James Turrell was born in Los Angeles, California. His father, Archibald Milton Turrell, was an aeronautical engineer and educator. His mother, Margaret Hodges Turrell, trained as a medical doctor and later worked in the Peace Corps. His parents were Quakers.
Turrell obtained a pilot's license when he was 16 years old. Later, registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, he ended up flying Buddhist monks out of Chinese-controlled Tibet. Some writers have suggested it was a CIA mission; Turrell called it "a humanitarian mission" — and that he found "some beautiful places to fly." For years he restored antique planes to support his "art habit."
He received a BA degree from Pomona College in perceptual psychology in 1965 (including the study of the Ganzfeld effect) and also studied mathematics, geology and astronomy there. Turrell enrolled in the graduate Studio Art program at the University of California, Irvine in 1966, where he began making work using light projections. In 1973 he received an MA degree in art from Claremont Graduate University. In 2004, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Haverford College.