He never had any lessons or anything, he just picked it up.” 

He made his first model about a decade ago. After completing a model railroad kit for a friend, he decided to make something more personal: “I thought, I could probably make something of my own that looks more local. I did that Krystal, and I was like, this is kind of easy, I like doing this.” 

Turknett picked the hobby up again last year, and his inclination for buildings that were personal to him remained. He’s only sold a couple of his models and turns down most commission requests, as he creates his work under the conditions of interest and nostalgia. 

Some of the places that he’d like to model were never photographed before they expired. Others are missing reference shots of the sides and interior, so he’ll craft them the way he remembers or imagines them. 

Turknett isn’t a stickler to the hyperreal. He takes a thrifty, practical approach to his work. Tools and materials are sourced from a dollar store, and he frequently uses objects straight out of the recycling bin in his pieces. 

“That was a thing early on, was seeing how cheap I could do it. They have so many things out there, laser cutters, 3D printers. If I had all that I could do all kinds of stuff, but right now I’m seeing what I can do with two hands and an X-ACTO knife,” said Turknett.

He stays true to his reserved nature when sharing his models online. One post featuring a selection of his models got more than 800 likes in a local history group last month. He was much more overwhelmed than proud.

“One guy responded on Instagram saying that if you use hashtags it gets more people and groups. I thought, yeah, I don’t know how to do that. I don’t know if I want to,” Turknett said. “It’s nice to have friends and people I know on there, I appreciate their opinion. Strangers, I don’t know if it’s that big of a deal because I’m not really trying to sell them. I’m not trying to reach a worldwide audience.”

Even as he grapples with increased exposure, his work garners more attention every day, and he’s making more models than he can fit in his home. If he does decide to turn his hobby into a profession, he’s going to have to change his methods.

“I could buy all this expensive material; eventually, I might if I’m really wanting to start doing this as a profession. These things, I’ve sold a couple but a lot of them, but they’re basically just paper. They’re not really made to last, but I put just as much work in.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

What brought you to Jacksonville?

Well, I’m a native with many generations going back. My daddy traced them back to the 1700s. Wesconnett, of course, is named partially after our family, the “nett” part. I know three generations going back: my dad, his dad, his family settled that area of Jacksonville. They’ve been in Jacksonville for, since the beginning, I guess.

How was growing up on the Westside?

It was good. It still had that small town feel to it. Because we were kind of out there in the country, it was a big deal to go into the city and go shopping, go to Sears. It was nice, almost rural. You had little subdivisions here and there, but there were a lot of dairy farms right in the same neighborhood. Kind of a cross between living in the suburbs and in the country. 

What’s your connection to the city? What keeps you here?

It’s changed over the years. As a kid, you don’t think much of anything as far as politics, it’s just a good place to be. I still like it. I’m sort of on the liberal side, and a lot of the stuff here tends to be more conservative. We have four kids, three of them live here, two of them right down the street, and all the grandkids with them.

Did you have any formal training in making models?

Nope. This is sort of a second, not a career, but in my hobby world, career. I’ve always done artwork, doing logos for a lot of bands and drawing things I like to draw. No formal training. I kind of got tired of doing that so something made me start doing this… a friend of mine 10, 15 years ago was gonna build a model railroad, and first he had me build a model that he had bought. I thought, well, I could probably make something of my own that looks more local, and I did that Krystal. I thought, this is kind of easy, I like doing this. I didn’t do it anymore for years until the pandemic, when I thought, maybe I’ll start doing that. 

So I started doing the Disney stuff. I’ve always been a fan of Disney. My dream job would be to work as some sort of designer for Disney. It’s not so much just going to the park, it’s more about actually looking at all the stuff they do, I’d say wow, I’d love to work on that. 

What intrigues you about Disney?

It’s just always been with me. As a kid, just watching stuff: the movies, the Wonderful World of Disney. Even at that young age, [I] would love to have been a part of that work as a designer or engineer or anything. 

There is that Florida connection with Disney too. 

It didn’t come here until I was about 20 years old. But I would watch shows on TV about Disneyland, thinking I would never go there. I still haven’t been, actually. But it was a whole idea, working on something like that. They’re sort of fantasy-based; it’s not just industrial design.

What’s your professional background?

I started full time with the City of Jacksonville as a surveyor at 19 years old. I wasn’t planning on making that a career, but I’d taken a lot of drafting in school, industrial-type courses, in high school. After a couple years I got tired of being outdoors and having to do manual labor, so I went back to doing drafting and wound up moving to City Hall. I worked my way up as high as I could go. After 26 years, they offered an early retirement plan, so I took that, and I could go work somewhere else for next to nothing just to make the difference up. A friend of mine had started a software company and I asked if they needed anybody to do graphics, and they did, so they hired me. I worked for them for 18 years up until five or six years ago. 

So all that stuff, computer design and graphics I learned on my own, playing around. I got proficient enough to do stuff for them. I was redoing photographs, equipment, their logos and advertising. Anything that had to do with graphics, they gave to me. 

Both of those kind of lead into your hobby-career. It really is scaled-down graphics and industrial design. 

Well, the only formal training I had was in architectural drafting, the drawing part. My dad was the same way. He was never taught how to do anything; he started painting signs when he was 12 years old for a little local grocery store. Everything he did his whole life he was so good at, and he never had any training, he just picked it up. 

What makes you want to model buildings that aren’t there anymore?

I guess it’s sort of a nostalgia thing. You think back about places you remember when you grew up that had some sort of meaning, that don’t seem real important but had an impact. Something like Milligan’s is like, wow, this is the greatest thing ever when you were a kid. Now you look back, it’s like, I really had good memories going to places like that. It’s obscure. Most people have never heard of it, so it’s neat that it’s just a regular thing.

It’s hard to say what intrigues me on certain things. People say I ought to do this place or that place, well, nothing grabs me. It’s a cool looking building, but it has to have a spark of interest and nostalgia. Some of them, I think I’d like to do, but it’s way too complicated for what I think I can do with the skills I have. Usually it’s a matter of I see something that I like and just decide to do it. 

So it’s the nostalgia of seeing the place you grew up in change and grow?

Nostalgia… well, yeah, of course there’s always that. Part of it is going back now trying to find pictures of stuff is hard to do. It doesn’t exist in a lot of cases. It’s so sad it’s gone. Even just a memory of it. I don’t necessarily want the building to still be there, but for some kind of history to be preserved would be nice. 

What’s your process like in making these, after you see something that you like and start on it?

Well, I follow a lot of other modelers now on Instagram and stuff, and I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s bad in the fact that I just find out how limited I am. Some of them are so good. They do professional, museum-grade, quality stuff. Mine are just some little things for fun. I do them sort of from a perspective like Hollywood does in building a movie set. They just build the front, that’s all you’re gonna see, you go around back, it’s just wood holding the thing up. Some people say, you gotta build every little detail, no, that’s a waste of time. Some of these, if you look in the back, it’s not very pretty. So it’s what it would look like from a distance; it might not be super detailed. 

What I don’t like is that some of the stuff gets tedious. You’ll be working on something and have 50 of the same little features you gotta cut out and glue and after 10 you say OK, I’m tired of doing this. But you gotta finish it.

Do you sell any of your pieces?

The first one I sold was this guy that wanted a model of the Disneyland fire station in a specific scale. He had a 1/43 scale of the Herbie the Love Bug Volkswagen that one of the movies used. I thought, I’ll just throw a number out there, if he takes it, great, and he jumped on it. 

Some people ask for stuff I don’t really want to do. Like I said, it’s gotta be a personal connection. The only other one I sold was the Sun-Ray theater. I first did that one because I was doing a lot of theaters in the art deco style that really intrigued me just by their style. I thought there’s gotta be some in Jacksonville. I saw that one, I did it and posted it. My daughter-in-law knows the guy that owns the place. She showed it to him, he said he’d love to see it, so we took it over there, and he asked if I’d like to sell it. I said sure. What better place to have it than his building. 

I better start selling them because they’re getting overwhelming… a few here, a few there, now I’ve got over 60 and I’m running out of room. The problem is, they’re not really made to last, but I put just as much work in as one that’s built out of wood or clay. I just feel like I couldn’t charge as much money as [others] do because it’s not as durable. The ones that I’ve sold I haven’t charged what I put in it as far as time goes. It would be maybe $2 an hour, so it wouldn’t be a good living if I did it for a living. 

So I’m kind of at that crossroad right now, where, what do I want to do with it? Do I want to make something out of it, like a side job or career or whatever to make money? I’d have to invest more, do it a different way. So I’m at a standstill right now.

About Isa Barrientos