Meet Melanie Mehrer, an artist who is gearing up for an exhibition in April. She has traveled all over Turkey, including to Hasankeyf, where she helped create a walking guide for the area with the help of local residents and offered free art workshops. Read more about her below!
Why did you come to Istanbul?
I did my undergraduate degree in Art History, with a strong focus in Islamic Art, even though at the time I had never been to an Islamic country. I was drawn to the architecture of mosques and Islamic geometric patterns. I remember sitting in a course I was taking on Ottoman art history and all of a sudden realizing that everything we had studied that month- Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Islamic Tile Museum and the Blue Mosque were all in the same neighbourhood! I was completely blown away! A few years later, my sister and I did a three-month trip through Egypt, Jordan, Syria and into Turkey. We took a bus from Aleppo to Cappadocia, and then an overnight bus to Istanbul. We had only planned on about four days in Istanbul before we headed down the coast, but I dropped my bags in a youth hostel and said to my sister, “You go ahead, I’m staying here for the next three weeks.” Partly it was because I was tired of carrying those bags, but Istanbul was immediately fascinating, and I knew three weeks wouldn’t be enough. The funny part about that first trip is that the youth hostel we stayed at was across the street from the apartment I eventually lived in with my sister eight years later!
What do you do here?
I do many things here, but my main job is teaching Visual Arts at a Turkish private school. I’m also preparing for the exhibition ‘Printemps Des Artistes’ at Saint Pulcherie High School, which is a fundraiser for Lape Hospital. (The opening is on Friday, April 4th at Saint Pulcherie and is open to the public.) There will be nine artists including me exhibiting work there, so it’s very exciting. I am also doing some contract work for a Turkish publishing company designing book covers and children’s book illustrations, which I am really excited about. I find at the moment I don’t have much time between work and preparing for shows, but I’m hoping once the Saint Pulcherie show is up it will be spring and I will have more time to go out and enjoy some new inspiration in this fantastic city.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced here?
I know the usual answer is the language, which is definitely my biggest challenge. But another big challenge I have had to deal with is having my artwork stolen from my blog and put on things for sale in the tourist areas of Istanbul. I have a lawyer who is dealing with the cases, and I am happy that I have essentially stopped the pirating of my artwork and that the infringers and I are clear that copyright infringement is taken seriously in Turkey.
When it first happened, a lot of people told me there was nothing I could do about it in Turkey and I was silly for trying to stop them. Some people said I should be flattered that my work was so appealing that three separate companies decided to pirate my images. I ask those people, “If I had a really nice camera, should I be flattered if someone steals it?” Of course not. Business is business, the copyright belongs to me as the artist, and I need to protect my business, just as any businessperson would. It’s a lesson I teach my students: you own your ideas. They are yours, and nobody is allowed to steal them from you. Artists do have rights that are respected in this country.
What do you do for fun?
Between work and painting, I haven’t had much time for anything else. But when I want to unwind, I like to go visit my old landlord in Sultanahmet. We sometimes take a bottle of wine to the roof of the building, gossip, and watch the ships on the Marmara Sea. Other times I take my museum card and head into Sultanahmet where I can wander for hours in Hagia Sophia. I have also been researching all of the legends of Istanbul and there are so many in Hagia Sophia, so I go and look for the “evidence.” My favourite legend of late is that the reason the dome of Hagia Sophia hasn’t collapsed in a thousand years is because it was painted on the inside with a mixture of paint and prophet’s bones. I also love the legend of Sinan’s love for Mihrimah Sultan. I recently did a painting of it, which will be on display at Saint Pulcherie in April.
I also like to volunteer for various charity activities that I can support with my artistic skills. I have made backdrops for the British Panto, and I am currently helping out with the poster design for the British Fete at the British Consulate this summer. I also donated artwork that was auctioned off at a Charity for LOSEV. I can’t always give time or money, but I can contribute to the charities with the skills I have and I feel really good about that.
My favourite volunteer activity so far has been to create a walking guide for Hasankeyf with the help of local residents who want people to come out to Hasankeyf and see their jewel of a town. Last spring I went out and did a free art workshop with the kids of Hasankeyf. We gathered in a park and painted pictures of things they love about Hasankeyf and made big puffy paper pillows with them. I was told to expect thirty, and over seventy showed up! Good thing I am an over-planner! It was a beautiful experience and one I hope to repeat again this spring. I hear the kids are already asking about it and want to add some theatre in there, so I have my thinking cap on! You can download your own walking guide of Hasankeyf here.
Where do you unwind/relax? Where is your favorite haunt?
My favourite thing to do in all of Istanbul is go have a drink under Galata Bridge with friends. In my opinion, the Galata Bridge has the best view of the city. You can sit and have a raki, watch the ferries come and go, watch the Bosphorus Bridge change colour, look at the gorgeous cityscape, watch the fishermen above pull up their catch, and listen to the call to prayer from the New Mosque. And best of all, it’s a good point to meet friends because the ferries are right there if you live on the Asian side. Once I was eating dinner under the bridge and there was a large bang! on our table. I felt a chip of ceramic hit me, but then nothing looked broken on the table. After about a minute we realised what happened- a fishing weight has broken off its line and landed squarely in the toothpick holder! It was really quite funny. We decided it must be a good luck charm and I gave it to my friend who was just about to start a journey across Turkey by foot.
What has been your biggest surprise about Istanbul?
The new metro-lines have been a pleasant surprise. I currently live in Erenköy, and commuting to Europe to see friends is a long journey. The first time I took the Marmaray tunnel I timed it and I found it cut forty minutes off my commute! An hour and twenty minutes less of a commute on a given day is a beautiful thing and makes me feel better connected to the rest of the city.
Do you have any advice for other expats?
My biggest piece of advice for people living in Istanbul is to get out of Istanbul. Especially out east. I have been east three times and I love it. My favourite trip so far has been Gaziantep, Urfa, Mardin, Diyarbakir, Hasankeyf and Van. I never felt unsafe in the east and was always treated with respect as a female traveler. It’s an amazing country out there; get out and explore it. Especially Hasankeyf! And take the walking guide with you!