Turkey Tolson was born under a tree beside a creek bed about eight kilometres east of Haasts Bluff. After years working in the Haasts Bluff stock camp, droving cattle to Mount Leibig he underwent initiation in to manhood and the family moved in to the Papunya settlement where Turkey worked as a construction labourer and in the communal kitchen. In 1961 he married and moved with his young family to an outstation west of Papunya. After his first wife’s untimely death he remarried at Papunya where he lived during the early years of the painting movement. He joined the Papunya Tula artists as one of its youngest members, and painted his earliest artwork for Geoff Bardon in 1972. Other early paintings date from 1973 onwards.
Tolson’s unassuming leadership style and commitment to the community led him to remain focused on the more anonymous collective meaning of his work to the detriment of any personal ambition throughout the 1980’s. He was, in fact, the artist Chris Anderson of the South Australian Museum had in mind when he stated ‘Andy Warhol didn’t have a CV either. I mean- they’re not artists on the make. They’re not part of the whole career structure’ (cited in Johnson 1996: 98). Yet Tolson’s individual approach and quiet creative momentum were the hallmarks of, and informed, what became an enduring career.
During his early period Turkey Tolson was one of the most innovative and figurative artists of the Papunya Tula movement. In the 1980’s he travelled to Paris with Joseph Jurra Tjapaltjarri to create a sand painting as part of the Peintres Aborigines d’Australie exhibition. He collaborated with renowned artist Tim Johnson, supervising Johnson’s use of sacred designs in Emu, Porcupine and Bandicoot Dreaming 1983. Throughout his distinguished career Tolson’s desire to experiment and his versatility were abundantly manifest as he embraced new, less traditional mediums including the prints he created for the Utopia Suite and multicolour woodblocks which were, according to Stephen Rainbird, 'a bold expression of his individual sensibility and creativity, his artistic maturity and outstanding carving skill' (1994: 182). His prints were included in the comprehensive survey of Aboriginal printmaking New Tracks, Old Land, which was shown to international acclaim in America, and toured 25 venues throughout Australia during the early 1990’s.
Turkey Tolson was elected Chairman of Papunya Tula in 1985 and held this role until 1995 despite painting for a variety of outside dealers from the early 1990’s onward. He became one of the company’s best-known artists, and seemingly had no problem in marrying this status with his desire to act independently as and when the circumstances seemed propitious.
His paintings were invariably included in landmark exhibitions from the early 1980’s onward. These included the exhibition of works from the Richard Kelton collection, Contemporary Australian Art 1981 at the Pacific Asia Museum in Los Angeles, The Face of the Centre at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1985, Aratjara: Art of the First Australians which toured Germany and the UK in 1993-1994 and Papunya Tula: Genesis and Genius at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000.
Tolson’s versatility in medium and practice was firmly grounded in his superb command of the more traditional painting techniques. His most emblematic and famous images are of Straightening of Spears at Ilyingaungau. Mick Namarari, in fact, was at Kirdungurlu for many of Turkey Tolson’s Dreamings and this in part accounts for the striking resonance between their paintings of the period. Turkey’s Spear Straightening images depict spears lying in the desert. The subtle modulations of line and tone evoke the quintessential desert landscape. This, according to Johnson (1994), was one of the most influential artworks of the Papunya Tula movement. Mindful of the profusion of major abstracted canvases produced by artists like Mick Namarari, George Tjungurayai, Willy Tjungurayai, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, and a number of other senior Pintupi men from the late 1990’s onward Turkey Tolson becomes the pre-eminent figure in the last decade of the Central Desert art movement and the importance of his work can not be overstated.