THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY
Oscar Wilde’s classic story The Picture of Dorian Gray is about a man who stays young and angelic-looking no matter what. HIs portrait, however, reflects the marks of his horrifyingly dissolute life, gradually becoming monstrous. I’ve always thought monsters were more fun to draw.
So you’ve got the Grand Bazaar, a jostling festival of color, light and noise. It’s five and a half centuries old. Then you’ve got the 17th-century Buyuk Valide Han, its dim and hoary second floor looking like the grandmother of all ghost stories.
Han means Workplace. Buyuk means Big, and Valide was the title given to the Mother of the Sultan. This particular mother was Kosem Valide Sultan, whose iron hand dandled for thirty years a succession of puppet rulers: child sultans, viziers and Janissaries. Mother of Sultans Murat IV and Ibrahim, she built Buyuk Valide Han shortly before her death in 1641. One urban legend says that she so angered one of her sons that he imprisoned her here.
Up the steep hill above the Spice Bazaar is an area called Mercan. Crowded between other buildings is the yawning mouth of Buyuk Valide Han.
It’s the biggest in Istanbul, three main courtyards and dozens of workshops and stores. Its front two courtyards are Ottoman, but the back courtyard is Byzantine. It’s too big and rich for one post, so there will be three, maybe four.
On a freezing cold day last week, just before Istanbul got locked into its present snowy embrace, Gabrielle and I went there, determined to get in some drawing time. Here she is standing next to the rusted door:
The entrance courtyard: desiccated stone arches, and little shops hung on them. I sat on a step one afternoon years ago, Plein Air drawing, and soaked in this place. This barber is gone now, but he was there for about a hundred years, or so he said.
There’s another tall arched entrance leading into the central courtyard. A typical Istanbul han is a two-tiered arcade, arched openings fronting alcoves topped by domes, around a central courtyard. In Silk Road days, the caravansaries would put their camels and donkeys and horses in the courtyard, and camp and trade in the alcoves. Later these evolved into shops. The Buyuk Valide Han is so big that there’s a mosque in its central courtyard, now a parking lot ringed by stores. These are busy. The grim and grisly second floor is an Art Motherlode, so we headed up the steep cement steps and into the dark past.
Thirty years ago this place was jammed with trade: apprentices tearing around, teaboys trotting up and down the steps, people haggling and arguing and creating. I think China killed it. But what’s left is a feast of drawing: odd angles, lots of peeled-back plaster revealing Ottoman brickwork, burned-out domes, wildly creative electrical wiring. And wonderful, evocative doors.
THE PARADE OF DOORS
Like snowflakes, there are no two alike. They’ve evolved individually over time, the opposite of a kitsch re-creation. The rooms that face on the courtyard are light, with people making hats or cutting plastic. On the wall side, most are bolted shut, but occasionally you find one that swings open to reveal, say, a Tolkien-like interior more like a cave than a room, with an ancient loom in it.
Each door represents many lives, much trade, much hope and toil and heartbreak before the eventual final locking of the dusty door.
There are four corners to the corridor. The first corner is bright with new paint and a modern office behind the doors. After that, each is more derelict and fascinating. Here’s Gabrielle going through my favorite, one of those places that make me nervous since I haven’t drawn them yet.
There’s a stretch of corridor so dark you need a flashlight, where the floor is original stones all lumpy with age and use. Somewhere along in there, we found this glowing beacon.
THE LAMP MAKERS
We had found a bronze workshop. Arches and domes covered with peeling white over plaster, various narrow implements hung on the walls, and two guys making lamps. A hot coal stove shaped like a top hat. Hanging on the wall near a row of pliers, a small shiny bronze angel.
We oohed and ahhed. Our host Serkan ordered some tea and Gabrielle made a mighty effort with her Turkish, which in six months is a whole lot better than mine after eight years. I wandered around, and in a pile of oddments I found three more angels holding an unfinished incense burner. Serkan picked it up and swung it by its chain. “Greek Orthodox,” he said. A censer! In church, the guy behind the priest is swinging one of these filled with lit incense. Clouds of scent billow out of the little holes. It’s Byzantine. It’s fabulous.
I get along fine if I’m not too extravagant. When I feel I must have something, I see if it follows me out of the shop. That censer swung around my head until I went back two days later and bought it. The price was so good I bought a lamp as well. If you want one, they’re Ozcan Turistik ve Aydinlatma at www.ozcanturistic.com. And I did this drawing of Serkan finishing the censer. He obliged me by firing up the welding torch and holding this pose for about ten minutes, while I scribbled away. With portraits, you want to get the gist of the expression. What makes this guy look like himself, and how do I know he’s hunkered down? Get the ear, where the hands are, get the feet right. Where’s the light? What is he holding? Oh, same thing. I stayed for a half-hour more, drinking tea and drawing the tools.
When Serkan was done, the shiny censer had a deep blackened finish, exactly what I wanted. I came home and finished the drawing, and here it is.
That’s so tiny you can hardly see it. Here, I’ll turn it sideways:
I lit it from the welding torch, of course. This is a simple if tedious operation. You just put a shadow next to each object, exactly opposite your light source. I drew the lamp and censer by propping them on the table and setting a light down right of them. What luxury to bring them home! Often I covet something I simply cannot have, but drawing it helps. My sketchbooks are filled with intricate drawings of fascinating and exquisite items I crave. But things are looking up. When I first moved here, in the middle of a devastating run of hideous circumstance, I didn’t have a blanket on the bed. No table, nothing on the walls, just a computer, a half-blind foundling kitten and a gig drawing kids’ books. Eight years later I still struggle with Turkish, but my walls are covered with tribal art and framed prints, the board-and-brick bookcases overflowing with literature, rugs on the floor, movies and 27 sketchbooks, now, full of drawings of Turkey, fat sleek cats snoozing in front of the windows looking out on the falling snow. I’m lucky. I hung the censer among some tribal embroidery, in front of a drawing of a Byzantine Jesus. It looks right at home.