A WORKING HAN
Nobody in the Spice Bazaar believed that Osama Bin-Laden was really dead. I’d heard the news up on the Hippodrome that morning and it froze my blood, because I thought they said “Obama.” Silly with relief, I went up to share the tidings at the Grand Bazaar. My friends from Afghanistan up there hate Bin-Laden worse than I can imagine, since they are from the area where the Taliban blew up those Buddhas. But they thought Bin-Laden’s demise was a government lie. I made my way down the hill to the Spice Bazaar: skeptics everywhere. Finally I ran into some Peace Corps volunteers, and we sang Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, and felt like compatriots. These days Americans must take our patriotic pleasures where we can. I’m sorry to celebrate anyone’s death, but the man did do away with about 3000 of my countrymen.
I’d been down at the Spice Bazaar every day, doing this drawing of Rustem Pasha and friends. Rustem Pasha is the name of the mosque, and the friends are Çukur Han (in English Chooker), on the right, and Papazoglu Han (Papa ZOE loo), on the left, both grizzled old classic workplaces from Medieval times, both gloriously unrestored. You can look at their surfaces and see a history lesson. So it was a year ago that I ran into Papazoglu Han to use the loo and stopped dead, stunned by the sight of Byzantine herringbone brickwork. This is supposed to be a 16th century Ottoman han.
The upper stories are Ottoman, with pointed arches picked out with brick trim. But this ribbed section behind the wiring looks Byzantine. Papazoglu Han is a decrepit old structure festooned with plastic, a working han, not tricked out for Tourism, not picturesque or sentimental. It does have an immaculate lavatory up on the cardboard-congested second floor, tended by an old fellow usually dozing in the sun. I’d always been preoccupied by navigating the perilous cement stairs. And I’d missed the classic structure of the place, the double row of dome-topped, arch-fronted enclosures around a central courtyard, the unmistakable age and integrity of the original walls.
THE PATINA OF DAILY LIFE I hate the Taliban because they make the world ugly. The Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, like Istanbul’s palaces and temples, were works of art built to inspire awe. But the beauty of these antique hans is a different sort. It’s the patina left by people going about their dailly lives, homely familiarity taken for granted…for centuries.
While thinking such thoughts, I paid my 50 kurus for the loo to dozy old Osman and had one of those moments when you know all plans for the day are scrapped because there’s got to be a drawing of what is right in front of you. Osman happily agreed to a portrait, and sat rock-steady, grinning, for half an hour. Word spread around the Han, and handsome young men appeared, understandably saying that they, too, should be immortalized. But it was ravaged old Osman with his Adidas hat who got struck with the Art Stick that day, Osman and nobody else. I went downstairs, sated with portrait yet needing a background, and ran back into that chunk of herringbone brickwork. I saw that it would fit on the page so that the bottom came to a point exactly where Osman’s hat was, with the arches on either side. Sometimes it works like that, sometimes the thing just composes itself. Here’s what I got in the next two days, and am I glad I scanned it before it was finished.
Now to the Byzantines: the herringbone pattern is formed by the bricks wrapping each arch. Where they come together, it forms a seam. See here on the right of the picture, next to that pipe?
Details like these are usually plastered over, but Papazoglu Han has lost much of its plaster coating, revealing its bone structure. The second-floor bricks are straight across, leading one to speculate that the foundation is indeed Byzantine, added onto by the Ottomans.
KABITZING WITH HISTORY While I was drawing, the manager of the Han came out to see what was going on, along with other Han denizens. There was a castle here in Byzantine times. This whole neighborhood around Rustem Pasa is full of crooked passages, steps going down below blackened arches, and lumps of unidentifiable masonry. Where does this door go?
“Konstantin, Konstantin,” muttered the old men. A voice in English started translating from the Han manager. He said that yes, the old men were right, it was Byzantine, very old Byzantine. Our volunteer translator, who had worked for the Turkish Consulate in my hometown of Los Angeles, said that they were all claiming that this structure had started life as part of the walls or part of the castle complex, making it, oh, fourth-century: Constantine.
We had quite a little crowd there in the courtyard, including Paris the Dog, a recent immigrant from France. Among the kabitzers was Yeshua, the fat jocular proprietor of what I called the Happy Sparkle Store, jammed into the middle of the courtyard, that sold shiny paper and plastic party stuff. A Turk named Yeshua? Or Joshua, he said. But that was Jesus’s name, I said. “Yes,” said Yeshua, “That is because I am a Jew.” From Toledo, descended from refugees from that other hideous spawn of religious fanaticsim: the Spanish Inquisition. Thousands of Spanish Jews came en masse to Turkey when this han was new, and their descendants are still here, adding to the historical texture of this land where doors go down to Constantine, buildings have ancient Greek foundations and there are satellite dishes on the roofs.
The challenge was to draw the herringbone bricks AND the ad hoc electrical wiring in front of it. Just look at this wiring! Of course, electricity was not invented when the hans were built, so these clusters are very common, the bane and delight of drawing antique masonry. There’s a tea kitchen behind the herringbone wall, and the tea boys kept me well supplied for the week that I was there.
NUTS AND BOLTS I was drawing as fast as I oould, completely engrossed in keeping track of two sets of proportions: bricks and wiring. I used the grid-and-unit method, where you mentally make a cross on the paper, line up everything by that and measure everything off of the first thing you draw. In this case it was this little brick with the red stain.
And all the while my eyes were being pulled up, up, because what I was saying wouldn’t all fit in one drawing, there was another one coming.
What is this drawing about? What is the center? What’s the element that compels me to dedicate a chunk of my life to it? If I’m very lucky, I get a circumstance that combines two elements in perfect balance. Here, it’s the slightly manic look on Osman’s face, under that modern hat, and that antique brick seam under the wiring. But part of what I wanted to show was the way the bricks wrapped the first-floor arches, while the second floor bricks were straight. So here’s the wrapped arch, and the arch above, with Mr Mehmet standing there watching me draw him. This drawing was a lot easier to do, but took just as long. I was finishing it up when the Taliban took its loss. I was celebrating life with a work of art when someone who had destroyed so much life and art was removed from the world.
PAINTING IN LIGHT Through many centuries of misbegotten monsters, these bricks have stood. I live pretty simply in order to be available to draw them. Years ago I taught in Disney’s Visual Development division. Very rarified in there. They were just introducing computers into the creative process. I got to show top talent how to use a Mac as a primary art medium, rather than as a glorified copy machine and art enhancer. Disney let me do all-day seminars with just a few people, on a strictly voluntary basis. Contrary to expectations, the people most interested in learning how to create in a new medium were the oldest artists there. Joe Grant, former head of Disney, was still going strong at 92, and he was fascinated, wound up making them buy him his own Mac. It was the young artists who were the curmudgeons. “Yeah,” one said, “but can it do this?” –flipping his animation cards at me– “And what about texture?” It’s true that getting texture into your digital art prints is a challenge. But there’s a trade-off, and it’s that you’re painting in light. It’s like painting with stained glass, painting on a Mac, and your flip cards, kid, don’t glow in the dark. When I first came here to Istanbul I was mortified, after being so successful in a new field, to be struggling hard to hold on here in this alien culture that didn’t give a hoot about me. But there’s a trade-off, because I’m painting in light. Much like those early days of digital art, I get to do something that nobody else is doing, with severe limitations, in a place that’s changing so rapidly that it seems to vanish almost before the ink is dry, leaving only these filigree shadows of what was. It feels right and important to take the time to draw them. In every culture since the beginning of time there has been an old man dozing. Tyrants come and tyrants go, and I just keep drawing.
All drawings Plein Air. All art ©2011 Trici Venola.
Prints of the drawings in this post are available at the Drawing On Istanbul Store on ETSY.com. For purchases of original art, contact Trici Venola through this blog. Thanks for your interest. We love your comments.