From Today's Zaman, one of Istanbul's Daily English Language Newspapers!
Expat Zone: A Sister Act: Sister Artists!
Canadian sisters Melanie (R) and Rene Mehrer, who moved to İstanbul after traveling around the world, will open an art exhibit of their interpretations of İstanbul's sites in the city's historic Sultanahmet neighborhood this weekend.
Two Canadian sisters, each a world traveler and an artist in her own right, recently have settled in together in a cozy apartment in their “favorite world neighborhood, Sultanahmet.”
However, Rene and Melanie Mehrer spend little lounging time there as they are much too busy exploring what the entirety of our fair city has to offer them in terms of adventure and art.
Hailing from Naramata, a small town outside of Vancouver, British Columbia, in the early '90s, the sisters moved to Victoria on Vancouver Island to complete their university studies. There they both studied visual arts and art history, fields which fostered their love of painting and print-making and also increased their understanding of and interest in Islamic art history. That growing interest spurred their individual over-a-decade long explorations of the world. Their pursuit of art landed them eventually in İstanbul.
They speak fondly of their native home, informing us that it is part of the wine region of Canada, producing fine wines that rival those in France. Melanie comments that Naramata, known as "Napa North," has become a haven for gourmet “foodies” and wine connoisseurs alike. Interestingly enough, she also states that the landscape there bears a striking resemblance to the area around Ephesus.
Older sister Rene, first to leave home by five months, was also the first to move to İstanbul in 2005, with Melanie arriving only months ago after a two-year stint teaching in Abu Dhabi. Their adventurous spirits have led them through many countries, in each of which they stored up photographic and graphic memories of the cultures encountered and enjoyed. This dynamic duo's peregrinations have led them through the Dominican Republic, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, India, Cambodia, Thailand, Bali, Singapore, the US, China, Mexico, Bulgaria, Greece and, of course, Turkey! The only places that the sisters have not experienced together as residents or visitors are Cuba, France, Germany and Spain.
Their travel lust perhaps began when Rene visited Egypt in 1995 and was “blown away” by the art, architecture and ancient culture so visible there. Initially drawn to pharaonic art and architecture, her close-up encounters with visual expressions arising from Islamic culture caused her to pursue an intensive study of Islamic art. In the meantime, Melanie kept up with her own Islamic art history studies. She mused, "In my last year, I took a course on Ottoman architecture and we covered the buildings of Sultanahmet. I had no idea I was studying my future backyard at the time!"
After three years of living in Asia, the sisters decided to venture on a three-month overland trip from Egypt to İstanbul. After some interesting but hard traveling through Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the tired Mehrers safely arrived in Cappadocia. They wound their way to İstanbul, where they put down their bags and relaxed for two-and-a-half weeks. "We loved it so much that we determined to come back!" exclaimed Rene. Their tales about the trip and the following adventures make up a story yet to be written and illustrated.
Teaching English in Taipei and exercising their artistic muscles in order to relax after long school hours, the sisters could not shake off their memories of Turkey. In 2004, the sisters returned to take a two-month plunge, bathing themselves in the history and culture of Konya and Edirne. Apparently, that short trip was but an all too brief a shower. Now they soak themselves in the glories of İstanbul, past and present.
Despite joint years of overseas experience, which have made adjusting to life in İstanbul relatively easy, even seasoned expats can be surprised. Melanie commented with a giggle that: "After living in Abu Dhabi, I was amazed to see people smiling and holding hands in the streets. I saw people kissing in the park and I couldn't believe it! I took a picture and sent it to my friends back in Abu Dhabi to show them how free and liberal İstanbul was!" Apart from dodging about in traffic and avoiding the advances of over-eager merchants, a major challenge has lain in learning yet another language. Having three years of practice, Rene admitted that her Turkish isn't too bad, but new arrival Melanie is still struggling with the getting past the basics. It also helps that they have a wide circle of expatriate friends.
When asked the usual question about their current choice of residence in such a “touristic area,” Rene responded, "Some people think we're crazy to live over here, but there's nothing like walking past the Aya Sofya to the tram in the morning. We love it. Everyday it amazes me that these buildings are so old and so beautiful. In Sultanahmet, with every step you wonder what hidden secret is below your feet. For a Canadian, this kind of history is unbelievable.”
Living together again, Rene and Melanie find their artistic juices twice as stimulated. Everywhere the siblings have traveled and taught, they “did” art. Now they “do” art here with each other's encouragement and cooperation, creating works inspired by encounters with the vibrant life in and the culture and characters of İstanbul. While working individually as print-makers, they often collaborate on a particular work. Melanie often creates the carvings with Rene producing the actual prints. All the while, they maintain their own directions and mediums; Melanie's specialty is gouache painting and Rene's is collage. Yet, their vision is the same.
For such creative souls, İstanbul holds a special allure. The sisters' curiosity lures them to explore the city's fascinating nooks and crannies equally on European and Asian sides. Summing up the wanderings, they said, “We find the city inspiring. You step outside and there are beautiful old buildings and lots going on at street level. It's easy to be inspired to create art in İstanbul because there is interesting subject matter every few feet.” It is noteworthy that these artists' subject matter is not limited to the obviously historic and magnificent. Many of their renderings reflect a careful observation of the minutia of Turkish daily life, of the ordinary characters that populate the back streets and of this city's cultural oddities and standards.
The newest chapter of the sisters' saga is their first joint exhibition ever. On the weekend of May 23-24, a special show entitled "Paintings, Prints and Pizza" is open to the public at the Family Pizza Pie Place in Sultanahmet (below the Arasta Bazaar, across from the Sarnıç Hotel). Their colorful and sometimes whimsical interpretations of the “usual sights” will either take your breathe away or make you laugh with joy.
Melanie's invitation: "It's a great time for us to show what we've done and see what the interest is in what we love to do. Come by for a peek at the artwork and for a slice of pizza. We'd love to meet you." Do take advantage of meeting these two artistically productive wandering women between 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.
A view of these sisters' art promises to be a true Turkish delight.
Family Pizza Pie Place: Küçük Aya Sofya Cad. N. 39A, Sultanahmet
Phone: 638 8156
Show times: Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday, 12 p.m. to midnight
21 May 2009, Thursday
VIRGINIA LOWE İSTANBUL