Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 15

22 October 2011 2-7 PM

GESTALT

I have a compulsion for accuracy. The real, actual world is so astonishing and beautiful that I want to document it. Accuracy is not simply a matter of everything being exactly in place, it’s also a matter of mood. Gestalt is a term for something where the whole equals more than the sum of the parts. You know how some people are not particularly beautiful, yet they are fired with charm, radiance, charisma– so that they seem stunning in person. But a bad photo can make them look empty. So it is with buildings. This rendering of the actual present Boukoleon is as accurate as I could make it, yet something is missing. That’s what we’re working on today. Here’s the drawing as we left it last time.

Boukoleon Portals 14: Work In Progress ©2011 by Trici Venola

I’m making this work better simply by blackening certain areas and strengthening certain lines, while looking at the actual Boukoleon. It really helps to look at the drawing upside-down, in a mirror, and from across the room. You can immediately spot what needs to be done. 

This piece is really busy because of the accuracy. In line art, you’ve got two choices: lines and no lines. There’s a kind of code that develops: dots mean one sort of surface, hatching another. In this piece I used stippling for mortar. For brick, I used hatching.  And now we’re going to talk about foliage.

Oh, the drawings I’ve ruined from drawing the foliage wrong. OK, it’s ephemeral, but it’s there and must be dealt with. It has to do with the way the Boukoleon looks. It’s green, and nothing else is. So we have to find a code for it. The code for this foliage in this drawing is white, sparsely detailed, with a few forays into black.

The detail is sparse because the drawing is not about the foliage. You have to say “What is this drawing about?” And you have to keep saying it as you work. What the drawing is about determines everything you do: the amount of detail, treatment of surfaces, chiaroscuro– the light and dark. This drawing is about endurance. It’s about the contrast between red brick and white marble and old stone. It’s about splendor that survives decay. It’s about grandeur. And on a personal level, it’s about 40 hours of my life in September and October of 2011.

The Boukoleon tells us a lot by its age and decrepit condition. We can see how the rainwater fountained down by the way it carved troughs in the bricks. The big stones at the bottom record the thrash of waves in storms. The blackened areas tell us of past horrors of destruction. The layers of brick and stone are clues to its construction. The lines of stress and weight tell us how a building 1200 years old can survive earthquakes, fires, explosions, partial demolition by dynamite, and the constant vibration from the trains running through its truncated guts.

I’ve been drawing this during a time of upheaval and change. While I was working on this, Muammar Gaddafi died on the hood of a car. You probably saw it too, how he put up his hand to his bloody head and looked at in amazement and dismay. Like many of the ancients, Gaddafi was a horrible sociopath who bled his people like a spider sucking out the guts of flies. His end was foul, as were those of so many of the ancients. As I draw, trying to bring out the massive bulky shapes made up by thousands of bricks, I’m thinking of Nicephoros Phokas.

Phokas Captures Halep: from a contemporary manuscript

He lived in this palace, although he was not born to the purple. Emperor from 963-969, Nicephoros Phokas was a great general. His nickname from a grateful populace was Pale Death of the Saracens.   He killed so many of them that he made Christian Constantinople safe from what it perceived as the ravening hordes of Infidels. Then the Emperor Romanos died, leaving two little boys, a gorgeous 22-year-old widow, Theophano… and a eunuch in charge of the country. Probably to save her sons, Theophano seduced Nicephorus Phokas. This would not have been easy. He was four feet tall, with no neck and thick rubbery lips, and he undoubtedly stank. He refused all comfort, being one of those Christians who believed in rigid asceticism. He slept in a tiger skin and eschewed women, wine, and good food. Nevertheless, Theophano prevailed. “The people love you,” she said, “if you want, they’ll crown you Emperor.” And so it was done, with a grand processional from the Triple Gate all through the city to Hagia Sophia, where he was coronated on the great dais there.

Six years later he was killed by Theophano, his head displayed on a pike before an angry mob, his body thrown out of a window, likely from this very palace. He had insisted that the people continue to behave as though they were still at war, practicing rigid economies and prayers, and they wanted to enjoy life. He was Oliver Cromwell. He was soon hated. He forced the people to build a wall from the Great Palace, next to the Hippodrome where the Blue Mosque is now, all the way down to the Boukoleon on the sea, ending at the Lighthouse, cutting the people off. The Wall of Nicephorus Phokas still exists in places. It’s hollow, a great enclosed walkway the size of a roofed street, big enough for an unpopular, grandiose upstart to walk with his army. But it didn’t save him. The people would have killed him–one source says they did– If Theophano hadn’t done the job. From those contemporary physical descriptions I wonder that it took her six years. On his tomb was carved “You conquered all but a woman.”

I always wanted to be right in the center of things. It seems my fate to be drawing the center of things 1042 years after the fact.  As I put the last stroke on my signature, three people walked up. We started talking and I met Trevor, who is studying archeological preservation of Byzantine antiquities here in Istanbul. He told me some hopeful things about the Boukoleon, such as who has an interest in it and who put the fence up. These are people I’ve some acquaintance with. They do things well here in Turkey and have a great appreciation and understanding of antiquities. Trevor has an impressive amount of information about the Boukoleon and much more access than me since he is working from within the Groves of Academy. I explained that I’m doing this entirely on my own hook, with no organization or funding save the commissions from fascinated clients, and he made some suggestions as to people I might look up, people who would be interested in my Drawing On Istanbul project. So I’m going to do just that, and I’ll let you know what happens.

I am drawing for those who will never see this palace in all its rotting glory. I am hoping that it neither falls apart nor is rendered unrecognizable by Restoration, where one must be told how old it is since it looks brand-new. Why is visual antiquity good? It’s interesting. It tells us things we can’t learn from looking at the same thing new, or made to look new. Today I wore my go-to-hell jeans, which have been with me after a laundry mix-up in West Hollywood in 2001. The original owner was a fairly tall man who wore his 501 jeans until the knees split crossways and the hems were ragged, the backs of them torn clean off. The fronts of the thighs are worn white, and the left one is beginning to fray to white crosswise threads. On either side of the knee splits, the torn threads hang down in an interesting manner. What does this tell us? The wear over the knees tells us he was active. The worn left thigh is a clue as to his behavior, like perhaps he wore a tool belt that rubbed that spot. The ragged bottoms tell us that he was in rough country and wore his boots on the inside. Or perhaps he tucked the jeans in so many times that they tore. Now to buy a pair of jeans like this in LA costs an arm and a leg, because it’s impossible to create a pair of jeans worn out like this from scratch. You can stone-wash jeans, you can artificially distress them, you can put cutesy little tears and frays on them and charge up the yingyang for them and the designers do, but all they are is kitsch. Fake and common. But their pricey existence points up the value of the real deal. The high value of actual worn-out jeans is tribute to the years it takes to make them and the stories that they tell. Tribute to the human experience of those actual jeans, made visual. For this reason they are infinitely more valuable than they were when new. And so it is with antiquities. I can’t preserve them so I draw them.

So we come to the end of the Portals Drawing Experience, and here is what we have to show for it:

Boukoleon Portals 2011 ©2011 by Trici Venola

Gestalt? You decide. Thanks to Donna Perkins, in the Back Of Beyond, Canada, for making this Boukoleon Portals project happen, and I sure hope you and Guy love the original.

Samaver Cafe ©2011 by Trici Venola

Thanks to Samaver Cafe, just on the other side of the parking lot from the Boukoleon. Thanks to that bus driver who gave me a pencil, to Gabrielle for getting me, finally, up on a blog. Finally, thanks to all the people in the park, people who will likely never see this blog, but who have either ignored me so I could work, or looked out for me while I was working, made me welcome, and made it possible.

Drawing the Boukoleon ©2011 by Trici Venola

Ahmet and a few nameless guys and that shy fellow, the Ghost, who I tried to draw from memory. All the neckers, a different pair every day, now gone to warm cafes. It’s all sad and strange now, the weather has turned to winter, and today will be short. My best friends are leaving Istanbul, off to new adventures. I don’t know what I will do without them. But working all day today on this I am comforted. Part of the expatriate experience is that people leave, and it tears your heart right out when they go. But the drawing is always there. I don’t know why it makes me happy, but I’m very glad it does.

photo ©2008 Donna Perkins

Donna took this picture of me back in 2008 down in front of the Lighthouse. I’ve drawn the Window there, but there are some pillars up top on the wall, in front of desiccated arches and partially behind the remains of an Ottoman stone covering. Fascinating. I wonder how long the rain will hold off?

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 10 & 11

Sunday 2 October 1:00-4:30

INVOKING THE CROSS

Yesterday I put in the big lump of roundy brickwork at the top of the far right arch. It was not at all where it seemed it should be. I invoked the Cross: the method of lining up what I ‘m trying to draw with something I’ve already drawn. I do this by holding the pencil out in front of me, so that it makes a line across what I’m looking at and… NOOOO!! Couldn’t be that low… you can’t see it here, but that pencil is all over the drawing. That pencil  I was only using in emergencies…well, this was an emergency. A perspective perception emergency. Everything in me told me that big brick lump was WAY HIGHER than it actually is. Wrestled with this awhile when Gabrielle showed up. She’d come the day before, when I was home working, and her ink-wash drawing is now wonderful, dark and solid and mysterious. She decided to leave it alone, and about that time the affable guy, the one who works up at the gas station, turned up. His name is Ahmet.  I asked him if I could draw his picture. He was bewildered, actually pointed at his chest and looked around as though he stood in a crowd and I had beckoned. Then he stood rock-solid, without a trace of self-consciousness, for ten minutes until I said he could move. Here he is. For portraits I do a tight but light drawing as fast as possible, using my own code to indicate what’s black, plaid, etc. as people need to move. Then I darken and finish it up later. I meant to scan the preliminary since many people are curious about how to draw a portrait. But I forgot and finished, so I’ll have to show that another time. Afterwards he kissed my right hand and put a small handwoven multicolored bracelet on it. He told Gabrielle he would give her a necklace. Youth!

After a plan to meet later and play How To Blog, Gabrielle left to go do stuff on the apartment she’s fixing up. A friend from the first day. What a bright, talented beautiful girl with her whole life ahead, and a solid resume besides. I remembered where I’d been at that age, barely on my own radar, hadn’t even gone back to school yet.  I worked for awhile longer but my head, that old enemy, had started up like a rusty old engine. I started worrying about getting my work out while I’m still alive. If I live as long as I’ve been living, I’ll be 122. Hm. How hard I work, moan whine, and look at how little I make. Piss, grind. When my head really gets going I completely forget things like choosing to do what I love, choosing to do without other things to make it possible, having friends who act like angels…Then I noticed the slant on the bricks had gone all wrong and I quit while I could still fix it.

 Monday 3 October 1-3:00

DISTRACTIONS

Today was a short one.  I showed up at one fully prepared to draw my ass off for five hours. Ha.

Took the route down from Hagia Sophia along the Topkapi Palace/Gulhane Park wall and out the Ahirkapi, the Stable Gate, to the highway. Another beautiful day! So beautiful that when I walked through our tea garden in the wall and saw Osman sitting there smoking nargile (waterpipe, apple tobacco), I asked him for a hit. Staring out at the water and smoking was just what I wanted, and I got up to leave…and then I found myself going back to draw him and the cafe…just a few lines…

Forty-five minutes later, I got to the Boukoleon and started to draw. As always, the first look is clearer than any other. I tackled the Cross Hell Mess from yesterday and got some licks in.  Straight across, yes, it really IS that low on the page. Should I use the pencil again? I’m tired of all this backing and filling, I just threw the ink on.Looks like a pine cone, not like bricks. I drew what I saw and not what I thought I saw, and yes, it looks exactly like a pine cone. Why?  First the marble sheathing was removed or fell off. Then the wall began to erode. The mortar went first, from the surface backward, leaving the edges of brick exposed. Then the brick itself began to erode. So now there are these edges, curved from rain and wind patterns, sticking out like wafers, tongues of flame…a pine cone.

Just then, a mere hour and a half into the session, a group of truculent teenagers came striding up, through the gate in the Belidiye’s fence, and over to the little tree and the site of the bum tent. They carried pillows and rugs, and set about shouting and shoving each other and hanging the rugs to make a tent.  Five skinny guys and a lumpy big girl with a mean face, a dog on a leash. I wondered if they were going to draw lots. These kids looked angry. They punched and screamed at each other, particularly at one kid. He stormed out the gate and over past me, then came up too fast and close and demanded… a potato chip. He got it. Thanked me in English, too. Well, the dog looked clean, actually I think it was the same dog as the second day, when kids were emerging from the tent straightening their clothes, and the police stopped by and said I should be careful. So this time too I kept drawing.

A woman with winesores came up with her companion. She wanted me to know she’s Romanian and her mother was an artist. She kept petting me all over, wanting to be friends. She looked like she had been pretty, in an elfin kind of way. She looked like she lived under a bridge somewhere.  I didn’t wince away, she was harmless and I didn’t want to hurt her. But I was glad when they wandered away.

I started delineating the actual end of the wall, a time I’d looked forward to…but now I was just slamming it down there as fast as I could. Never know how long I’ve got with these things– can’t come tomorrow… drawing a little tree growing out of the wall up top, the dark of the wooden house behind it. I fixed the slant on the bricks. No white pen this time, just a lot of shading.

The group by the tent got louder and uglier. Years ago in my experimental youth I hitchhiked all over Greater Los Angeles, developed some street sense, and lived to tell the tale. Maybe these kids were just kids, but I didn’t know what substances they were ingesting, so I got out of there.

Back to the tea garden and drew some more, smoked some more. Osman told me he and Asim are buddies from ‘way back, started this place together. He did this by crossing his two fingers and shaking them emphatically.  I drew the boats across the highway, up in dry dock. I drew some trees and the water. What I didn’t draw was the traffic. Cars bumper to bumper, slowly moving, so I had to draw real fast and then wait.

Went home, carrying far too much since I stopped and bought cans of cat food. Walked up the Istiklal, the huge walk street down the top ridge of Beyoglu across the Golden Horn, on my way home. Saw a demonstration, women in photos with hangman’s nooses, etc, a petition for women who were under sentencing for murdering their battering husbands. I said I’d sign it, although I didn’t know if it would do any good since I don’t vote in Turkey, I’m just a resident. not a citizen. A woman passing by said, “You don’t vote? Where are you from?” When I told her she said, “Ha, you should go home and vote against Barack Obama.” A brisk exchange, and  I sorta lost it. They were all laughing. So I said, OK, fine, insult my President and my country, to hell with it. And walked off. Why can’t I ever remember to say that if one is going to trash America, then one should trash those Nikes and jeans. And toss that iPhone too. Go home and sever the landline, and while you’re at it, rip out the electrical box and toss that. And the refrigerator-it seems to me that this, too, is an evil American invention. No more Facebook either! Finally if one owns a car, get rid of it and never ride in one again. Most especially, no more American dollars, which I notice are quite high here right now. But I didn’t think of any of those things in time to say them, and they wouldn’t’ve cared. It’s fun to hate America. It makes the world kin. And here I am being political in an Art Blog. What do I know? There’s nothing I can do about any of this, not the battered murderer wives, not the trashed ruins, not my spent youth, not my hated motherland. One thing we don’t have in America is the Boukoleon, or anything remotely like it. All I can do is draw it, draw it all, make art out of it, make sense out of it, make sense out of something.

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 8 and 9

September 29 & 30  about 6 hours total

THE WHITE PEN

Yesterday was spectacularly beautiful; intense blues in sky and sea, brisk winds, hot light over all. I showed up an hour before Gabrielle. Here is where we left it last time, when I left the bottom of the RIght Portal undone because it looked too tall and I was tired.

A good thing, since I discovered to my horror that not only was it not too tall but the Center Portal was too short. By a good quarter of an inch. God in Heaven.

So I performed major surgery.  I moved the threshold of the Center Portal down and touched it with (gasp!) white pen. White pen is a big de-valuer in line art, if you look at stuff for sale they always say “a small amount of white,” or “some white” or “absolutely no white.” Well, they can sit on it, sit right on my white pen, because I’d rather offend the purists with it than offend the laws of God and Nature and Archeology and have the drawing off by even a hairsbreadth if I can avoid it with a dot of white. Yeesh. Still it was nip and tuck there. If you have to do this, know that the white comes last. Move everything first, because it’s amazing how little white you’ll really need. See that big black line where the threshold used to be? That will nearly disappear once I put in the bushes waving behind the threshold.

I’d gotten to this point when Gabrielle showed up. Her wash drawing is looking more exciting, with depth and mystery. She no sooner sat down and got out her ink wash when Nazan called. Normally callers during a drawing session get savaged by the Art Demon, but Nazan is something else again. Fabulously unique, a sculptor and jeweler and a woman capable of rebuilding an entire house, floors, tile, stairs, everything… So we conferred and invited her. She showed up, and I am sorry I did not draw her that minute, sitting there with her white shirt and vest and cheekbones. After a few minutes conversation Gabrielle and I both realized we didn’t WANNA draw, we wanted to amble about in the glorious golden afternoon, so we did, all three of us, over to the tea garden and then up the highway, along the water to Kumkapi. Tourist restaurants all around, but tucked in amongst the stalls of fresh fish is one tiny one we love. The rule holds: most food here is pretty good, but for sublime food that Turks eat, look for bad halogen lighting, ugly walls, zero ambience and Voila! Great food, not expensive. We stuffed ourselves on leveret (sea bass) and salad and fresh bread. By the time we finished the sky was so gorgeous that we asked them to bring chairs outside so we could look at it with our after-dinner chai. Peachy clouds, a golden sun getting ready to set, all the sky pale blue washed with gold. We walked back along the water, looking out at the fishing boats. Many adorable kittens played on the rocks of the quay. Little tables were set up down there, and the men drinking beer with their backs to all the glory, staring at the walkway. I said Are they blind? Nazan said, They are hoping to see a leg or a breast walking by, nothing like that in the sea!

A huge grey cloud, edged with gold, hung over the water. We looked back for some reason and stopped dead. The water was  shimmering silvery grey fading to gold and back again, like rippling changeable silk, you could comb it with your eyes. And the little fishing boats, solid and deliberate, rocking in that light. We walked backward, laughing, telling stories, while the gulls screamed and the whole windy world turned gold. Over at my place, Gabrielle showed me more about blogging, we watched The Man Who Would Be King, which she had never seen, and that was yesterday.

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 9

POTATO CHIPS AND THE GRAND GESTURE

When I first lived in Sultanahmet I fed two cats on my roof, a wide-faced grey tiger and an orange tabby. I called them Peachy and Danny after the two heroes of that movie. It always leaves me with a fine afterglow of adventure and friendship. I love that their lives were saved by an avalanche caused by their laughing in the face of death.  There are two fine bronze tabby cats down here at the Boukoleon I call Bobcat and Little Mama. Many cats come out of the house above, sit sniffing in the Right Portal before descending like liquid from crag to crag of the broken stonework, down to frolic in the park below. But Bobcat and Little Mama are particular denizens of the Palace park. I always take potato chips down there with me. Both the cats love them.

Normally I eat my chips right away since I find them impossible to ignore, but today the drawing started by itself. I put in a good hour first, finishing the bottom of the Right Portal, segueing over to the left and up the entrancing surface of the wall between the Center Portal and the Right.

I stopped and ate my chips, staring at the Portals, looking at their totality. It’s important to stay in touch with the grand gesture. The details are wonderful, but that grand gesture– the bone structure of the drawing– has to be right, be there first, and stay there. You can’t get hung up in the details. It’s easy to do as each tiny section of brickwork is its own world. If the drawing has good bones, the details take care of themselves. If you lose that grand gesture you’ve got a bunch of meaningless squiggles, and the thing looks chewed because you’ve hacked away at those details trying to make them look right and they never will.

I learned a lot about this doing computer art. I had to sustain the sense of the grand gesture in the painting I was doing even though I couldn’t see it anywhere but my own mind, since the section I was working on was all the computer would let me see. There was awhile there around 1990, the program I was using had no Zoom Out capability, and that was really hell. It was a painting with figures, I copied a head and pasted it into the section I was working on and measured against it, a real pain since the program also had no layers. People think digital painting must somehow be easier, don’t you just push a button? But it’s infinitely harder. And boy, did it teach me to appreciate the utter simplicity of drawing from life with a pen and paper. Grand gesture? Duck soup…but I still have to remember it.

So I’m eating my chips and feeding some to Bobcat. He leaves a few crumbs, and I watch the ants. Amazing creatures, ants. So organized! These are big fellows trundling about, almost a centimeter long, two of them tackling some shards of potato chip. They hustled it over to a crack in the bricks, wrestled it around, turned it sideways, upended it, and down the hatch. Wow! Where did it go? There must be a big passage down there, that chip was not small. Then they tried another. This one wouldn’t fit. Gangs of ants scurried around it, pulled it in all directions, it just wouldn’t go down. Finally I broke it, and what excitement. Oh, they were all tearing around, some with tiny crumbs– I think they’d been eating it smaller– and some pushing the big pieces. They quickly disappeared into the crack.  Meanwhile, two feet away, an entire potato chip was surrounded by ants half the size of the big ones. I broke it. In the time it took the Big Ant gang to move that second shard down the hole, the pieces became edged with solid black. Rows of munching ants. It was upsetting, some primal revulsion to insect infestation, but I watched anyway. Finally I couldn’t stand it and knocked them farther away with a stick. Talk about getting lost in details!

When I looked up, I saw the arch, the great dramatic slashes of bricks, and began drawing as fast as I could, shards of brick worn thin, sticking out like the seeds on a pine cone. From down here some look as thin as wafers. Hundreds of thousands of bricks, millions of individual gestures by hundreds of workmen back in the ninth century, what did they look like? Feet in leather wrapped around and laced across the top, sandals laced up the leg, tunics, hose, beards, caps. Leather trusses. Jerkins. They saw that sky, with those peachy clouds at sunset, they saw that silver sea. What did they eat? Bread and fish most likely, cooked on fires much like the bums cook on now, down here in the park. But no grass. When this Palace was built it rose up from the sea. The workmen hung from ropes, leaned from ladders with bricks on slings and pulleys, trundled about on the growing walls, swinging wooden buckets of cement. Whatever mortar they used, it turned to rock, good for 1200 years. I can see it quite clearly, coarse-grained pale lumps as opposed to the flat dark red brick. I use stippling for it, nothing else will do. I have to edit a lot out, or lose the grand gesture, the great dramatic sweep of this place built of so many tiny actions, so many little labors, so many breaths in and out, under the great gold sky.