PAPAZOGLU HAN: Painting In Light


Entrance Papazoglu 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.

Rustem Pasha & Friends ©2011 Trici Venola

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.

Osman in Papazoglu Han WIP ©2011 Trici Venola

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.

Papazoglu Han.Detail: Brick Seam ©2011 Trici Venola

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.

Ottoman Up Top ©2011 Trici Venola

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.

Papazoglu Han ©2011 Trici Venola

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 For purchases of original art, contact Trici Venola through this blog. Thanks for your interest. We love your comments.


A BREATH OF AIR: Drawing In Sirkeci


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:

Very 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 ©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 ©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.


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 ©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 ©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 ©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 ©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.

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 ©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 ©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 ©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, 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

All drawings pen and ink on paper, Plein Air.

All art ©2011, 2012 by Trici Venola.

Kucuk Ayasofya: Drawing With the Masters


Spot KucukAyasofya ©2012 Trici Venola

In its Ottoman incarnation, our Byzantine basilica of Saints Sergius and Bacchus became Kucuk Ayasofya Camii, which means Small Hagia Sophia Mosque. Built in 527 and converted to a mosque in 1509, it remains a beloved local landmark. Renovation has rendered it all shipshape, but the charm of its Medrese is unchanged: a grassy garden studded with broken antique marble enclosed on three sides by stone workshops topped by leaded domes. Originally a religious school, its actual name is Huseyin Aga Medrese, after its builder, Chief Black Eunuch of Sultan Beyazit II, who also built the portico in front and converted the basilica to a mosque in 1503.

The original old medrese masters wore turbans and cited the Koran. Now they are master artisans registered with the Turkish government. Huseyin Aga Medrese is a center for Turkish Master Craftsmen.

In My Name Is Red, novelist Orhan Pamuk describes Ottoman painters of miniatures running the artworks from workshop to workshop, where one artist would paint the woman, another the horse, another the trees. Each had attained such mastery that they could paint in the dark, and the reward for a lifetime of hard work was going blind. As can happen, exquisite results can come from ghastly suffering. Pamuk tells a story of a Sultan who commanded a great master to paint his cumulative work and then had him blinded, so he could never surpass it. The master then had his revenge. Sightless and sick of living, he created the greatest work of the age from memory for someone else, and then killed himself. Pamuk was likely writing in part about this actual location.

In happier echoes of the horrors of yore, these beautifully-rendered copies of antique miniatures are often painted on the backs of hand-lettered book pages. Here’s a Noah’s Ark, often seen, for after the Flood, it’s supposed to have fetched up on Mt. Ararat, in Eastern Turkey. Two painters occupy adjacent workshops in one corner of the Medrese. Under the leaded domes, masters of calligraphy, ebru (marbelized paper), block print, and shell inlay all occupy the small stone chambers with those low-slung doorways, which come to my forehead.  I can’t count the times I’ve whacked into a lintel in this garden. Is it because people used to be smaller? Nope, those old religious leaders built to encourage humility. If you didn’t bow to the Master when you came in the door, you were bashed in the head. And now, at least at Huseyin Aga Medrese, artists are getting their due respect.


Ahmet Sezen and his wife Ebru were just kids back in 2004, newly engaged, with a jewelry workshop in the last building next to the mosque. Ahmet was already rising fast in the world as a master of shell and silver inlay. Later they moved into my building. We were bonded by our mutual love of cats. I used to feed ’em up on my roof. It started with a pair I called Peachy and Danny, after those rogues in The Man Who Would Be King. Then Peachy turned up pregnant, and soon I was feeding thirty cats, up on the corrugated plastic roof of the balcony. Here’s one dimly seen above the view of the snow and the scaffolding around the mosque.

Cat on Roof ©2005 Trici Venola

In 2006 friends found a two-day-old kitten. Its tail was half as long as my little finger. Its paws were little rat claws, eyes squeezed shut over a flat little snout. I named it Pete and kept it alive all night, and in the morning took the little starving thing downstairs to Ahmet and Ebru’s, where their cat Arife had some kittens. And when she accepted the frantic newcomer, we could hear those ferocious feeding sounds clear out on the street.

Just Married! ©2007 Trici Venola

Years passed. Pete grew up and had to be re-named Esmeralda, and boy, is she fat and cranky now. Ahmet and Ebru got married and had a son. And Ahmet became a recognized, registered Turkish Master of shell inlay, and was able to move into the beautiful and prestigious Huseyin Aga Medrese. A few years back, he was exhibiting at a festival in Taksim Square when someone from the Greek Orthodox Church found him, and now he is building reliquaries for saints as well as jewelry, furniture and keepsakes.

You can visit Ahmet <> in the Medrese and find all sorts of goodies, prices  basement to spire, depending on scarcity of material, amount of labor, and size of project. Here he is at work. It’s very cold now, and Arife will stealthily steal onto your lap and settle in, purring. If you look carefully, you can see that she has sneaked into this drawing.

Ahmet & Arife At Work 72 ©2012 Trici Venola


Down in the corner of the garden where the ducks hang out, next door to Ahmet, is Block Print Master Tahsin Istengel <>

Most of his prints are from his own drawings, but here he is with a block cut from one by our Gabrielle just before she left. All day long he wields blocks of wood or styrofoam or rubber, armed with an exacto knife. Tahsin makes the most amazing patterns, singly or in combinations on bolts of cloth. In drawing him, trying to combine master, method and results, I found myself drawing the print. The temptation was too much, and I stamped with the actual block, inked in red:

I noticed that his prints incorporate shapes from the environment. The drawing’s nice, but I had to go and render it. Which is better? Ask the ducks!

Block Print King ©2012 Trici Venola

I haven’t yet drawn anything for Tahsin,  but I guarantee it will involve a duck. Here’s a grand slam display: a photo of one of Ahmet’s reliquaries and bolts of Tahsin’s hand-stamped cloth.


In Byzantine times, there was a street leading from the Great Palace down to the Church of Sergio & Bacchus. In Ottoman times the street ran from Sultanahmet Mosque down to Kucuk Ayasofya. Here’s a drawing of it from 1850. See the street?

Today Kucuk Ayasofya Caddesi runs from the Marmara side of the Arasta Bazaar, behind the Blue Mosque, down to Kucuk Ayasofya. I started this drawing up at the top of the street in 2004. You can see the fabulous old mosque down at the bottom, against the silver sea.

Kucuk Ayasofya 2004 ©2004 Trici Venola


Guys in the Neighborhood ©2008 Trici Venola

With renovation came a swell park where once there was a row of factory buildings. The neighborhood artisans got a big shot in the arm, a shot called Tourism. Textile repair shops became cafes, my house became a hotel. I moved down the street, and now relentless hotelization has moved me across the Golden Horn.  But I still feel that Kucuk Ayasofya’s my ‘hood. I go there all the time. I love it.

Sultanahmet West.Corner ©2008 Trici Venola

One of the girls next door told me that Kadirga, the name of this neighborhood, means a man swaggering along with big dignitas. She told me this as a bunch of big-bellied bureaucrats were parading toward Kucuk Ayasofya. The tot above, lugging the big water bottle, is a happier version of this. I called him Little Big Man, and he is indeed growing big and strong. The huge old ruined hamam below is near the entrance to the mosque. Early on, too poor to eat out, I sat in a doorway and drew this scene as though I had my face pressed to the window of Turkey.

Chesme at Night ©2004 Trici Venola

A short time later I did the drawing below from the same spot, and by then we were friends.

All Down the Day at Chesme ©2004 Trici Venola

I started this drawing in September 2004, in bright noon, left it, and didn’t finish it until the dark of a day in November, so the light and season changes as you move down the page, hence the title: All Down the Day At Chesme. Things like these keep me working Plein Air. Chesme means Fountain, and there’s a fountain put up by a sultan who wanted everyone to have fresh water. It still works.

Ali's Fruit Stand ©2008 Trici Venola

Ali was the greengrocer next to Chesme Restaurant at the Fountain. He was a landmark. I lived on soups made from Ali’s produce, which was, like all Turkish food back then, totally organic and very cheap. Ali’s retired now, but Chesme restaurant remains the best value in the neighborhood. Oh the happy times there.

Lovely Little Girls ©2008 Trici Venola

These little girls are growing up now, but on Saturdays they used to come to play at my house, where I would tie many ribbons in their hair. My framer, Baki, is around the corner, in a cavernous building between a teahouse and a calligrapher. Five personable brothers still run Pekar Market, open early until late. And across the street is Ayhan Kesap Butcher Shop, with Ayhan, the most cheerful butcher in the world, and his equally cheerful wife Ayla.

The Butcher and His Wife ©2011 Trici Venola

The cats still congregate at his kindly front door. Ayhan inspired this sticker. I’m putting it out at 300 DPI. Feel free to print your own!

My life in Kadirga, in those early days of little money and no language, was fraught with inconvenience bordering on catastrophe. But I was doing the right thing and I knew it. This from a letter in spring of 2005: There’s a blood moon tonight, red as a tomato. Saw the beginning, shrouded in thick cobweb cloud, and the end. Saw one in Spain, from a train crossing the plain (I am not kidding) and one in from a hospital window in Southern Turkey. Both times were also during excruciating changes in my life. The blood moon: mystic, impossible, inarguable, reminding me that the world is rolling on in its mysteries despite my little human calamities; remote, alien and comforting.


All drawings Plein Air. All art ©2012 Trici Venola.

BIG MOTHER HAN 3: Drawing in Buyuk Valide Han

Well, she’s gone. My drawing partner from the past six months, Gabrielle who got me up on this blog, is now drawing her tucchas off in Rome.  I’ve never had a drawing partner, and my we had fun, both drawing and hanging out. We’re about the same height and coloring, and she’s half my age. Everyone thought she was my daughter.

Gaby & Me ©2012 Trici Venola


Our last drawing session was up on the roof at Buyuk Valide Han. We meandered up there about a month ago the first time, on a miserably cold dark day, and held out for about two hours. We knew she was leaving, and wanted to make the most of any dry weather. Here’s what I got: not much:

Up On the Roof WIP 1 ©2012 Trici Venola

And we had a swell pizza. This beloved place is just out the back door of the Han complex. If there’s a better in the Old City I don’t know where.

That Great Pizza Place ©2012 Trici Venola

After that day the snow set in and drawing outside was impossible. About ten days ago, we staggered up there anyway to finish the drawings. Plein Air, brrrrr.

Suleymaniye Vista ©2012 Trici Venola

But here’s the view, isn’t it wonderful? That’s Suleymaniye Mosque on the hill up there. It was built by the great master architect Mimar Sinan, still studied all over the world, back in the mid-16th century for Suleyman the Magnificent. It’s been in renovation for the past five years. It used to look like God had been living in it for half a millennium, and now it looks like a movie set. It actually is a movie set; they shot part of the new Bond movie up there last fall.

Bosporus Vista ©2012 Trici Venola

And there’s the Yeni Mosque in front of the Galata Bridge in Eminonu, and beyond it the Ataturk Bridge across the Bosphorus. We’re looking up toward the Black Sea.

The Guys in the First Courtyard ©2012 Trici Venola

Where are we? You go all the way through Buyuk Valide Han: up the steep driveway and through the first little courtyard, through the Big Han parking lot with the Shiite mosque in it, clear to the back. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet one of the all-time great faces: Cemel.

The Best Face in the Han ©2009 Trici Venola

I’ve never encountered a face like this. Cemel tells me he’s got several brothers look just like him, but this is a two-shot of his face alone. You’d do a lot worse than to get a shoeshine from him, too.

Cemel at Work ©2012 Trici Venola

Through the arched Byzantine passage, past the sunken courtyard, and out the back door of what I call the Church Han. Back in 2009 there was this kid, Firat. He hung around for hours when I drew the Han, and since he did not demand it I drew him. He was so excited. Firat’s probably in the Army now, but here he is with his first mustache.

Firat Holding Still ©2009 Trici Venola

Like all portraits, I did this in about ten minutes and rendered it later, along with the background. Notice the pen strokes, how they can really strengthen the illusion of depth. Here’s a photo of the Church Han courtyard:

The Church Han Courtyard ©2012 Trici Venola

As you may remember from older posts, the roof, a barrel-vault arching across from side to side, came to just above the tops of the arches. The altar area is straight ahead. Just at the exit, there’s an astonishing work of art on the stone wall: the electrical panel for the Church Han. Lost in admiration at the sheer audacity of this job, I once started to draw this but got lost in the wiring. See?

Wired: Big Mother Han ©2007 Trici Venola

Then a hard right and a climb up a flight of tilted cement steps stuck precariously onto the side of the centuries-old wall. It’s stone and brick, with horizontal wood spacers in places. A mason friend told me that these take stress and keep the wall from collapsing. The wood is hard to recognize but wood it is. Here’s what the place looked like in fall 2004.

BVH Back Porch ©2004 by Trici Venola

I found this unfinished take with a note: Too damn cold. Later. This is common when one does not have a drawing partner. It was far colder when Gabrielle and I were up on the roof finishing those bloody drawings. This roof, like the much larger one of Buyuk Valide Han’s biggest structure, is covered with small domes, each topping a workshop. This smaller han’s domes used to cover the church, and possibly a monastery or convent.

Rooftop Domes ©2012 Trici Venola

Up here on top, the domes are weedy in places, holey in others. See them sticking up above this doorway?

There are several workshops up here, built onto the roof. Right at the top of the stairs is an earsplitting din. Glance in and see hundreds of spools furiously spinning, winding brass wire. The smiling proprietor is partially deaf, as was his father before him, but still employed.

Roof Shop Spools ©2012 Trici Venola

There used to be a cypress tree growing up here, and a rusty old weaving machine and a tribe of bronze tabby cats. And down at the end a shanty with a million-dollar view, in which dwelt a happy bearded man and a lot of barking dogs. There were more chimneys, too. One day in 2007 I was told in the Han that weaving machines had been banned. I came up and found a pile of rubble, a tree stump, and one lonely chimney. The Forces That Be had swept it all away. No one knows why.

That last morning, I got to the roof about fifteen minutes before Gaby. I’d just set up when I noticed the air turning thick. This jocular group was cleaning stove parts. In no time it looked like Armageddon.

Rooftop Smoke ©2012 Trici Venola

I leaped up and away, and fifteen minutes later there wasn’t a trace of smoke. Thanks to its location, a natural castle moated by seas, Istanbul has remarkable powers of recovery. Here’s my final drawing. Suleymaniye is undoubtedly the most magnificent mosque in Turkey. Its proportions are perfect. The four minarets (one is hidden by the dome) are of graduated size, and give a different aspect from every angle.

Up On the Roof ©2012 Trici Venola

As you can see from the rough at the beginning of this post, I tried to draw the top of this historic Ottoman chimney, but my own proportions got away from me. To my chagrin the top didn’t fit on the paper, and I’d already invested a few bone-shattering cold hours. So after I finished the drawing, I drew the chimney-top, and Photoshopped the two together.

Up On the Roof Composite ©2012 Trici Venola

Gaby with Chimney ©2012 Trici Venola

You know what? I like the first one best. The complete chimney throws off the balance and pushes the whole composition too far down. But we should pay attention to this fine old Ottoman chimney, because it is the very last. The much bigger roof of the main part of Buyuk Valide Han was covered with them, but now there are no more anywhere. Or so I am told by architect friends.

Tower of Eirene.detail 1 ©2012 Trici Venola

At the end of the roof is the Tower. This is the one I mentioned in Big Mother Han 2, the tower the guidebooks peg at 11th century but the guys in the Han call 6th. It lost its top in an earthquake in 1926 but is still impressive. A young woman was taking photographs of it, with a ruler for scale. We asked her, in a polite way, what she was doing. Her doctoral thesis, no less. At last, an expert. “What is the name of the church?”  Unknown, and this from a Turkish graduate student. She commiserated on the complete lack of information. She’s looking to find out, and I’m rooting for her. One tiny puzzle piece: an 18th-century writer referred to this tower as the Tower of Eirene. A churchly friend thinks it was a bell tower. And there it must rest.

Gaby Smoking Nargile ©2012 Trici Venola

As did we. We packed up and wrapped up, and my drawing fell facedown on the roof, which accounts for its murky wash shading in places. We clambered down the steep steps, me clutching the handrail, and out the Han, charged up the icy street and flung ourselves gasping into the clamorous color and warmth of the Grand Bazaar. Straight through, out the top and over the cobbles to the nargile cafe at Corlulu Ali Medrese. This haven deserves its own post, so I will leave you with this picture of Gabrielle smoking a snowy farewell nargile. In Rome, in Paris, in Laramie, Wyoming, draw on, girl, draw on.

All drawings Plein Air.

BIG MOTHER HAN 2: Drawing in Buyuk Valide Han


Sinan in His Workshop ©2012 Trici Venola

My father was a self-proclaimed working stiff. Erick E. Venola– or Lieutenant Colonel Erick E Venola, Retired, according to my mother’s adorable grandiosity– was an unassuming man. After serving in WWII he continued in the Army Engineers Reserves and supported us all–he wanted my mother at home– by working for AT&T, the telephone company. To make more money, he ran the boiler room at the main plant in downtown LA, a demanding job that required he work alone all night. He liked it. My mother said it was because of his solitary Finnish nature. Erick E Venola had started life in Harlem, New York City, in 1918 as Eino Erkki Venalainen, the only son of Finnish immigrants. Finns are very very close to Turks. I see echoes of my hardworking craftsman father all over these hans. I loved my father, and I love working stiffs.

Salt of the Earth ©2012 by Trici Venola.

Han means Workplace, and Buyuk Valide Han is full of these guys who show up and work all day at some anonymous job to support their families. They’ve been doing it here for 500 years. They were all in the Army. Some are in a multigenerational family business, some slave for others. Most would rather do something else, but this is the hand life dealt them. They cobble it together as best they can, and make it work.

Big Mother Han ©2009 by Trici Venola. 35 X 50 cm, Plein Air, pen and ink on paper. Available.

This is the Third Courtyard of Buyuk Valide Han. Can you see that it was once a church? We are looking down the nave at the altar. The arches down the left are openings to a side gallery once topped by domes, and are mirrored (out of the picture) on the right. The very top is later addition.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

A barrel-vault ceiling joined the two sides, and I’ll bet that’s the original floor down there: varicolored marble and granite chunks polished by centuries of feet, ground into dirt.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

This was a church clear up through Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453, and continued under the Ottomans. I learned all this during a week in May 2009, while I was drawing this picture. The people in the Han told me. I found zero on this anywhere else.

The guidebooks peg this section of Buyuk Valide Han at 11th century, but the 3rd- and 4th-generation workers here proudly tell me it’s older, a lot older. They and their families have been preserving it for centuries– whitewashed and plastered, sure, but preserved. I believe them. I also believe the Byzantine brickwork I’ve seen under adjacent hans, like this one just down the hill, and gems like these in the Han itself.

Left: Frescoed flowers on plaster. Right: brick detail in an old window.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

It’s sublime, isn’t it? –with the bones of the church showing through the flesh of the workplace. Rumors abound of possible restoration, and I hope they may die. There are a million kitsch restorations in the world, but nothing like this exists anywhere: a live, irreplaceable, visual and visceral testimony to what has been and what is. Turning it into a fake old church or fake old caravansary would destroy that, besides being an insult to the hundreds of thousands of lives spent here in one vocation or another.

Walking along the passage formed by workshops built into the side galleries, one can look up and see the empty circles of vanished domes. That tower in the background is where Kosem Valide Sultan, the awesome dowager Sultana who built the Han,  is supposed to have hidden her treasure. It’s been dug, plumbed and sifted for centuries, but she must have meant some other tower, for no treasure was ever found that you could spend.  Here’s one I could draw: a surviving dome and window alcove of the church, now high above a workshop built into the space. I’ll have you know that I slogged up to Buyuk Valide Han last Wednesday in that blizzard and stood bolt upright, freezing, drawing, just to share this, and that’s why this post is so late. Wednesday, you say, and now it’s Sunday? You don’t think I did a whole dark drawing in an hour standing up in the cold, do you? I did the minimum I would need and the maximum I could stand, took photos, came home and spent hours rendering. Here’s where we started:

Chapel Workshop Rough ©2012 by Trici Venola

And here’s where we wound up: 

I was in too much of a hurry and blew the bottom of the drawing. Had to paste another piece of paper over it and work from a photo like this one, but I’m happy with what we got.

Like the workmen who have preserved them, my father would love the surviving frescoes. He made exquisite small things with his hands. A Christmas village out of cardboard, glitter, toothpicks and spit. A tiny George Washington town coach, complete with handles and windows, a miniature stagecoach. AT&T recognized this ability and put him in charge of installing PBX switchboards in the new music center downtown. Our low-income family had season tickets to the Music Center because he’d thought up the name for their newsletter, Top o’ The Mall.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

Why didn’t he go for big money in the movie studios? Stability. He referred to AT&T with rueful tolerance his whole life, but he told me once that when you can’t find employer loyalty, you should find another job.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

He had that thing about stability because he’d been shifted around as a child. His father, Peter Venalainen, was a big black-haired Russian Finn who loved opera. He changed our name to Venola so people would think we were Italian, took to drink, and died just after Grandma divorced him. She joined the Women’s Christian Temperence Union and chopped up New York bars with an axe along with Carrie Nation, a movement that led to Prohibition. She and Daddy moved to Los Angeles, where she worked as a cook for movie people on location. He grew up in various friends’ houses and always wanted to stay put. So no career Army for him, it was the Reserves, Command and Staff, weekends off to the plane in uniform to one place or another. My mother loved him in uniform. He would never wear it for show, despised people who did. This grieved her for she enjoyed being seen with him in all his officer regalia. “Your father moves armies around in Vietnam,” she told us while counting out the grocery money.  He came up through the ranks in WWII, trained troops and never went overseas. He felt sorry for those whose lives peaked in that time, because his flowered slowly, with his family life. He read everything, sci-fi and action adventure and history. A champion marksman, he had a passion for guns, but never imposed it on anyone else, although he took a mighty pride in my brother’s gun expertise. He could fix anything. He gave every kid we knew a special pet name. We liked to hang out in his garage, a place of clutter and wonder.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

Here he is with my mother in 1947 or so, in the backyard of our house in Echo Park, LA. It’s a picture of the American Dream. I like to think of them as they are here, young and unvanquished.

Erick & Loramae Venola in 1947

Both my parents are gone now. They lived good lives and died when they were old. In their souls they would have understood my Turkish epic, chasing a dream on a shoestring at this age, but in parenthood they would have been horrified. So I talk to their souls. I show Mama the Bosporus and the Dolmabache Palace, and I show Daddy Hagia Sophia and these Turkish workshops, so like his own, the men with hands and eyes and values like his. For his birthday, which was 94 years and a week ago. In my mind I walk Daddy all over the Han in his khaki workpants and checked shirt and green Asian eyes, his magnificent workman’s hands.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

He would fall in with these guys and compare welding techniques, admire tools. He would study how the place was adapted, how it was put together in the first place.  He would be fascinated with the whitewashed Byzantine arches leading from one shop to another, from one holy alcove to another.

Big Mother Han.detail ©2012 by Trici Venola

Where a monk walked and muttered and prayed, a blue-jeanned, blue-jawed guy in a stocking cap is listening to the radio and screwing together nargile pipes. I think Daddy would love this. I find I do. I was raised with a work ethic that has evolved, in my lifetime, to a zen-like devotion to my craft. As dancing is to a Dervish, creating something is prayer to me. So no kitsch church restoration, please, Buyuk Valide Han is perfect and sanctified already.  No matter how you find God, holy is holy.

Daddy & Friend,. Photo by Kurt Wahlner, Christmas 1987. All other photos ©2012 by Trici Venola. All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola.

BIG MOTHER HAN 1: Drawing in Buyuk Valide Han


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 From the Spice Bazaar ©2007 by Trici Venola.

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:

and a closeup: metal hammered over wood. Notice the tiny door cut into the huge one.


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.

The Barber ©2007 by Trici Venola.

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.


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.

But nobody home. I climbed up to the door above and knocked on it. It was like knocking on the cement wall. Then Gabrielle rang the bell, and what a surprise when it opened.


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 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.

The Lamp Maker WIP 1.©2012 by Trici Venola

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.

The Lamp Maker ©2012 by Trici Venola

That’s so tiny you can hardly see it. Here, I’ll turn it sideways:

The Lamp Maker ©2012 by Trici Venola

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.

All photos © 2012 by Trici Venola.