GHOST CHURCH: Drawing Theotokos in Chalkoprateia

Workshop

5th century AD: Furious clamor as police descend on Constantinople’s Chalkoprateia, the Bronze District, where Jewish artisans live, creating and selling bronze items. Screaming in outrage, bearded Jews in caps are dragged from their shops, beaten, banished. An earlocked apprentice frantically holds up an unfinished bronze shield in futile defense as Imperial soldiers burst into the workshop. The synagogue is emptied, soldiers posted at the door, sacred items hurled into the street. The Augusta has finally bullied her brother the Emperor into turning the Chalkoprateia Synagogue into a church.

Berkin Elvan Riots 2

Last week, Berkin Elvan Riots, Istanbul

There’s a civic earthquake going on in Istanbul right now, over authority and religion and the way people want to live: rioting and explosions, horrific images in the news, chanting in the distance, yelling in the night. This is nothing new in this city. The same things have been going on here for centuries of political heave and surge: angry crowds jostling; people pummeled by Imperial police, falling in the streets; banners flying over faces ragged with rage; smoke and screams filling the air, all over authority, religion and the way people want to live. A lot of this happened right here in Sultanahmet. Now it’s kept peaceful for Tourism, but blink your eyes and it’s the fifth century: rage and fire; clash of swords on bronze; a dropped loaf of bread; a toy wagon trampled into the dust.

Nika Riot

532, Nika Riots, Constantinople

Fish Lamp

Fish Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola.

THE IMPERIAL VIRGIN Her name was Pulcheria. She lorded over her brother Theodosius II and the people with an iron fist clothed in the sanctification of consecrated virginity. She built churches and cared for the poor, but she hated Jews. She forced them out of one area after another, suspended all construction on synagogues within the city walls. The Chalkoprateia Synagogue, built in 318, was closed and its congregation banished. With fatal irony the confiscated synagogue was consecrated as Theotokos, the God-Bearer, in the name of Holy Mary, that Jewish Virgin that Pulcheria so identified with herself. It would be her only child. WIth successive reigns, Theotokos in Chalkoprateia rose in glory, at one time Constantinople’s greatest church. It survived centuries of triumph and disaster, eventually becoming a mosque. Today there is only a broken pillar, a buried chapel and two weedy walls to mark it.

Altar looking down

Peter Paul and Peacock 2002 Trici Venola

Peter, Paul, and Peacock © 2002 Trici Venola

GHOST CHURCH Little mysteries: the stub of a pillar, its break rounded with age, sticking up through the sidewalk next to a parking lot. Across the narrow street, another pillar-sized lump, mortared all over with stones. Nearby, two arches stacked in front of a staircase going into a hill, with a brick barrel-vault ceiling, leading up to a  bright pink-stuccoed wall behind a mosque. From the harsh recent restoration, you’d never dream how old it is. A block away, another pillar stub sticking out of the sidewalk. This one is a different kind of marble.

Clues Shots

L to R: pillar stub, double arch, barrel-vault, second pillar stub.

Across the street, a haphazard pile of rubble, mortared here and there to lumps of Byzantine brick.

Pile O Rubble 4

Through a chink in the mortar, a flashlight glimpse of a Byzantine brick arch down below the street.

Flashlight glimpse 1

A door-shaped area on a plaster wall showing the antiquity beneath.

Old wall thru plaster A sealed iron door in an old wall under a row of hotels. A hoary wall rearing up between a parking lot and a restaurant terrace. A ragged ruin over the Basilica Cistern, its windows Ottoman, its foundation Byzantine. Just hints, clues in a puzzle.

Ivory Angel ©2002 Trici Venola

Ivory Angel ©2002 Trici Venola

Once consecrated as holy, a place cannot be de-consecrated. So says a dear friend. Since he is a Canon in his church, with a lifetime spent studying such things, I listen to him. If so, then there is a certain parking lot in my old Sultanahmet neighborhood that is holy as all get-out, and on three theological pillars to boot: Muslim, Christian and Judaic. Before that, there was most likely some Pagan altar with flute and drum, an ancient withered seer behind the statue of the god, angels with wings coming out of their hips…

Foot Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

Foot Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

Walking around here for years, mentally lining up all these clues; speculating on some great temple all across the hill, its perfect Greek geometry leveling the lumpy streets. We must create our picture from minute fragments. Like sex in the movies under the old moralistic American Production Code, we have to make our guesses from the architectural equivalent of a hairpin on a pillow: that lone pillar stub sticking up out of the cobblestones. Our hairpin, so to speak, led to St Jacob’s Chapel, hidden under a building near the foot of the hill. Going down!

Going Down

ST JACOB’S

Once lush with fresco, most of it is bare dirt-encrusted brick, an octagon chapel around a massive solid brick octagon pier, lime-mortared, indestructible. God knows what it held up. A baptistry? An obelisk? A statue?

Arch Pier

Its owners have taken excellent care of St Jacob’s since they acquired the property in the 1930s, and many scholars have studied it. Traces of frescoes remain, still lovely.

St Jacobs Garland ©2014 Trici Venola

St Jacobs Garland ©2014 Trici Venola

Jesus ArmeniaFifth-century frescoes are rare in Istanbul. They may have looked like this Jesus, from an early-Christian Armenian church.

Here’s a first take on St Jacob’s done back in 2007, a crumbling frescoed halo catching the light, a kindly cowled face imagined for no reason, in the shadows where once there was a doorway leading… where?

In St Jacob's Chapel ©2014 Trici Venola

In St Jacob’s Chapel ©2014 Trici Venola

Friends opened a hotel next door. They found Byzantium in their basement, too.

Flashlight glimpse

Just down the street is Zeynep Sultan Camii (Mosque), its wavy roof echoing that of Kalendarhane Camii up the hill. While drawing it back in 2004, I learned that the neighborhood was called in Byzantine times Chalkoprateia, and that it was the Bronze District, where Jewish craftsmen created and sold bronze items. Kalendarhane was restored in the 18th century… Zeynep Sultan was built in 1769. Was it built on the site of a vanished church? Or was the church over St Jacob’s Chapel?

Zeynep Sultan ©2004 Trici Venola

Zeynep Sultan ©2004 Trici Venola

As usual, sources differ as to whether the octagon chapel is St Jacob’s or St James. Was there, perhaps, another chapel? Same size, nearby? A little digging produced this schematic from the 1960s, based, say St Jacob’s owners, on one from the 1920s.

Panagia floorplan

It’s astonishing how accurate this is, considering that the authors did not have access to Google Maps. Some merged screen dumps produced this overview of the area:

TheoChalk Comp 3a

See the parking lot at center? The tramline runs down the right, and Hagia Sophia, not shown, is just beyond it. The Basilica Cistern is under that large rough pale area bottom center. That tiny circle top right is Zeynep Sultan’s dome.

Here it is with those little clues. Hm.

TheoChalk Comp 3b

Hours of manipulating images produced this superimposition. And cold chills.

TheoChalk Comp 3

Holy Mother of God.

THE IMPERIAL VIRGIN

Fifteen years of walking about this neighborhood, tea in carpet shops, coffee and gossip, friends, errands, parties, informal tours, drawing, and all the while this great slumbering ghost sprawled across the hill. These shabby old bits I call clues were part of an edifice so important by the 8th century that it held an alleged Girdle of the Virgin. This is hotly contested by at least one Byzantine scholar, but I like to think about St Mary’s robe floating in the ether of a Byzantine collective memory, down under the tourist eateries, travel agencies, and Ottoman plaster.

The Cambrai Madonna from the Met.

The Cambrai Madonna from the Met.

The mid-5th century was early days for the great Christian empire. Constantine the Great, who declared Christianity the official religion, had only been gone a hundred years. The city had been Constantinople for only a century, full of Pagan echoes, in the sacred fantastical animals, in the worship of the saints. The great Theodosian Walls, those hulking savaged monuments still standing, were new, built by Anthemius, Regent of the Eastern Roman Empire, named after the crowned child, Theodosius II.

Dragon Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

Dragon Lamp ©2002 Trici Venola

The weak young Emperor Arcadius was dead, and his hated sensuous Empress Eudoxia was dead as well. Their son Theodosius II was crowned at age seven, but it was his sister who ruled: Aelia Pulcheria, granddaughter to Theodosius the Great, the Emperor who set up the Egyptian Obelisk in the Hippodrome in 390, who built the second Hagia Sophia that was burned in the Nika Rebellion of 532. All three generations had the same cold pale eyes.

Pulcheria and Theodosius II

Pulcheria and her brother, Theodosius II

Pulcheria was nine when she began to train her little brother to be Emperor. In stark contrast to her scandalous mother, who wore bangs like a courtesan and flaunted her infidelities, she took a Vow of Chastity, consecrating her virginity to God. Her piety was undeniable, but she was also menaced by Anthemius the Wall-Builder who was determined to marry into the royal family. The Vow protected her. She blocked all his avenues and made her sisters swear virginity, too. It must have been grim: three dour princesses stitching altar cloths in a palace forbidden to men and levity of any kind.  Anthemius might have been a better ruler, but at 15 Pulcheria sacked him and proclaimed herself Regent, declaring herself Augusta, Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.

THE CULT OF THE VIRGIN

Nestorius

Patriarch Nestorius

Easter Sunday, 428, a church by the Theodosian Walls, filled with the elite. Heading in a grand processional toward the Sanctuary, Pulcheria ran smack into Nestorius, the new Patriarch of Constantinople. He barred her from entering the holiest place. Her womanhood made her unfit, he said, only men were pure enough. “I have kept myself pure as gold,” said the Consecrated Virgin, “as clean as fleece. Haven’t I given birth to God?” “You are a sinner,” he said, “you have given birth to Satan.”

This was the beginning of a hammer-and-tongs feud that lasted years and shaped Christianity forever. Nestorius accused Pulcheria of adultery, of cheating on Christ with men, dogs, infidel. Pulcheria retaliated by declaring that she was as Mary, Mother of Jesus, and that Mary was divine, the Mother of God, giving rise to the Cult of the Virgin.

Bleeding Mary ©2000 Trici Venola

Bleeding Mary ©2000 Trici Venola

The dignity and power of women in Christianity took shape under the blue cowl of Mary’s robe. By the time she was done, an insult to Pulcheria was an insult to the Theotokos, to the Great Holy Virgin Mother herself.

11th-century Mary in Hagia Sophia

11th-century Mary in Hagia Sophia

Pulcheria was a powerful force in shaping the future of rule of kings, investing awe and holiness surrounding kingship. In taking on Nestorius she gave women a powerful new status in the new religion, ensuring that Mary was right up there with her son. The Cult of the Virgin has been at loggerheads with Christianity ever since, but here in Byzantium, through their identification with Mary, women gained power.

Ivory Virgin ©2002 Trici Venola

Ivory Virgin ©2002 Trici Venola

Theotokos means God-Bearer.

Nestorius, in addition to quashing women, tried to quash theater, circus, games, mimes, and exotic halftime dancers at the Chariot Races, not a good idea if one wants to stay popular. His attempt to micromanage the monasteries pissed off the monks. At one memorable sermon, the monk Basil loudly derided Nestorius and was roundly cheered by the congregation. At last Nestorious was declared a heretic and exiled, leaving Pulcheria ensconced on her chaste throne. He railed at Constantinople from the Holy Land, becoming one prong of a fork in the faith: Jesus Human and Christ Divine, two natures in one person: Nestorianism, was on one side. Jesus Christ Entirely Divine, which became Monophyism, was on the other. This argument was still going strong a hundred years later in Justinian’s time and after. Many, many riots in the streets.

A COLLISION OF EMPRESSES

Augusta Eudocia ©1999 Trici Venola

Augusta Eudocia ©1999 Trici Venola

Theodosius II, more interested in manuscript illumination than politics, let his sister lead the Empire. At 19, he told her that he didn’t care what they made him marry so long as it was beautiful. Athenais, a gorgeous Greek girl beggared by the death of her father, flung herself on the mercy of philanthropic Pulcheria, probably to avoid becoming a whore. Pulcheria took a look, heard the exquisite Greek, and married her to Theodosius II. He fell passionately in love. They re-named her Eudocia.

The beautiful Eudocia soon gained popularity over thin-lipped ascetic Pulcheria, who began to loathe her. Eudocia and the chief minister, Eunuch Chrysaphius,  convinced the affable Theodosius II to give his relentless sister less credence, causing Pulcheria to move out of the palace, but her tentacles continued to creep toward her enemies. Eudocia wasn’t just a pretty face: she sponsored education, founded a university. But eventually Theodosius was persuaded away from her. She proclaimed herself a supporter of Nestorianism and left for the Holy Land, to die in sad obscurity. But oh, she had been loved, by her husband and by the people. Portraits abound. There are several in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum. She’s still beautiful.

Pulcheria 1

Augusta Pulcheria

After her brother’s death, Pulcheria returned to the palace and fought the Eunuch. The Senate refused to grant her sole rule, so she found a weakling who wouldn’t try to sleep with her, Marcias, and married him. Then she executed Chrysaphius. Pulcheria continued to build churches, feed the poor, import relics, persecute Jews, and proclaim the divine nature of Christ and her own implied divinity. For her pains she was canonized. For her elevation of women throughout the Empire and down through the ages, she deserves it. This aescetic, grandiose, furious, passionate, selective philanthropist is now a Greek Orthodox saint. There’s a school named after her right here in my neighborhood, Sainte Pulcherie.

THEOTOKOS IN CHALKOPRATEIA was heavily mosaiced and lavishly frescoed. It was tall and imposing, but has vanished utterly.

Martyrdom St Lawrence Ravenna

Church of Galla Placida, Ravenna.

Here’s the north aisle, heading toward Hagia Sophia. While this Hagia Sophia was being built, from 532 to 537, our church was the Seat of the Patriarchate of the Eastern Roman Empire.

North Aisle

The famous mosaics, covering the Life of the Virgin, were destroyed in the 8th century by Iconoclasts, but the Relics of the Virgin remained in its walls.

SanMarcosCeiling

St Mark’s in Venice

Here’s  a wall along the south aisle.

South Aisle

The gilded coffered ceiling and the doors of silver, electrum and gold were sold off by Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the 11th century to finance a defense against a Norman threat. Before Alexios, Theotokos’ interior likely resembled this:

SantaMariaMaggiore

Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome: 5th century interior, 18th century neoByzantine ceiling.

This parking lot is the nave, and we’re walking toward the altar, which faced east and Hagia Sophia.

NaveUnder Latin rule from 1204 to 1261, our church became a cathedral occupied by priests: Sancta Maria de Cinctur, or St Mary of the Shingles. Workshops probably made shingles in the area by then, or perhaps the priests had them. Considering what the Latin Crusaders did to Constantinople, we can only hope. Here’s the surviving 4th or 5th century Byzantine wall.

Original Wall Ground

Mehmetpasha It’s still standing because in 1484, 31 years after the Ottoman Conquest, the ruined church, nee synagogue, was converted to a mosque by order of one Lala Hayruddin. In 1755, by order of Vizier Mehmet Said Pasha, the mosque was restored and re-consecrated as Acem Aga Mescidi. Down the street, in 1769, Zeynep Sultan Mosque was built and consecrated. In 1814 this fountain in the street was built. See that Byzantine wall next to it? And the tribal carpet for sale next to that? These juxtapositions are why I live here. And, of course, tripping over the occasional Ghost Church.

Fountain and wallBy 1936, Turkey’s zeitgeist was not religious, and the mosque was abandoned, slowly falling into weedy disrepair. It’s been derelict since 1936, subsumed by the city. If you go up to the terrace at Alemdar Restaurant to watch the Dervishes whirl in front of Hagia Sophia, you can see this from the stairs: the last relic of the altar of Theotokos in Chalkoprateia.

Original walls 3

The street running from one pillar stub to the double arches has always been spooky at night, in a high, cool, grey, waiting kind of way.

DSC01663

It’s probably just imagination.

Copper Cross, Mosaic ©2002 Trici Venola

Copper Cross, Mosaic ©2002 Trici Venola

SO HOW OLD IS IT, ANYWAY?

This post was a real bitch to research. Each successive layer of information contradicts the last. As near as I can figure, here’s a rough timeline for our busted pillar.

318- Synagogue begun.

379-Rebuilt Synagogue unfinished but open.

Emperor Theodosius criticized by the Bishop of Milan, St Ambrosius, for allowing “A synagogue in the heart of the Queen of Cites”

395 Synagogue burned. Repaired, but when?

Bronze Eudocia ©2013 Trici Venola

Bronze Eudocia ©2013 Trici Venola

450 457 Synagogue converted into Church by Theodosius II at insistence of Pulcheria. Consecrated: Theotokos in Chalkoprateia

476 Theotokos damaged in great fire.

484 Theotokos repaired by Empress Verina. Emperor Zeno took some credit.

532 Nika Rebellion burned Hagia Sophia. Theotokos seat of Patriarch until Hagia Sophia opened in 537.

c570 Theotokos damaged in an earthquake and repaired by Justin II.

867-886 after the Iconoclasts were gone, the dome was redone. Lavish redecoration including gold doors.

11th century: Gold doors, etc sold to finance resistance to Norman invasion.

1204-1261 Theotokos converted to a cathedral known as Sancta Maria de Cinctur or Holy Mary of the Shingles.

1484 By order of Lala Hayrudin, the church was converted into a mosque, but what was it called?

1755 Vizier Mehmet Said Pasha placed the pulpit in Zeynep Sultan.

1814 The Basilica was called either Sayyid Umar Agha Mosque OR Acem Aga Mescidi Mosque, described as being built next to a fountain.

1936 Derelict and abandoned.

Pillar Stub

The only piece that doesn’t fit is that ragged old ruin above the CIstern. I found out what it is, but that’s another post.

Rock Crystal Cross ©2002 Trici Venola

Rock Crystal Cross ©2002 Trici Venola

So why, why is this important? It isn’t even my history. I haven’t a drop of Jewish, Greek, or Turkish blood. So what. The history of this place is beyond any one people: it’s the history of the whole world. As a friend says, it’s a matter of respect. Hell, it’s a matter of awe. Seventeen hundred years of toil and care, smoke and love and holy water, men and women in anguish and triumph– it matters. It matters so much that there was a temple here, that there was art here, that there was worship here. Blood of sacrilege, blood of sacrifice, Blood of the Lamb…That high, stone-cool waiting feeling of the streets in the dead quiet of night is from layers and layers of living that all happened here, a concentration of experience. If you say Constantinople over and over, faster and faster, slurring the sounds, it becomes Istanbul. To paraphrase Casablanca, it’s like any other place, only more so. Our parking lots are really cathedrals.

Eudocia on a Weight, Byzantine Museum, Istanbul

Eudocia on a Weight, Byzantine Museum, Istanbul

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All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola, ©2000-2014. Early Christian artifacts drawn at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Archeological Museum in Istanbul, the Archeological Museum in Antalya. For purchase of sketchbooks and other original art, write care of this blog.

Special thanks to Suleyman, custodian of the Last Wall of Theotokos in Chalkoprateia, next to his terrace at Alemdar Restaurant. Their Dervish show is aces. Special thanks to the custodians of St Jacob’s Chapel, who wish to remain anonymous. And thanks to all the Byzantine scholars who have generously made their work readily available, on the Internet, to someone not affiliated with any university. We are none of us much without the others.

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KYBELE HOTEL: Drawing in the Power of the Goddess

BASTION OF CHARM

Mike's Lamps ©1999 Trici Venola

Mike’s Lamps ©1999 Trici Venola

DSC00524Kybele Hotel, one block from Hagia Sophia in Sultanahmet at 35 Yerebatan Caddesi, next door to the Yoruk Collection. Far below in the shadowy Basilica Cistern is the giant upside-down stone Medusa. Moss greens her face like uplighting. Up here in the street, all is brilliant color: Kybele is painted turquoise and gold, pink and purple. It’s designed to make your eyes happy.

Slow Pan Kybele ©2004 Trici Venola

Slow Pan Kybele / Yoruk ©2004 Trici Venola

DSC00530Why write about a hotel? And why have I drawn it so much? Because it matters to me. But then it matters to a lot of people. It’s their porthole on Istanbul. From Japan to San Francisco, from Moscow to Paris to New York, diverse, eclectic and interesting people all find a home in Kybele. From this spot, in the center of the oldest part of one of the oldest cities on earth, you can see the whole world.

A Winter Day at Kybele ©2000 Trici Venola

A Winter Day at Kybele ©2000 Trici Venola

Bigwig, A Poet ©1999 Trici Venola

Bigwig, A Poet ©1999 Trici Venola

Charm isn’t something you can manufacture. It has to evolve. It comes about when every single thing in a place matters to someone. Kybele is probably the most photographed hotel in Istanbul, with a wall of rave reviews culled from hundreds. In a district fraught with amusing taste, theirs is impeccable. People work here for years. The maids are important. The waiters are important. The managers and the chauffeur and the chefs are important. And they all treat you like you’re important.

Laura 99

Laura 99

Kybele Lobby 99The place is immaculate, the food in the restaurant good, the music an eclectic mix. Kybele’s famous hanging lamps inspired lookalikes all over the city, lamp shops on every corner.

Kybele’s sixteen rooms are always full. People come back year after year. Architects, archeologists, artists all congregate among the antiques in the lobby. Its creators, brothers Mike, Alpaslan and Hasan Akbayrak, form a perfect blend of art, logic and mysticism that carries over into the decor and general feeling of the place. When they sold it last July 1, shock waves went through the international community. Like many others, my first reaction was to think I would die of sadness. Yet everyone was still sitting out front playing backgammon like always. A cloudy summer day, with a hot breath of storm.

Mike In the Clouds ©2013 Trici Venola

Mike In the Clouds ©2013 Trici Venola

So I sat there in shock and drew Mike and his sons, kids I watched grow up. These faces cheered me right up.

Ozi and Timur 2013 ©2013 Trici Venola

Ozi and Timur 2013 ©2013 Trici Venola

I was there so long that I got to meet the new owners. We should have known that, like everything else in its history, Kybele would attract the best.

Gözde Birer ©2013 Trici Venola

Gözde Birer ©2013 Trici Venola

Ismail Take One ©2013 Trici Venola

Ismail Take One 2013 Trici Venola

Far from an ending, the sale is a continuation and expansion. The  brothers Akbayrak and their legendary carpet and jewelry business are still next door, at Yoruk Collection. The staff is unchanged. And there are these interesting new faces at the hotel helm.  We all love this place, and so I’m celebrating its people and spirit here. In these perilous times, we need every little island of peace and beauty we can get.

Mike & Nihat ©2007 Trici Venola

Mike & Nihat ©2007 Trici Venola

THE POWER OF THE GODDESS

Susie and Ayda ©2007 Trici Venola

Susie and Ayda ©2007 Trici Venola

Kybele from Çatal Hoyuk

Kybele from Çatal Hoyuk

Kybele. A name that conjures up a dancing procession with cymbals and bells. She’s the ancient powerful Anatolian Mother Goddess of Asia Minor, inspiring temples, sacrifices, orgiastic worship. Aspects of her later incarnated into Artemis and then into the Virgin Mary. Images of the goddess abound on the Internet, but in all her many forms, Kybele is female power. Ruler of hearth and home, she arrives in a chariot pulled by lions, accompanied by wild music, by wine, by smiles.

Mike & the Hittite Kybele ©2004 Trici Venola

Mike & the Hittite Kybele ©2004 Trici Venola

There have always been powerful women around Kybele. For starters there are Susie, Gamza and Kazumi, who married Mike, Alp and Hasan.

Susie Oh La La ©2004 Trici Venola

Susie Oh La La ©2004 Trici Venola

Their mothers and friends come in and out from Germany and Turkey and Japan. Their kids grew up independent and interesting, and there have always been fabulous guests. So naturally two of the three new owners are power women as well. Here’s Nur Katre. I haven’t heard her music yet, I haven’t read her writing. I’m betting it’s good.

The New Owner ©2013 Trici Venola

The New Owner ©2013 Trici Venola

Kybele Tympanon, Louvre

Kybele Tympanon, Louvre

Nur’s parents, Gözde and Ismail Birer, seemed nice enough, except I couldn’t talk to them. That damned language thing. A pal, Elizabeth, was at Kybele, she spends her summers resurrecting and reconstructing wooden furniture from the Court of King Midas, circa 740 BCE, found in tumuli near Ankara, and stays on her way in and out each year. Kybele sold, I said. Nobody had told her. I was sitting with Gözde and we were trying to converse without much luck.  But Elizabeth is fluent in Turkish, and she began to translate. Half an hour later we were gasping for air, laughing up in the garden. A newspaperwoman, politically awake, very funny. Ismail as it turns out is an expert in antique textiles, very dry, aesthetically adept. All thoughts of our precious place going to boring strangers had fled. What a relief!

Gozde and Ismail with Cats ©2013 Trici Venola

Gözde and Ismail Birer with Cats ©2013 Trici Venola

It’s mostly women who make the textiles sold at Yoruk Collection and for that matter everywhere: women weave the carpets and embroider the suzanis, women tie the tassels and bead the hats. Tribal art represents years of the lives of women. They love women at Kybele, and we know it.

Dreams In Lace ©2004 Trici Venola

Dreams In Lace ©2004 Trici Venola

GENESIS

Mike's Famous Rug Lecture ©1999 Trici Venola

Mike’s Famous Rug Lecture ©1999 Trici Venola

Alpaslan On the Medusa ©1999 Trici Venola

Alpaslan On the Medusa ©1999 Trici Venola

The Akbayrak brothers were selling carpets and textiles in Sultanahmet when there were only four stores. Back then, the Sultanahmet was shabby and dusty, but the trees, innocent of municipal pruning, were huge and healthy, and the antiquities were appropriately blackened with age. You had to beg someone to help you find a carpet salesman. Mike, Hasan and Alpaslan Akbayrak opened the Yoruk Collection on Yerebatan Caddesi, just down the street from the Basilica Cistern. They were wildly successful. Japanese collectors found them. American diplomats found them. They bought two splintering Victorian wooden houses next door, gutted and rebuilt them, painted them vivid colors and filled them with antiques, in order to give their carpet customers a nice place to stay. Kybele Hotel opened in 1992.  It has seldom had an empty room or a dull day since.

TV and Elizabeth

Anthropologist & Find ©2000 Trici Venola

Anthropologist & Find ©2000 Trici Venola

Among the earliest tribal textile dealers, Kybele and Yoruk Collection set the tone for Sultanahmet, championing handwoven textiles like ikat, hand-embroidered suzanis, gorgeous stuff now collected all over the world. The textiles at Yoruk Collection are mind-boggling. And some of the jewelry is that stuff you’ve seen in the movies: The Other Boleyn Girl and others.

DSC00560

The Brothers Akbayrak ©1999 Trici Venola

The Brothers Akbayrak ©1999 Trici Venola

Breakfast at Kybele ©1999 Trici Venola

Breakfast at Kybele ©1999 Trici Venola

FINDING MY WAY HOME    I stumbled into Kybele ahead of my luggage one morning in September of 1999, angry, discouraged and sad. I was in Turkey to draw, but of course I had fallen in love, and it was not going well.

A big earthquake in August had scared tourists, and Sultanahmet was empty. A contact at the Turkish Tourist Office in Washington had put me in touch with a travel agency, after I explained my plan to draw in Turkey for three months and put the stuff up on my website. There wasn’t any money for projects like mine, but the agency contacted hotel owners. I paid for my own trip, but they asked hotels to contribute housing. Kybele was the first one.

Mike & Kate 99 2

An all-night fight with my boyfriend had left me numb. Still I noticed lamps hanging from the ceiling like fantastic fruit. The bearded hippie on the desk wore an embroidered cap and invited me to breakfast. I followed the glowing lamps through the lobby. My mood lightened with every step. The place looked like the love child of Oscar Wilde and Isadora Duncan.

Little Girl Selin ©1999 Trici Venola

Little Girl Selin ©1999 Trici Venola

A small girl with a huge white hair-bow burst into the breakfast room yelling GunAYdin! Good MORNing! The hippie was Mike, the little girl was Hasan’s daughter Selin, and I was home.  My troubles skittered away like spiders in the sun. I should worry, I had friends.

Akbayrak Family October 99 ©1999 Trici Venola

Akbayrak Family October 99 ©1999 Trici Venola

I have been drawing Kybele Hotel ever since. Through besotted love and manic joy, catastrophic illness and recovery, career change and homesickness, through TV interviews and groups of those fascinated as I am, by the layers here of culture and time, through the long, slow, joyous attempt to understand this place, Turkey, at the center of the world, the hotel has always been there and I have kept drawing it. I should worry, I have friends.

The Mosque Alarm Clock ©2000 Trici Venola

The Mosque Alarm Clock ©2000 Trici Venola

STAFF

Ali & Sedat ©2009 Trici Venola

Ali & Sedat ©2009 Trici Venola

Apo, Kybele’s excellent chef. We all learned his name in a hurry.

 Apo

And, since he’s standing next to Apo down in the kitchen wielding a big knife, we learned Huseyin’s name pretty fast, too.Huseyin Chef's Helper

Adnan 2013 ©2013 Trici Venola

Adnan 2013 ©2013 Trici Venola

Once I complimented Kybele’s Driver, Adnan, here on his cheery demeanor, which takes some doing when you’re driving all the time in Istanbul traffic. This is a town where taxi drivers can be psycho. “It’s just my face,” he told me, “I am 24 hours smiling.”

Dursun is unobtrusive, but wherever he goes, it’s clean, and you have whatever you need. I missed drawing Emir, but he made up for it with this smile.

Kybele-Dursun

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Emir yesterday.

Kybele’s thousands of lamps used to be kept in order by an old man who crawled around in the ceilings, wiring everything so that they could be turned on in batches. He eventually went to the Big Light In The Sky, to be replaced by Huseyin, shown in the Kybele garden.

Huseyin in 2004 ©2004 Trici Venola

Huseyin in 2004 ©2004 Trici Venola

Aysha and Huseyin’s mother, Muberra, are Kybele’s longtime housekeepers.Aysa and Muberra

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Vefa 2009Vefa has been Kybele’s manager since I can remember. Be nice to Vefa! He’s the guy who books your room. Also on desk is his cohort, the charming Chetin. It’s a good idea to be nice to him as well.

The night man is and always has been Elvis.

Elvis 99His real name is Taner, and he works very long shifts. Many jet-lagged conversations have I had with Elvis down in the lobby at 4AM. Once I got all the way to the airport without my passport and called, frantic. Elvis located the passport and sent it by taxi to the airport, telling the driver enough so that he could find the total stranger with zero Turkish, the one bouncing up and down with anxiety, and I made my plane. Here’s Baby Elvis in 1999.

Hasan wEzzie 2009Vefa’s brother, Hasan, started at Kybele when he got out of the Army in 2001. Now he’s all grown up and married and a Daddy and everything. He grew up here: poignant memories of Hasan heroically carrying all of the suitcases, backpacks, shoulder bags and purses of an entire party of pretty girls up Kybele’s steep stairs all by himself in ONE trip, earning many oohs and aahs.

Baby Hasan

I drew him with the tiny abandoned kitten he and Serdar found in Kybele and kept alive until they could foist her off on me. I still have her, fat and demanding, but cute.

Elvis 99

Elvis in 1999

Serdar started at Kybele when he was seventeen. A tall rangy kid, always with the latest wild hairstyle. He learned English a lot better and faster than I’ve learned Turkish, and he applies it daily now at his swell job in Canada. Here’s Serdar in 2004.

Serder Working Late ©2004 Trici Venola

Serder Working Late ©2004 Trici Venola

And here he is at his wedding in 2011.

Serdar and Tachelle ©2011 Trici Venola

Serdar and Tachelle ©2011 Trici Venola

StormStorm would talk your ear off. He was a good worker. His problem was that he had too big  a brain. It was full of thoughts that slopped over continuously in floods of talk. Storm picked up English overnight. He sharpened his thoughts talking to the Kybele customers as he worked. He was entertaining as all hell.

There wasn’t a whole lot of opportunity for him, but a visiting philanthropist from Arizona noticed the brain (with a nudge from Alp) and sent him to school in America. Such things don’t happen very often. Storm worked his butt off at school and aced the courses and got scholarships. He works in Silicon Valley now. He came for a visit awhile back. He said the weirdest thing about being where he is is that everybody is very very smart.

Happy Mike in Winter ©2001 Trici Venola

Happy Mike in Winter ©2001 Trici Venola

Sukru and ApoŞükrü, shown here with Apo, a man of many affectionate nicknames: “Jay Leno,” and “Sugar” being a few. Şükrü’s son Serkan started at the hotel very young. When still a teenager he could deal with anything. He could talk down a fight, eject a drunk without a scene and still bring you your cappuccino before it got cold. Today, after the Army and some odd jobs, he’s back at Yoruk Collection. Here he is with his new wife, looking positively merged. She’s a talented graphic designer, so fast on a Mac that her nickname is “Speedy Gonzales.”

Newlyweds Merged 2013 Trici Venola

Newlyweds Merged 2013 Trici Venola

Sultanahmet is full of little boys who work: carrying tea trays, shining shoes, selling roses. Most of them are Eastern Turks, working to help the family. Alpaslan told me one day that they had hired dozens of these boys, but that they’d all flaked out after awhile. All except one. Erkan started with Kybele when he was 13. He learned English and Japanese and exquisite social skills, grew up and got married and has a lovely family and is the manager over at Yoruk Collection. Here he is in 2009:

Dreamboat Erkan 2009 ©2009 Trici Venola

Dreamboat Erkan 2009 ©2009 Trici Venola

GUESTS AND FRIENDS

Erkan and Ali Sanci ©2000 Trici Venola

Erkan and Ali Sanci ©2000 Trici Venola

There are no elevators, and there are no televisions in the jewel-box rooms. Nobody seems to miss them.

Hasan in the Turkish House ©2004 Trici Venola

Hasan in the Turkish House ©2004 Trici Venola

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Kelly 13

Upstairs in the Garden is the Turkish House, a highly ornamental structure of carved painted wood that houses the multi-lingual Kybele library. The Turkish House is built like traditional old country houses: a row of cabineted rooms.  Once there were some Peace Corps volunteers staying there, en route from Romania. Over breakfast in the elegant garden, one of the girls described going in and out of her flooded apartment building in the dark with two flashlights tied to her hips, wading through floating things she didn’t want to identify.

Birds & Cages ©2004 Trici Venola

Birds & Cages ©2004 Trici Venola

Alp and Rayan 99

Alp and Rayan 99

Between dangerous assignments in Iraq in the early 2000s, a photographer caught his breath at Kybele. He was fascinated with the pair of doves nesting in the Garden amid Mike’s collection of empty bird cages, and I did this drawing for him. I wish I had some of the photographs he took of them. He described taking pictures of Saddam Hussein’s palace after that bird had flown.

Raymond and Ajata were madly in love and expecting their first child. She was eating everything in sight. They went back to Paris and I never saw them again. Here they are on the verge, forever happy.

Raymond & Ajata ©2004 Trici Venola

Raymond & Ajata ©2004 Trici Venola

Lynn from Kentucky took up textile dealing at seventy.

Our Sweet Lynn ©2007 Trici Venola

Our Sweet Lynn ©2007 Trici Venola

Marta from Moscow is a frequent and welcome visitor, along with her growing family.

Marta ©2013 Smetana

Marta ©2013 Smetana

Mr Pete ©2013 Trici Venola

Mr Pete ©2013 Trici Venola

Mother Mary ©1999 Trici Venola

Mother Mary ©1999 Trici Venola

Mr Pete drives a Harley and always brings T-shirts for the staff.  Below, Mother Mary was  so called because she and Mike figured she was old enough to be his mother. When we lost Mother Mary, there was a large wake at Kybele. This picture was passed out with the mourners. Mother Mary’s husband Father Bob remarried, and the entire family comes year after year.

At Mike's w Father Bob ©2004 Trici Venola

At Mike’s w Father Bob ©2004 Trici Venola

Jeannie and her partner Rhonda had the most beautiful hair anyone had ever seen. Big blonde, sleek black. They brought belly-dance tours over from Canada, stayed at Kybele, dancing like a couple of goddesses. Everybody fell in love with them and stayed that way.

Jeannie ©2004 Trici Venola

Jeannie ©2004 Trici Venola

Japanese architects have for decades been stabilizing the Byzantine architecture of Hagia Sophia. Legendary Turkish architect Mimar Sinan buttressed it in the Renaissance, and now it’s the Japanese helping it stay vertical. They send all their architectural students there to study. That’s them out walking on the roof, and that’s a clutch of them over there in the Kybele lobby under the lamps. One day I’ll have to draw them.

A Sucker For Kids ©1999 Trici Venola

A Sucker For Kids ©1999 Trici Venola

Half the staff speaks Japanese, not to mention Hasan and Kazumi and Selin.

Hasan en Famille wCats

Bernie the BirdThe Akbayrak kids are all multilingual, and a League of Nations they are. Selin, the little girl with the big white bow, grew up so smart it is scary. I sat next to her at the computer one night a few years ago. She was chatting online in Japanese, watching a video of a teenaged girl band in Tokyo singing in English, conversing in Turkish on one side and commenting in English to me on the other. It’ll be fun to see what she does with her life.

Alp's Daughters

Zeynep 2004Alp and Gamza’s daughter is studying fashion design in New York. I used to call her Brown Sugar because of her hair. Zeynep drove everybody crazy, she had so much energy. Whatever she does in life will probably involve numbers.

Mike and Susie’s daughter Yonca married Mlado from Serbia.

Yonca at Kybele 03 ©2003 Trici Venola

Yonca at Kybele 03 ©2003 Trici Venola

Maya One ©2009 Trici Venola

Maya One ©2009 Trici Venola

New Year’s Eve a few years ago, they expected their first child. Over in the corner were Susie’s mother from Germany, Kazumi’s mother from Japan, and Mike’s mother, Turkish. Waiting for Mlado’s mother to arrive from Serbia, all gabbled away in their three languages in perfect communication. Maya, shown here at one month, is the proud owner of Maya’s Corner, that purple and pink kebab place between Kybele Hotel and Yoruk Collection. Now four, she bustles in importantly. Yes, this is my shop, she says.

Mike Christmas Bling ©2004 TV

Mike Christmas Bling ©2004 TV

Necla and Cat ©1999 Trici Venola

Necla and Cat ©1999 Trici Venol

Lolling Alp ©2000 Trici Venola

Lolling Alp ©2000 Trici

Long ago I made a couple of books of pictures I’d drawn of the place. These sat on the piano for years, gradually falling to pieces as scores of jet-lagged people leafed through them. People still find the books near the piano and since I jammed a new card in the back, I get emails. I send them here, to the blog.

Alp Christmas Bling

Alp Christmas Bling ©2004 TV

Perfect Evening Stagger ©2000 Trici Venola

Perfect Evening Stagger ©2000 Trici Venola

Hasan Christmas Bling

Hasan Christmas Bling ©2004 TV

It’s only two months since Gözde and Ismail and Nur bought the place but it seems they have always been there.  I shared Iftar with them there, they like it so much. Vefa and Chetin are still on desk. Everyone else is where they ought to be. The family is still next door, at the Yoruk Collection. They left my books on the piano. The Eternal Backgammon Tournament continues. That seems to be the way it will be. So I upgraded the copy on my commemorative Kybele drawing in the new book in the nick of time before it went to press. Here it is, and it looks to stay this happy.

Kybele Medly ©1999-2013 Trici Venola

Kybele Medly ©1999-2013 Trici Venola

Weeks ago, I went over to Kybele to draw the lobby for this blog.

Kybele Lobby ©2013 Trici Venola

Kybele Lobby ©2013 Trici Venola

DSC00569I worked for hours. As waves of nostalgia surged up and threatened to drown me I couldn’t help noticing that the framed picture at left is hung exactly in the center of the wallpaper design. Not a trick missed!! Then Gözde came over and we had a cappuccino. My Turkish is improving, and so is her English. As always, I found it difficult to leave. I have always enjoyed the company of the Goddess.

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All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola. Drawing On Istanbul 2 is now at the printer’s: stay tuned. Original art is for sale from the Drawing On Istanbul Series: send me a message via this blog if you are interested. Prints are available at the DrawingOnIstanbul Store at ETSY.com. We love your comments.

SUNKEN PALACE: Drawing in the Basilica Cistern

Sideways Medusa ©2012 Trici Venola.

Far below Yerebatan Street, down in the Cistern, hundreds of marble columns march off in the vaulted dimness, each one holding up its bricked arch and, above it, the pavement. They’ve been holding up the street and everything on it for 1500 years. At the base of one column is a massive upside-down marble face, a head of Medusa, sunken on her stone snakes in the coin-strewn shallow water. Moss greens her face like uplighting. Why is she here, and why is she upside down? It’s another Byzantine mystery.

THE WELL OF THE CISTERN

Ben Wachs & the Well of the Cistern ©1999 Trici Venola.

Huge, humped, immutable, Hagia Sophia has been there for fifteen centuries, anchoring the neighborhood which has settled haphazardly around it on this side of the hill where the Straits of the Bosphorus run into the Marmara Sea. Across from Hagia Sophia, on the corner of Yerebatan Street and the tramline,  is a tall pitted rock thing that looks like a giant barbecue chimney. It’s a well going down to the Basilica Cistern, a sixth-century underground reservoir built in 532 by Emperor Justinian.

Basilica Cistern

There are many cisterns in Istanbul but this is the biggest ever found.  Yerebatan Sarayi, or Sunken Palace, the cathedral-sized Cistern runs beneath the entire street and all the buildings, clear to the great dome of Hagia Sophia looming above the trees and tram lines like the top of a glacier.

Hagia Sophia and Neighborhood c 1909

Across the street from the Well is a tall Victorian building, listing like a determined drunk, painted egg-yolk yellow. This is the office of the Tourist Police. Some of them patrol outside under the peeling yellow gingerbread, holding machine guns.

Yerebatan Street is covered with buildings. All of it–hotels, restaurants, shops, machine-gun toting police, mosque, carpet salesmen, shills, postcard sellers, trolling taxis– is held up by the magnificently engineered masonry down in the dim green Cistern: 336 columns marching in perfect order off into the shadows, bloated carp gliding into the watery shadows, expanding rings from the continual dripping of water from the vaulted brickwork above. There is some evidence that the Cistern originated under Constantine and was expanded under Justinian, but it is Justinian rules down here; the scale, grandeur and endurance all testify to that.

Cistern 1 ©2012 Trici Venola.

The water originally fed from the Belgrade Forest via the 4th century Valens Aqueduct, up to 100,000 gallons. Over the centuries various Sultans have repaired it, but then it was lost under the coagulating Ottoman city. The Cistern was re-discovered in 1968 and restored to its present condition in 1985. The government dug out 50,000 tons of mud, put in some reinforcing concrete piers and built walkways and stairs and a ticket office. Before then, the area was covered with wooden houses. People used to send Grandpa down to the basement to catch fish for dinner. They took this for granted. Doesn’t everyone fish in their basement?

Basilica Cistern 99 ©1999 Trici Venola.

There’s an angry account from a Western visitor whose host took him down by boat in the latter 1800s. “He doesn’t even know what he has,” he fumed. But all I can think is how lucky he was to see it by boat and torchlight.

“So I’m sitting down there drawing the Medusa,” I told my friend Mike, back on that first visit back in ’99, “and every tour guide is saying that she’s upside down so–”

“So she won’t turn you to stone?”  he said. Mike’s from the neighborhood.

“Yes!  And there’s another Medusa below the column next to her and it’s sideways— is that why?”

“No!  They just needed a piece that big.  Those Byzantines, they used everything the Romans left lying around.”

COLUMN OF TEARS

Column of Tears ©1999 Trici Venola.

At the top of the column you can see where a section has split off.   There’s another column just like this, lying in chunks up at the Forum of Constantine, now up the hill next to the tramline in Laleli, discounting a fatuous theory that the “tears” represent the 7000 suffering slaves who built the Cistern. This column was probably used because it was damaged. The entire Cistern was built of material scavenged from pagan temples. None of it was meant to be seen. Many columns are pieced together, and none of them match. Capitals are Corinthian or Ionic or plain Doric;  there’s one column carved with flowers. The granite columns are smooth, but the softer marble ones are bubbled like liquid: in 1500 years they’ve taken on the look of the water around them. The Cistern was not built for beauty, but the Byzantines can’t have been insensitive to how beautiful it is.

Site of Pillars in the Cistern ©2012 Trici Venola.

In museums all over Turkey are fabulous carved pediments from the tops of ancient temples. But no columns. All over Istanbul are cisterns built by the Byzantines to provide water to a thirsty or besieged populace. It’s easy to match the pediments with the columns. Other columns were sliced up by the Sultans, like carrots for a casserole, and used to pave bakeshops and mosques.

Beginning Pillars in the Cistern ©2012 Trici Venola.

So last week Security stopped me with my little stool en route to draw the Sideways Medusa and said in Turkish, Are you nuts? Two cruise ships in town, and the Medusa was jammed. So I drew this less popular view across the tops of some arches, a nice warm-up view. Still didn’t catch the water, but I may drop in a huge carp anyway. Five hours here.

Pillars in the Cistern WIP ©2012 Trici Venola.

This drawing works a lot better with the darkened pillar in the middle. Plein Air drawing means drawing from life, drawing the light. The Cistern is wonderful to draw because the light never changes. But there isn’t anything to sit on. The drawings back in 1999 were done sitting on the clammy cement walkway. Now, after thirteen years drawing in the neighborhood, I got permission from Security, and something to sit on. Nice guys!

Pilars in the Cistern ©2012 Trici Venola.

Here’s a second take on the Medusa, back in 1999. My first take is…well, I’m saving it for later. I’m mortified to notice that in these early takes, for some reason I drew nostrils and pupils in the eyes, although she doesn’t have any. This sloppy documentation is annoying, but all I can say is that I don’t do it anymore, which is probably why the drawings take about five times longer.

Alpaslan On the Medusa ©1999 Trici Venola.

Friends of Kybele Hotel will recognize a younger Alpaslan Akbayrak. I’ve always found him fun to draw, but have no idea why I put him on the top of the Medusa. Since Alp is right side up, know that he won’t turn you to stone.

PERSEUS AND MEDUSA

Perseus by Benvenuto Cellini, Florence, Italy.

Now about that stone-turning:

In the original ancient Greek mythology, The Gorgons were three daughters of ancient sea monsters. Winged, with snakes for hair, they hated men. One was mortal: Medusa, a beautiful priestess in Athena’s temple. Athena caught her lover Poseidon, the God of the Sea, ravishing Medusa. She cursed the girl, giving her hair of snakes and a face that would turn anyone to stone, including Perseus, the hero she loved. The love was not returned. Perseus, darling of Athena, was sent to kill Medusa. Like modern hunters he had huge advantages: he was granted invisibility, winged sandals, a good sword and, from Athena, a mirrored shield. By looking into it he sidestepped the stone curse and beheaded Medusa. She was pregnant by Poseidon, and as her head was severed, two magical beings sprang from her body. One was Chrysaor, a golden giant with a sword, and one was the winged horse Pegasus. After that, Perseus got to ride Pegasus, but doomed dead Medusa did achieve mortality: she decorated shields for thousands of years.

Medusa by Michelangelo Caravaggio, 1597

As to why she’s upside down and sideways: It may be possible that the Christian builders wanted to demystify or desanctify the pagan idols. I noticed that someone took the trouble to excise whatever was written on the scrolls of the square sections of these pillars. Then again, it might be that they were simply never finished.

The Medusas are all the way at the end of the Cistern and would always have been below the waterline. The sideways one may be resting on a split-off or damaged section, while the famous upside-down one has no pupils or nostrils; was she unfinished? There’s another one just like them in the sculpture garden at the Archeological Museum nearby. All three Istanbul Medusas look very much like the ones at Aphrodisias, an ancient Roman resort about three hours east of Ephesus. Scholars believe they were created by the same artists. It’s easy to imagine the unfinished blocks with Medusa faces on one side simply included with a shipment of scavenged columns for the Emperor’s new project.

MEDUSA 99

First Take Medusa ©1999 Trici Venola

Here’s my first-ever drawing of the Medusas.  I  must have noticed that Upside-Down Medusa really doesn’t have pupils in her eyes. I’m always saying Draw what you see, not what you think you see– perhaps I didn’t understand it, so it just “wasn’t there.”

Oh, those early drawings!  I remember the amazement and longing to share it all with back home. So beyond my skills. Pulling art for this post, I went into that first book from 13 years ago and thought, damn, I must have had either overwhelming arrogance or overwhelming faith to base an entire life on what was in there. I’ve been drawing all my life, but in 1999, 15 years working digitally had atrophied my analog drawing skills, not to mention I’d been drawing mostly out of my head. But I’ve always drawn from life whenever possible, always been seduced away from abstraction by the sheer glory of the way things look really, when you really look.

Medusa One ©2012 Trici Venola.

Looked up from the book and here I am in Istanbul with twelve years of framed art on the walls, a row of sketchbooks four feet wide full of art that has made friends all over the world. I traded a whole life to be able to draw better, and I can. Found myself cackling wildly. You can get very, very good at something if you do it all the time.

Two Carp ©2012 Trici Venola

All drawings Plein Air; drafting pens on rag sketchbook paper 52 X 18 cm / 7 X 20 ” All art ©2012 by Trici Venola for The Drawing On Istanbul Project.