THE BIG ARCH

Summer just past: The heat simmered up from the bricks like a radiator you didn’t know was on. The first thing I realized was that I’d have to work looking directly into the sun.

 These days I’m down at the Boukoleon in the horrible ant-infested boiling sunlight, I wrote, drawing the arch from the only accessible side, the one where the only time it’s lit from the front is early in the morning. The rest of the time the light is behind it. So I’m staring into bright sunlight trying to get the gist of the shape, the whole mind-boggling panoply of brickwork, ribs and chunks and shards of brick all fanning out in radiant lines around the arch, and up top, turrets of masonry desiccated into shapes resembling griffins and tombstones, all dark against the white blare of the sky.

I remember the helpless feeling of that first day, thinking I’d taken on more than I could handle. But I’d been on the phone with Donna Perkins in Canada, who I’d taken around the Boukoleon back in 2008. She calls occasionally to hear about our parallel universe here in Sultanahmet. I was sharing the glad news that Michael Constantinou had commissioned a big drawing of Hagia Sophia. Donna said, “You mean I could pay you to draw something?”

!!!

Then she said, “So, what would you draw?” I immediately said, “The big arch at the Boukoleon. It’s about to collapse.” But when I got down there and really looked at it, it was one of those times when your soul is dragging the rest of you along by the ear, saying “You know this is what you want.”

The structure of a brick arch requires that the sides of the bricks fan out above the arch. But the Byzantines, never missing a religious beat,  reinforced that imagery with double and triple window arches, left bare to symbolize the Light of the Lord from within. And those double narrow marble columns? Those are Peter and Paul, holding up the church. Are you ready for that? Of course, the Boukoleon is a palace, not a church, and the brick arches show up as radiance by default, having been stripped of their former magnificence by Crusaders, Ottomans, weather and the Republic. I’d sure love to know how that place was finished off. We’ve discussed in earlier blogs how the only CGI recreation shows grey marble because there’s no record of what the finish was. The heap of broken stuff under the arch has marble every color of the rainbow, and I’ll bet that a lot of that was on the outside walls. There were huge lions on the sea balconies. There were probably other statues as well, although the Emperor Theophilos, who built the Boukoleon in the mid-9th century, appears to have been an Iconoclast: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8pbLPVZWko

After two days in the heat I didn’t like the first piece enough to continue. So I started again. And again. Four or five times. The top of the arch has a toothed ridge of masonry. The one closest the center of the arch looks like a standing lion. I could not get this right. Nobody would ever know but me, since the piles of stone are crumbling so fast you can see it happen. It is possible to preserve a ruin without destroying its surface integrity, but what will happen to this one is anyone’s guess. Around here they’re repairing 10th-century stonework with brand new stone blocks. So God help the Boukoleon, and I’m drawing as fast as I can.

This and all small photos taken by Carmen, and thank you.

This lion has to be correct because one day it may be all that exists of this relic of the high ambition of Theophilos, the keening horror of the Fourth Crusade, the famous pophyry birth chamber, the murder of ascetic despot Nikophorus Phokas, the sorrow of Mehmet the Conqueror when he beheld the burned grandeur over the sea, the many generations who made homes there anyway, the madness of the Sultan who ran the Orient Express through it, which put an end to this vista, drawn in 1853 by Orientalist Eugene Flandin. Do you recognize the Portals? See the big square stones below them where Hulusi wrote his name, right at ground level today. Old people in the neighborhood remember diving into the water from the top of the ruined Palace.

Boukoleon 1853, engraving by Eugene Flandin.

That’s the Blue Mosque behind, but it’s nowhere near as close as this slightly-fanciful rendering shows.  Here’s a picture of the Palace Portals in 1950, warts and all. Notice how the harbor was silting up. See our big square stones now, just to the left of that little shack bottom center.

Two actual Boukoleon Lions survive, a half-mile away in the Archeological Museum. They sat roaring on the balconies toward the sea, and a tall man standing next to them could reach their manes. Their noses and jaws were lost to time but still they roar in the dimness of the museum.

This present lion is more appropriate. Chipped from the bones of the Palace, it has appeared bit by bit over the years as the wall rots from exposure. It’s one of a row of crenellations, those square chunks interspersed with slots for archers, along the tops of old walls. But these crenellations were created by circumstance. As we can see in all these illustrations, the wall was once much taller. Here’s our old friend Tayfun Oner’s CGI of the Palace, showing the big arch and the arrow slots above it, below the topmost windows. Those arrow slots are the spaces around our Crenellation Lion.

Boukoleon Palace CGI Reconstruction © byzantium1200.com. Used by permission

Two years ago a bum moved in and strung his laundry across the Lion and the other crenellations. After that the government moved in, stripping all the fig trees and sandblasting some of the interior walls of the ruin, but the trash quickly came back. Despite the fence, which went up in 2010, people have found a way to dump furniture in there.

As I draw, the traffic roars by on the highway with a sound of crashing waves. A water-hawker bellows his wares out there near the cars. I sit in full pounding sunlight under a huge black hat, my feet wrapped against the sun, slimed with sweat, staring at the arch dark against the glare. Ants swarm in the heat all around me. Occasionally one climbs up into my clothes. Passersby stop and watch the work. Most are decent enough, but yesterday two boys stopped and would not leave. They kept saying “Excuse me,” and continuing in Turkish. Eventually they asked for sex. I got to use some Turkish terms I learned from Nizam, and they took off running. At the end of the day, after four false starts of hours each, I had drawn the lion. Now my concern is that it’s too big for the composition I had in mind.

With this project I hadn’t yet come up with the idea of scanning and blogging every day. So just for fun, for our blog here I color-coded part of a scan of the finished drawing, according to the notes in this letter to patron Donna Perkins:

…Spent last few days working on our drawing. It seems I must draw every brick. Since the arch shows dark against a blank white sky, I don’t want to make a lot of sketchy lines where I think the actual edges are. Instead I’ve been working my way to them, starting with the top lion-like crenellation, measuring off that, and working first down and then over. Everyone always asks “How long did this take?” So while I can, here’s a reconstruction of the schedule:

July 5, 2-5 PM: First drawing started, stopped. Met friends at Kalyon Hotel, talked about project.

July 8: 1-5 PM: RED

July 9: Too hot to go out. Worked portrait in evening for Constantinou family.

July 10, 2-5 PM: GREEN

July 11, 3:30-5 PM: TURQUOISE

July 13, 3-6 PM: BLUE

July 14, 2-5 PM: PURPLE

July 15, 1-5 PM: GOLD

So we are at about 17 hours. Pretty much what I expected. This coming Thursday, I’m renewing my Residence Visa for the next five years, thank you very much, since this commission is helping to make it possible! Big deep breaths quite often now, feeling secure. It’s hot as blazes and my left arm now has to be covered as the sun is painful. But everybody is flipping out over the piece. I don’t think I’ll do another one like this…but I’m really glad I’m doing this one.

The final Plein Air drawing, like the others drafting pen on rag paper, measures 35 X 70 cm and took 30 hours. The last day was a day so humid that walking was like swimming. I got down there very late, but at least the shadows had spread. I was finishing up a section that’s blocked by a tree. I did not want to include the tree, so I was standing up filling in the shapes of the stones. Then I sat down on the wall in my usual place and the ants went crazy. Normally they just run across my feet, but for some reason they were just all OVER…ghah…anyway, I got the last of the hardcore information, packed up and walked down the highway to the cafe in the walls. The sea looked like thick mercury in mist. I could not make myself leave until around 9 PM. Thinking about why they built that palace there. The weather was the same, the views of the sea were the ones I love so much now. How I love it over there, and how I loved the opportunity to do this drawing I wanted to do for so long. I could never, EVER have dedicated this much time to one drawing if Donna hadn’t commissioned it. But now there’s this, with every brick and stone.

Big Boukoleon Arch ©2011 by Trici Venola

There’s a point at which you must stop. After I leave the site, I always spend some time making sure that the drawing makes sense without the site in front of it. So I spent a couple of hours at a table out in front of Kybele Hotel in Sultanahmet, putting in some final touches, and everybody walking up and down the street just gasped. It’s those gasps that let me know I’ve got it right.

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FROM PILLAR TO POST 1

BREAKING GROUND, WITH GHOSTS  

Saturday 5 November 1-4:30 PM

Ghosts walk at noon, said the ancient Greeks, when the light sears all the colors to white: bleached and bleak, they are paler than pale. But in my present-day Istanbul, ghosts walk in the intense amber light of November. I feel them down in the marble bones of the old city, like scraps of shadow scuttering in the dark of my day. Because my friends are leaving I’ve felt like a ghost myself. Suddenly the lively present is becoming the happy past, and I stalk down the hill to the Boukoleon, the palace site as changed by winter as I am by the prospect of loneliness. Only one thing to do with all this maudlin self-pity and that is to draw.

It was those pillars got me off Facebook and out into the brisk blue day. As you face the Boukoleon site, your back to the sea, the pillars are high up on the wall to the right of the PortaIs, ending at the Lighthouse. They look to have been centered between brick arches, in a colonnade. The two arches I can see are so desiccated as to resemble old twisted combs, but the pillars are still smooth and white. These original Byzantine pillars and arches are partially covered by a stone outer skin, perhaps added to patch the wall after the palace was burned by Crusaders in 1204, perhaps added by Ottomans after 1453. This stone skin is quite old and weathered. I love this visual history lesson and want to preserve it.

I found a spot next to a broken place on the low brick wall and set up. This consists of setting out my water bottle and putting down the light cushion I schelp down there in a light sack. Carrying it is a much smaller pain in the ass than the one you get sitting on a brick wall for hours at a stretch. I did a quick-and-dirty rough to figure out how to position it on the page. I was tempted to use a slanted format like so many of the sketchbook drawings, but opted for straight-up-and-down to harmonize with the other two big Boukoleon drawings.  On first glance it seemed like I could fit both the top of that wooden house, upper left, and the top of the Boukoleon Window, lower right, into the drawing.  But after invoking the Cross– you remember the Cross, don’t you? –where we draw a mental straight line from one point on the subject to find where another point is– I realized that the perspective was closer to this:  I didn’t actually re-draw it, this second version of the rough is tweaked in Photoshop  to illustrate my mental picture. What I actually did this afternoon in the cold changed Boukoleon site was to put the rough down on the bricks in front of me and weight it with a couple of rocks so I could look at it. Then I pulled out a clean new sheet, doubly precious as it is now Bayram, the Muslim equivalent of Christmas, and every store is closed for the next several days. I have a very few sheets of this size on hand, so I hope this won’t be a false start. If I run out of paper I can’t continue this project now. If I can’t draw my mood will flood up and choke me. Worse, it’ll poison the time I have left with my friends. So I stared at the site, holding out the pencil in a straight line, seeing that indeed the perspective really is that slanted. Sigh. Something has got to go, and it’s the top of the wooden house, because I’ve got to get that little corner of window down in the lower right.
I did a very few passes with the pencil to this effect, pulled out a #8 Artline drafting pen, turned the point sideways and began to draw. Little light strokes, not taking it too seriously. Heigh-ho, nothing heavy here. Drew for about half an hour, and here’s what we got. It’s the pillar and arch on the far left.

Boukoleon Pillars 1 WIP ©2011 by Trici Venola

An old fellow in a big coat shuffled up. He comes by every day but my old work spot was off his beat. He’s shrunk into his coat, which is new and stiff, and he’s had a bad stroke. He really, really wanted to talk to me, but all that came out was a series of baas. To my horror I realized that he wanted to sit next to me and watch me draw. If the drawing is well started, that’s not a problem, but in the early stages I could cheerfully rip the head off my best friend. Please not now, working hard, come back later, I said in Turkish. I think I said this. He smiled at any rate, two stubs of teeth, and shook my hand. His hand was clean, his handshake firm. Somebody takes good care of him. At last he left, and not a minute too soon. I’m polite, but the Art Demon is a real bitch, and rude to boot. If I didn’t keep a hard lock on that door I’d spend my life in trouble, apologizing or feeling guilty. I encounter and read about surly artists all the time, usually young men. I wonder what that feels like, to give into that desire to scream at people who interrupt you in the creative process. I’m a lone woman in an alien patriarchal society not my own, and being rude is stupid. So the Art Demon Bitch can complain all it wants but we are polite and save our fire for the drawing.

I drew for a little while and the light was more and more intense. The sun was dead on my little bit of wall, clear amber, a searchlight blaring just above the horizon behind me, when the guy I’ve been calling the Ghost walked over to say hello. I asked him to sit for his picture, and here it is. His name is Hasan. Not an old guy at all. Weathered, but young. As I drew him I thought of Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird, that sense of a watchful sad guardian. He guards the Boukoleon. The two cats are his. I hope he is warm enough to sleep.

Then in a second, the light was gone. I see I’m going to have to get out here a whole lot earlier these days. The minute I stopped drawing I felt awful. Dead and grey, trying not to think of those halcyon sessions with Gabrielle, that day Nazan walked with us down to Kumkapi, the sea gold under the dark silver cloud. That was a bare month ago. Now all the leaves are brown, I’m wearing a heavy leather jacket, it’s dark at five. I stomped over past the tour busses to the cafe. Everyone was inside. I sat there smoking nargile and feeling punk, but I finished the drawing of Hasan and called my friends, and later we had a fine dinner together and I felt normal and happy again. But after the cafe I walked along the highway, the sea and sky dark clotted grey, lights across the water, a high silver half-moon. Coming through the Stable Gate I saw the fellow who stands there saluting the cars. He too resembles a ghost, but he can’t be one because he’s aged since I drew him in 2008. Hiking up the hill toward Hagia Sophia I thought of how I love the marble bones of this place, how they comfort me. My fears and cares seem to melt into the fabric of history, like the ghosts, black transparent overlapping wings shifting and changing, ready to swirl up and blind me. But at the bottom is all that Byzantine Roman marble, smooth and cool and blessedly solid under my feet, all the way home.

Gold Cat ©2005 by Trici Venola

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.

Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 4

Friday 23 September 2011 • 2:00-3:00/4:30-6:00

RENT

A hot blue fall day, perfect for drawing. But I had to pay the damned rent. Not that I mind, I’m glad I have it. This means a trip to my bank in Cembelitas, all the way up by the Grand Bazaar. Gabrielle, who is here from Wyoming, painting her socks off, is trading art time for blog-lesson time, and we were meeting at the Boukoleon. I rode the tram up to Cemberlitas, but the angel who helps me was at lunch, since it was lunchtime. I walked down the hill and bought potato chips at the Hippodrome, kept going past obelisks and arches and out through the Cadladikapi Gate and around the corner to the Boukoleon. Set up in record time and sweetly sank into drawing. Using a pencil, which is like soft shoes after dancing pumps. Too sweet. I had to abandon it and go for the pen. I almost never use pencil anymore, it’s too easy to erase and change stuff, it feels like cheating, and if you go too long it means drawing everything twice. But this drawing is so complex, and it’s already a good seven hours in, so– a little pencil, dammit, I told the art demon as it hissed “Pencil is for pussies.”

Gabrielle showed up and set up. She’s gorgeous, so I made her drape her scarf over as much as possible, button up all the purses and carryalls and sit on them, and we started. And then I had to run back up the hill to pay the rent.

Why do I have to do this? The only way it’s legal to pay is via a bank. Just putting it into my landlord’s account over the counter costs 28 lira, and I’m already paying too much for the apartment. So I learned how to do the Internet Banking thing. It worked fine, and then a year ago I got hacked and lost my email account. Oy Vey!! Every single thing in my life was tied to that account! Had to change everything, including both bank accounts. And the next time I tried to pay my rent, I couldn’t get it to work again. Lots of boxes popping up, Turkish in red with exclamation points, scared hell out of me…so I went to my branch and pled my case.

This is Hasan at Garanti Bank. That little delirium tremens on his shoulder is actually an icon of his surname, which means Lion Sword. And boy, does he cut through all the problems. Paying my rent is now a pleasant ritual involving conversation, tea drinking, catching up, and so forth. This is one of the more civilized aspects of living here, that such things can happen.

So back happy down the hill to the Boukoleon. Gabrielle drawing, we’re talking, and guys showing up– a big friendly galoot watching us draw. A tent regular stumbled by, loaded, carrying his dog. The galoot said he was bad news, kept talking, trying my Turkish and my patience until I finally indicated needing to work and he mercifully left. Another guy lurched up, startling Gabrielle, but he’s okay, he’s the affable guy from the service station. Around here it’s really if they’ll hurt you, and I never met one down here who would, although they hang around the periphery. Then before I could blink it was six, and the bricks beginning to blur up there on the portal.

Then Turkish coffee at the teahouse in the wall, the clouds blowing peachy across the light sky over the water. A hike through the Stable Gate and up the hill, and eventually home. Now I’m looking at the drawing and wishing I was back there, the Art Demon in teeth-gritting fury at being diverted, thwarted…it’s a nasty beast, it hates everyone and everything but creation, all the lovely moments of society mean nothing to it, it won’t listen to reason, even when I say look, these things can’t be helped, there are responsibilities in my life, people in my life and I’m glad of it, but it won’t let me rest or sleep, I’m dog-tired now but I just trashed the entire note and had to write it again but it doesn’t care. It says, “look at this pitiful bit you did today, I rest my case.”

Tomorrow I’m getting out there early, I swear.


Drawing the Boukoleon Portals 0

 Tuesday 13 September 2011 * 1:00-6:00

ULYSSES

Working down at the Boukoleon Palace again, this time drawing those three great portals looking out to the Marmara Sea. For three years I lived on the railroad behind them.  I stared at the backs of those portals, through the arcade of arches, in snowy mornings, sunny afternoons, evenings with the occasional festive jeweled cruise ship gliding between a space in the buildings, seemingly a fairy ship in the sky. Nights with a city of ships out there waiting to go up the Bosporus. Once there was a storm, waves so big they flooded the parkway; we could see them crash from my bedroom window. When I moved into the place, it was snowing and I did this one from a pile of cushions on the bed:

So now I’m drawing the portals from the front. From previous drawings I know every bum in the park and all the bus drivers. The biggest problem is that it’s too darn big for the page…there’s enough there for five drawings, pillars and portals and dessicated brick arches and waterstained old stone turning to yellow sand, studded with sprays of grass…what to choose, oh agony…

Clearly I won’t have room for the huge stones at the bottom, just above the grass. They would have been high over the water. This wasn’t grass until 1963 or so, when they filled in the harbor and built the highway. Someone painted his name, Hulusi, with “1945” and a picture of a cowboy hat. Someone standing on a tiny beach? Somebody who used to dive off the ruins, as I’ve been told they did, into the lagoon formed by the right angle of the big arch? Was it painted just after World War II, or was it painted by someone born in 1945? Hulusi is the Turkish form of Ulysses. Ulysses is a form of Odysseus, as in Odyssey, as in The Iliad and the Odyssey, which like most everything else in history took place in Turkey. You think the Trojan War was about Helen? That was a plot device by Homer. The Trojan War was about control over the Straits of the Dardanelles, because to control them is to control access to Asia from the West. Not far from the site of Ancient Troy is Gallipoli, where so many young men died in 1915. Australian, French, British and Turkish, Turkish, Turkish bones lie intermingled all over the ridges under the scrub, punctuated by grim cemeteries with rows of identical tombstones in English: “A strong, clean life, too quickly ended.” “A mother weeps to think of this foreign grave.” As if the parents were contacted and sent their epigraphs to be carved by the Turks. Their commander said “I am not asking you to fight, I am ordering you to die.” And die they did, but they won. They were fighting for their freedom. The Western powers planned to carve up Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but they were foiled by the Turks. Their commander was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Founder of the Turkish Republic, so great that Winston Churchill, who lost at Gallipoli, said “A general like Kemal Ataturk comes along once in a thousand years, and it was my rotten luck to be up against him.” Mustafa Kemal insisted that the foreign bones be interred and monuments built. The Turks said, “Where are our graves? Where are our monuments?” Ataturk said, “Look about you”– all the brushy ridges intersperced with the gleam of water, under a great sweep of sky– “This country is your monument.” What moves me to tears is the monument built to honor the foreign graves. Most of them were Anzacs: Australian soldiers whose descendants still pour into Turkey by the thousands every September on Anzac Day. Ataturk said:
“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…
You are now living in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

My client, Donna Perkins of Back of Beyond, Alberta, Canada, is the same person who commissioned my drawing of the Big Arch. We’ll get that blog up as well, stay tuned. I finished the Arch and she said, Don’t Send it, I’m Coming, I Just Don’t Know When. Donna’s been here many times; our mutual friends Jeannie and Rhonda used to bring bellydance groups from Canada all the time, women getting in touch with their Inner Belly, having a ball in Istanbul, and she was up at Kybele Hotel, long blonde hair, big blue eyes, much enthusiasm. When Jeannie and Rhonda opened Modern Sultan Hotel, Donna and her husband Guy came and stayed in it, and I took them around. We stood right there, at the Big Arch and under the Portals and next to the Lighthouse, and took pictures. Every now and then, Donna calls me to hear about the Old City. Last June I was all excited because another friend had commissioned a big drawing of Hagia Sophia. “You mean I can pay you to draw something?” said Donna.

!!!

But the best part is that she said, “What would you draw?” And that is how this particular project came to be. I was drawing and sending bulletins to Donna to let her know the progress, sharing them with others, and it grew into this. Since I am not scrounging around elsewhere to make ends meet, I can treat this like a job, with regular hours. What hours? A fine question to ask the obsessed: All of them!