A BREATH OF AIR: Drawing In Sirkeci


Grizabella.Cat Detail
Grizabella in Sirkeci.Cat Detail©2011 Trici Venola

2010 was a year of peril and hassle. Relentless hotelization forced me to move, a hideous enterprise involving months of searching and expense. A good deal turned sour. A good friend left town. Then to top it off I got hacked, lost 400 addresses, 7 years of networking, entire short stories. I tried to reach everyone, but failed, and an old friend sent the hackers an amount which, had I won it as a grant, could have paid an assistant, put all 2500 drawings on a database, bought a new Mac and put this project in the black. Google never did respond. So long, Cloud. I bootstrapped out of the subsequent depression by drawing. In the teeth of complete financial desolation, rent due, no prospects, I took the sketchbook out into the icy winter days and began to draw this:

Bat BulidingVery quickly, I felt good. Here’s an email to a newly jobless Stateside friend from January 2011:

Ha ha ha, welcome to the wonderful world of Freelancing. You’ll get used to the footless feeling, like a good hunter. You’re an artist. Make art. 

For Anxious Dread, try fish oil. The super-Omega kind, a natural antidepressant. My dread goes right to my feet and I get horrible vertigo, and this rug-ripped-out-from-under feeling. I suspect it is really Fear of Mortality… Skint this month and last, but for some reason I’m sanguine. I had a real epiphany last month, realizing how many precious days I’ve lost to Worrying About the Landlord. And here I still am, and I’d like those days back.

In the middle of all this Winter Angst, ferocious bouts of creativity… Now, I’m happy to say, my mania for drawing in the sketchbook has returned after ONE SOLID YEAR of halfhearted portraiture and false starts. I’m drawing out in the crystalline cold days, office buildings in our old seaside Finance District of Sirkeci.


On Legacy Ottoman Street 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
On Legacy Ottoman Street ©2011 Trici Venola

In English, Sirkeci rhymes with Stage E. A departure from my usual hoary old Byzantine haunts, Sirkeci is all brisk business. A generation ago, this was the Financial Center of all Istanbul, as its many banks attest. Now they are hotels, offices, notary publics. Brisk breezes whoosh down alleys, calls to prayer interlace with the blast of horns from boats in the harbor nearby, blue or copper or silver sea glimpsed down the narrow streets, everyone rushing along the sidewalks overhung with architectural grandeur from the swan song of the Ottoman Empire. Everywhere are exciting vertical compositions just begging to be drawn. Here’s the one we call The Bat Building:

The Bat Building 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
The Bat Building ©2011 Trici Venola

This beloved landmark, which could have served as a model for Gringott’s Goblin Bank in Harry Potter, is one block from the Spice Bazaar.  Its name is actually Deutsche Orientbank, and it dates from 1890. I’m told it burned, and closed, around 1911. I’ve been all through it, clear up to the adorable round tower office, full of pigeonshit and feathers and possibility. Its main doorway served as the entrance to the Bond film Skyfall, although it does not lead to a tunnel but up to fantastic round rooms full of feathers and pigeonshit. Word is it will be a hotel.


Buyuk Postane

This ornate architecture is murder to draw. Rows of the same elaborate shape with different perspective and lighting, and there are so many of them. Ancient masonry has some give: if you’re off by a bit, you can round a corner and stay true to the spirit of the piece. But this fancy stuff isn’t even two centuries old, the corners are still sharp, the shapes really clear. Get one thing a fraction off and it’s ruined. I use the mental grid and unit method described in the Drawing the Boukoleon posts on this blog. It’s imperative to draw what I see, not what I think I see. I may know it’s a square window, but if perspective makes it look like a slanted slot, I have to draw a slanted slot. The rest of the drawing has to help us know it’s a window: placement on the page, some rendering of bricks so we know it’s a wall, and so forth.  Figuring out how to do this causes a trancelike state that makes it impossible to think about anything else. I go right into the paper.

Designed by architect Vedat Tek under Sultan Abdul Hamit II in 1909, the Art Nouveau facade of our magnificent Main Post Office runs across three New York blocks, a testimony to the extravagant finale of the Ottoman Empire. Hotel sharks are circling, but this is still a functioning post office; this is where your prints come from. It’s too huge; for a first take, I drew this glimpse from a little side street, and it took more time than you’d believe, on several frigid white days.

A Glimpse of the Post Office 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
A Glimpse of the Post Office ©2011 Trici Venola

Everyone from the shops on the street came and watched awhile. I left it unfinished, looking as it did lost in the deadening white. Inside, several wooden Agatha Christie-era group writing desks under glowing state-of-the-art computer screens, a lot of people waiting to pay bills, and the walls go up forever, dominated by a giant painting of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, father of the Turkish Republic.

Waiting at the PO 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
Waiting at the PO ©2011 Trici Venola

Behind the Post Office, Hobyar Camii looks old, but it too was designed by Vedat Tek and built in 1909, replacing the 15th-century original. Those ant-like shapes in the background are Istanbul Porters, professional schleppers who move unbelievably huge and heavy items which are balanced on saddles. There are now kitsch faux-bronze statues in Sirkeci of Ottoman porters; I find the modern genuine article much more interesting. These guys are fourth-and fifth-generation porters; in old jeans and wash shirts they carry the whole city on their shoulders.

The Fanciful Mosque 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
The Fanciful Mosque ©2011 Trici Venola


Another jocular drawing experience, with many free teas from this cafe. People in Sirkeci were flabbergasted to see an artist there. It’s not a huge tourist spot, but the amount of buildings turning into hotels indicate that it will be. We’re all rooting for another beloved old landmark, across the street from the Post Office. This grizzled survivor, covered with age-blackened trendy splendor of yesteryear, has loomed here for over 140 years. The Art Nouveau window trim and roses were added for modernization around 1900. Notice the two cat faces at the top. The Art Deco musical notes look to have been added in the 1930s. The wooden awnings are there to keep loose old stone roses from falling on your head on your way to the notary public.

Grizabella in Sirkeci 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
Grizabella in Sirkeci ©2011 Trici Venola

Yahya came upon me while I was drawing this. He danced all around me yelling in amazement, so I drew him to shut him up. I told him the usual “Hold still for ten minutes,” while I got the stuff you can’t fake, then I went home and rendered his shoes and coat and blackened his hat. Next day I was out there putting in the background when he came back, saw the portrait, and began to dance and bellow again– louder.

A Passerby 72

UNUTULMUS SARNICI And what do you know, a little chunk of hoary haunted Byzantium after all:  a forgotten cistern behind an ancient wall, where I got to clamber up on a pile of cartons and draw by one bulb strung on a bamboo pole in the cold clammy dark. Here’s the first shot.

The Hidden CIstern Straight Up 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
The Hidden Cistern Straight Up ©2011 Trici Venola

Nice and straightforward, eh? They tell me it’s got 5 huge columns, more marching off into the dark behind a storage depot. I can wade in and draw, but they also tell me that there are dangerous vapors in there, and it’s too darned cold now anyway. Nice guys working  there, and here’s the youngest, perched on a stool under the whitewashed Byzantine bricks. Which are herringbone pattern–you can just see that at the top, making me suspect this is older than Hagia Sophia. Two streets above the Post Office in Eminönü-Sirkeci, the water-storage facility is shut now, but you can still peer in through the windows in the crumbling wall and see the columns. I really hope that it survives all this change.

Umut At Work 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
Umut At Work ©2011 Trici Venola

Oh, the mystery of this place! In Los Angeles, a storage depot has a closet in its back room: warped linoleum and a couple of cockroaches. In Istanbul, there’s a Byzantine cistern full of 1600-year-old carved marble. I wondered if I’d fully captured that quality of unconscious magnificence here in our workaday world, so I went back next day and did this:

The Forgotten Cistern 72 ©2011 Trici Venola
The Forgotten Cistern ©2011 Trici Venola

And so to the end of that email: …Out drawing, faces light up when they see me drawing, people buy books and send over hot tea and stop and chat. Many, many new Facebook Friends. Frozen out there, double socks, wool coat over sweaters, perched on my little campstool, but do I care? I am SO HAPPY… it attracts all good things to me. And to you.

Trici Drawing Grizabella
Trici Drawing Grizabella, taken by an admirer whose name I’ve lost. If this is you, please send me your name and I’ll credit you!

THE OBJECT OF THE EXCERCISE One good feeling led to another and I had a great year, continuing to now. No matter what the dilemma, drawing makes it right. The object of this Turkish adventure is not to live in Istanbul, the object is to draw Istanbul. I’d forgotten that. How I live and where, what I have, who I know and am I cool– that’s all fine, but it’s window dressing. It’s personality. The drawing is the principle. Art is what I’m about. If I get that right, everything else falls into place. All my life, I’ve been trying to remember to put principles before personalities.

Porters ©2011 Trici Venola
Porters ©2011 Trici Venola

All drawings pen and ink on paper, Plein Air.

All art ©2011, 2012 by Trici Venola.


  1. Lea Gratch

    you are quite right! I a>B>S>o>L>u>t>E>LY am LOVING the way your new work is looking – totally different angles, both literally and figuratively it seems to me…what vitality and assurance and vivideness – really really like the comic-book style vertical framing which lends such a film-like urgency somehow (although now that I have just read that, not quite sure what I mean, but I still stand by it) Sooo, bloody mazeltov oh talented one, looks like you’re coming through all those trials and tribulations triumphant – may the force be with us xxx

  2. Joy Harvey

    Wonderful as ever Trici! Love, love, LOVE your work… & the way in which your brain works!

  3. Margherita

    I love your work and I love the way you approach life and write about it. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Roxanne Rogers

    Thanks so much for the beauty you give to the world. Much love coming your way. Rox & Alp too
    Love the blog. Beautiful design and so great to get a regular dose of your genius. oxoxox

  5. Carla

    Again, this morning, I got lost in you. Reading you and seeing your drawings always makes me just sit and stare out the window, and wander for a while. I love hearing and seeing and feeling you. One of the things you said stuck out to me in particular. I remember learning to really see what I was photographing, not what my mind assumed I was getting. It is a different thing, and as you said, ” It is imperative to draw what I see, not what I think I see.”

    1. tricivenola

      It makes me ridiculously happy, Carla, that I can make you stare out the window and dream after forty-five years. xoxoxoxoxo across the waters, across the skies.

  6. Lewis

    Every so often you give me a quick trip to Istanbul.
    Memories of our time walking those Sirkeci streets.
    Allah kareem.

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