Wednesday, January 26, 2011

New Painting: Life in Sultanahmet!

Istanbul, a universal beauty where poet and archeologist, diplomat and merchant, princess and sailor, northerner and westerner screams with same admiration. The whole world thinks that this city is the most beautiful place on earth.
~Edmondo De Amicis

Life in Sultanahmet. Im not sure if this will be the official title of this painting, but it will be for now!

It's no secret, I miss living in Istanbul. I've become that sad woman who still pines for her long lost lover, in this case my former lover is the city of Istanbul. A year and a half later the city still plagues my thoughts, creeps it's way into my conversations, my dreams, the artwork I do. I have very good reasons for leaving, just as I'll have very good reasons for returning one day. But luckily for me, unlike former lovers, Istanbul isn't going anywhere, and will willingly take me back anytime I choose to slip into it's warm embrace. Ahhh, Istanbul, you're a whore, but my love affair with you is never ending. As Fatih Mehmet once said, "Either I conquer Istanbul or Istanbul conquers me."

When I think of wandering the streets of Sultanahmet with Rene,
I think of umbrellas, kitties and market days.

This painting is a bit of a special one, because I've painted some personal elements of my own life in the painting, not just the idillic aspects of life I usually aim for. Sultanahmet in particular is bursting with the kind of detail I thrive on. The cats are the sultans at street level, the seagulls reign over the skies. Everyday simple activities, such as stopping to pet cats, shaking out carpets, picking up the day's bread (Bread is very important in Turkey) and lowering a basket to collect your groceries are all awesome subject matter for painting in my opinion. I miss this simple yet colourful kind of life, of going to the vegetable markets on Wednesdays, chatting with neighbours, stopping for tea with Musa, peeking around the dark corners with Rene and discovering ancient things that were new to us.

You never know what could be below your feet in Istanbul.

One thing I loved about Sultanahmet in particular as that I always wondered what was below my feet, as Sultanahmet, being the seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, was often raised to the ground in fire and battle, creating the possibility for people to discover new things, such as palace rooms below carpet shops and houses, even abandoned cisterns under people's basements. I've read that people used to fish into the cisterns through holes in their basements. One famous cistern next to Hagia Sophia was built with Roman columns looted from a nearby temple, the giant head of the Pagan Goddess Medusa upside down and drowned in the water, to show that Christianity now ruled the Empire. Thousands of Janissaries were slaughtered and buried under the floor of the hippodrome, a place I usually walked through to get to the Metro everyday. Vlad the Impaler's head (better known as Dracula) once swung off a spike at the Topkapi Palace but was later misplaced- either sent to a watery grave in the Marmara Sea or buried somewhere under Bank Street, is the rumour. You can't make this stuff up! Istanbul is built on stories, each one fuelling, thrilling and inspiring. Sigh.

Aside from my sister and I returning from the Wednesday shopping trip at the market, I also included two famous (or infamous!) inhabitants of Sultanahmet- My neighbour Virginia, an American who owned the Family Pizza Pie Place in Sultanahmet and graciously agreed to host our first exhibit, Paintings Prints and Pizza! In 2009. She then moved shop over to Java Studio and we had another exhibit there later in the year. In the mornings we often had chats over the balcony, drinking coffee in the sun, admiring the weed-type tendencies of the grape vines on our balcony.

Musa, was our landlord, and I have written a blog about Musa's weaving. (Link at the bottom of the page.) He is a self taught weaver and uses mostly natural dyes. But Musa thwarts Turkish tradition and does his own Kilim designs, sometimes swirled patterns, sometime tulips or reproduced works of art in tapestry. The kilim above is one we bought for my mother for Christmas; She fell in love with Musa's weaving and so we traded our washing machine for this kilim when we left. I still keep in touch with Musa, Our emails short but hilarious. He is my Turkish Papa, currently hanging out in Muscat for the next month at a big exhibition being held there.
Sultanahmet Boy sometimes as pesky as the seagulls and the cats. But always with shiny shoes!

This guy is no one in particular, but he's got two things distinctly Sultanahmet about him. One, he's got a loaf of bread tucked under his arm, which is an important part of life in Turkey. Bread is the staple of life, and so it is never casually tossed on the ground or in the garbage. This is a little bit of a hardship for foreigners like me who don't really want to offend the locals, but can't plough through a loaf of bread in a day, even if my sister helps me. I have also heard that birds are not set up digestively to break down gluten in their systems, so feeding stale bread to the birds is not necessarily a good idea (Depending on what you think of seagulls, of course!). Many locals soak bread in milk and feed it to the numerous stray cats, which might be a good way of disposing it, as I bet cats have tougher digestive systems. I could be wrong here though.

This guy also has pointy leather shoes, the big style for carpet salesmen working in Sultanahmet. I personally find them a little silly looking, but these men primp and polish their shoes lovingly as rich men polish sports cars. Just below the shoes you'll notice a pearl necklace lost in the dirt. If you look closely, you'll notice there is a coptic cross on the necklace, a shout out to the Byzantine Empire, and this is also a design element that pops up in the cave paintings in Cappadoccia in Central Turkey.

The sky over Sultanahmet.

And lastly the sky. I had a lot of trouble with this sky, partly because I'd drawn umbrellas into the composition but it wasn't raining. Any attempt at a cloudy sky didn't feel right. I wasn't getting it, and the rough sky didn't seem to fit with the rest of the painting. So I decided to lay a design over the sky to solve that problem. The sky is now one of my favourite parts about this painting. If you are familiar with my work you'll know that I like to work detail like this, and it is particularly fitting for a painting of Istanbul, which is covered in layers of it's own perfect intricate designs. I've never done any paintings with this tight, shell-shaped design, though this basic shape is found in the cobblestone streets all over Istanbul. I wanted something organized and perfect (but not too perfect! It still needs personality!), as much as Turkish design is based on geometry and perfection.



  1. I've said it before, but it demands repeating! This painting perfectly captures out time on Dizdariye Sk! Love those little grey mosques, ever-present cats, (don't worry about their digestive systems- they'll eat anything from the dormitory garbage bin!), and of course the big blue sky. Bravo Sis!

  2. Thank you. What a wonderful explanation of the various elements in your painting. It makes me want to visit Turkey, but only if you or Rene would be the guide. :)


  3. One day, Shannon! I think one of us, if not both of us, will end up there again someday!

  4. the girl with more information then anyone, really anyone, I know

  5. Ha ha, KC, you are awesome. But I'm just a know-it-some. ; )

  6. I absolutely love this painting and the most interesting stories that go with it. As Shannon said, it makes a person want to visit Turkey.

  7. what a bunch of lovely paintings!!!

  8. This is lovely! I met my dear husband in Sultanahmet in the summer of 2004 and you captured that summer for me perfectly! :)