Meltem Şahin is an illustrator and maker of things that move, from Marmaris, Turkey. She is currently studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Baltimore, U.S.A on a Fulbright scholarship.
What is your earliest memory of drawing or making something?
I think my earliest memory of drawing wasn’t with a pencil. I remember in my grandmother’s house, there was a huge sofa with really nice flower patterns. When I was three or four years old I remember repeating the outlines with my fingers.
Do you remember the pattern?
It is a traditional thing...we call them Suzani. Their patterns are so beautiful and the colours are amazing, I think when I saw the colours and shapes, they were summoning me to go over and trace them.
Could you tell me about your creative path to where you are right now?My parents wanted me to try everything, so that they could understand where my interests were. So I tried ballet and piano. I think my father wanted me to be a musician more than a painter. Every night, after dinner, he would make me play the piano. The only reason I enjoyed going for my piano classes was because we would drink Nesquik milk there (laughs). My mother wanted me to paint or be a visual artist.
I remember drawing all the time even when I was in kindergarten. But then, in elementary school in Turkey, everyone draws the same thing. There is a valley, there is a mountain, in between the mountains there is a river, and the painting is almost symmetrical, the sun is always above the river, there’s a house with flowers. It doesn’t count as imaginative. I think I began focusing on my own interest in drawing was around middle school, and it was when I got my period for the first time. My body was suddenly a strange thing to me, and I realised that I have something, that my body has parts that I don’t really know. So I think my first drawings were based on my period — the transition that I was feeling from little kid to woman.
In high school I studied science, but learnt drawing from Svetlana Önder, a Russian art teacher in my hometown of Marmaris. I was lucky to learn from her, because Russians are masters of drawing and painting techniques. Thanks to her I was able to get into college, where I studied graphic design. Marmaris has no art schools, so I went to Bilkent University in Ankara, the capital of Turkey. I chose to go there, even though people say Ankara is not as interesting as Istanbul, because it was one of the few places that taught art in English. In Turkey, art schools tend to teach only in Turkish. They don’t teach in English, and students don’t go abroad afterwards, because they don’t have English [as a language skill]. So they’re stuck in Turkey, and stuck in the system of Turkish art and the way and style of making art — it’s bit of a vicious circle. I think it’s affecting the education system too.
You studied graphic design in Ankara. Did you feel like you were interested in it? Or did you study graphic design because you couldn’t study illustration?
Currently, there is no Illustration major in Turkey. When I was applying for universities, I actually wanted to study painting. My parents had a graphic designer friend who convinced me that graphic design would be better for me. His claim was the usual thing— it is a skill that will make you money, it is easier to make money. At first I wasn’t happy with that idea, as soon as I heard the money part, like a teenage student I thought “Nooo, I’m not interested in money I want to make art!”. But I did some research after that, and realized that graphic design did interest me. And since I was studying science in school, I considered Industrial Design. I spoke with an industrial designer and realized I was not interested in technical drawing, I was more interested in what you can communicate through drawing. I got accepted to the Art department with a full scholarship, and enrolled in illustration courses in the graphic design department. We had a lot of Polish teachers — I am fortunate that I could work with Polish designers and illustrators then. I learnt about the Polish poster design and illustration style from them, and even now I really enjoy the Polish sense of art, their socially sensitive posters and how they convey their ideas through them…so strong, and full of emotion. After graduation I worked in a couple of ad agencies. I made iPhone apps, logos, background illustrations and character design for animated advertisements. But it didn’t make me happy. I was copying styles or advertisements that they found from elsewhere, probably from the United States. I felt more like a technician rather than a creative person there. They let me freelance while I was there though and I worked as a children’s book illustrator — three of my books are published in Turkey.The publishing house trusted me, I trusted them, so I had freedom. But I think the reason they let me be free was because the work I entered for Bologna Children’s Book Fair was selected in 2013. I was also freelancing editorial illustrations for a music and culture magazine, and for a literature magazine.
What did you send to Bologna?
It was my first series of illustrations, for Adam Pekalsi’s illustration class, and it was one of the stories about Nasreddin Hodja. He’s a really traditional Turkish folk tale character, from the 13th century. There are anecdotes with a moral at the end — really whimsical and the jokes are really clever. What’s interesting is, before they met me at the Fair, the Bologna jury thought I was a male. I asked the jury members, and one of them said it was because of the way I draw. They assumed that my drawings were masculine. It didn’t make sense to me, but maybe to the Italian jury members it appeared masculine. Maybe for people from another culture, it would appear feminine.
I grew up reading a children’s comic in India that featured a recurring series on Nasreddin Hodja. He was always drawn as a fat guy, with a long nose. Were there depictions of him that existed in other books in Turkey?Yes, there was actually and I was trying to break that visual language. I spoke with a lot of people and no one really knows how he looked. At first I was worried that I wouldn’t do it the correct way, so I searched a lot. My teacher reminded me that it was like a fictional character, and that I could go outside the box if I wanted to. So I changed it. At Bologna, two guys came to me at the Turkish books section, and accused me that I had not made a correct depiction of of Nasreddin Hodja and that the mosque was not correct for that time period. They were extremely religious people. Nasreddin Hodja is a topic that religious people take differently from others. Actually, there are erotic stories in the Nasreddin Hodja tales, but they were abandoned and it was claimed that they never happened, that they were lies about him. These two guys at Bologna were telling me very specific things, like the way I depicted the turban was not correct. The biggest issue was that in the story I chose to illustrate, at some point Nasreddin Hodja is naked at night, with just one candle. He’s attempting to win a bet and trying to get warmth at night from a single candle in the story. My depiction of that scene didn’t show his genitalia or anything. But they kept saying the story was not correct, that Nasreddin Hodja has never been naked.
Just the idea itself was too much for them? It’s happening in a lot of places now, even in India — wanting to erase or forget things that the majority does not want to include in what the idea of something needs to be. And when someone tries to show these forgotten things, then they’re immediately silenced or told that they’re ruining the “culture”.
One of the chief editors of a magazine publishing house, he collected these stories too, and he found these uncensored versions and published them. He was forced to resign. It was a big issue in Turkey.
How did you deal with those people at the festival when they came and pointed out these things to you?
I told them that the version I read wasn’t like that, and that the important thing was the essence of the story, and what the lesson was about. And that the depiction can vary according to the taste of people. I was confident enough with my research, and that what I represented was accurate. I changed the things that records were unsure about. My graduation project in graphic design was about Turkish mythologies. Everyone knows about Greek mythology, or even Indian mythology which is really famous. Turkish mythology has great amazing stories that people don’t know about. I wanted to depict Turkish mythology that showed the cosmo-genesis stories. There was creation of the world, creation of the human and creation of the tribes. There are certain depictions of god that needed to be done for my project, and some people were against it. I met with the art history and archaeology department in my university and did my research, so I was again confident enough to work with the parts that are mentioned and documented for certain, and change the other parts the way I wanted. One of my main concerns in the mythology tales were people thought some of these stories were symbols of patriarchy. These stories were altered over time to become that. I used versions of these stories that moved away from being patriarchal symbols. In the one I chose, there’s a male god who doesn’t know how to create the world. But there’s a female god who lives before him, who appears before him and tells him how to create the world. I was interested in how the story started with woman. Actually ancient civilizations in Turkey were matriarchal, I wanted to choose stories that underlined that.
I was confident enough with my research, and that what I represented was accurate. I changed the things that records were unsure about.
You worked for a while at a printmaking studio called Studio Dou.
After graduation, I got the feeling that was a little bit stuck. I would feel like my drawings were very rigid…maybe because of the traditional Russian training that I had. I was trying to do all my drawings in a very realistic way and they lacked emotion sometimes. I started going to a printmaking studio run by two Iranian artists who I met when they came to our college and led a linocut workshop. They had moved to Istanbul and three of my friends and I would go the studio on weekends. We spent so much time with each other — even cooked together — the environment was so different from what I experienced in my university. Everything at Studio Dou was white, plain white tables, nothing on the walls, white minimal chairs, and before we began drawing, we would just look at all that white and try to create a mindfulness. Even if we knew what we were going to draw, we would stare at it for a while, maybe more than the amount of time that we spent drawing. We would try to understand every form, how they merge, the negative space between them…
So, being very conscious of what you were drawing and how you were drawing.
Also respectful of your drawing. That experience really calmed me. We were trying to make drawings that were almost primitive looking and full of emotion — we were drawing so slow, everything was calm. I was more competitive like a professional graphic designer. I think both of them are important. My teacher was always telling me to unlearn things, because of my education background. I was full of information that was keeping me from doing accidental improvisational things. It helped me to break from my rigid, emotionless line work, and I feel like after that I started to have more of a style maybe. I had more confidence in what I was doing. I’m lucky that I have that Bauhaus- based background and on top of that, naivety, which was the goal at Studio Dou. Around then, I applied for Fulbright scholarship because I decided to pursue a Masters degree. The first year I couldn’t get it, because sadly in Turkey, if they give the scholarship to 30 engineers, they give to 1 or 2 artists. I applied the following year and luckily I got the Fulbright scholarship and applied for MICA.
This unlearning process that we’re talking about, where you have to abandon certain ideas and re-look at things, and train yourself to think and draw in a different way….it’s easier to say than to do. What was that process like for you?
It was quite painful! I was always hardworking and I was used to being — and this is almost shameful to say — a good student. In the linocut class my teacher was mostly appreciating other students’ work which were more naive, and my drawings he would say “okay! you should try more”. I kept feeling like I was not doing this right, I began asking myself “Why can’t I do this, why am I like a robot?”. It was really hard for me, it took maybe 2 months. In that class we didn’t focus on the end product, the process was more important, so we would draw again, and again, and again, and again. In Philosophy, there is the idea of deconstructivism. Derrida talks about wax drawings. They used to draw in wax and then erase what they wrote, and write on it again, so it’s a deconstructive process. So I thought in my process of doing it again and again, I shouldn’t feel attached to my drawings. I decided that I would rise from these mistakes and the ephemerality of the process helped me. I think I survived with that. When I first heard about it, the unlearning process was a really exciting idea. I recently read Rosalind Krause, and she talks about misreadings. In order to have another art movement on top of one that exists, you have to misread things, so that you can create a new path. It was a nice idea.
In my process of doing it again and again, I shouldn’t feel attached to my drawings. I decided that I would rise from these mistakes and the ephemerality of the process helped me.
We’re so conditioned to think hard work means making things perfect, but it takes just as much work to go the other way. A large part of your recent work rests on the Philosophy of Art. Where did your interest in this subject come from, why is it important to you as a way of seeing and thinking?
I think my interest began in high school, when I started reading books on Philosophy. My favourites were Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein. When you’re a teenager you’re so full of angst (laughs), and Schopenhauer helped me make sense of my feelings. I read Nietzsche as well. I read a lot more then than I do now, I think. In undergrad, I began loving History as a subject, despite hating it in school — it was taught so horribly, and focused a lot on selective tellings of Turkish history. In university I discovered my interest in history of art, history of graphic design, the simultaneity in art and culture through time. I started making charts to document which movements in art and thought corresponded with movements in music and so on. In the 3rd year of my undergrad, we had a Philosophy of Art course. We began with Plato and Aristotle, then went on to Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche, and Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida. The course blew my mind. When I read Kant, I thought he was the motivation for all the art I created. Then we moved on to Hegel, and I would think Hegel was the best. Each time we studied a philosopher, I would fall in love with them and almost disappear into their systems, my philosophy of life was constantly changing. In the final year we did Analysis of Art, and through all these things, I was able to question how I live, how I communicate, why I make art in a certain way — is it my survival from the sufferings of life, or is it a metaphysical connection to god? After college, I stopped reading fiction books for a while, and read and re-read papers and books on Philosophy.
Philosophy is considered elitist, for high society, and it’s not approachable for people. I wanted to use toys, to explain these philosophers’ ideas, to make them more approachable.
At MICA, I started wanting to talk about Philosophy through my work. For my first project for the MFA Illustration Practice Fall Show, Image Harvest, I used the monoprint technique I learnt at Studio Dou to make animated loops that accompanied quotes by the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau Ponty. I wasn’t trying to make didactic, informative pieces that tells what each quote is about. Instead I tried to create the mood of the writing, so that the viewer could intuitively imagine the world through Ponty’s eyes. I got good responses to this from my teachers and classmates. I was able to go to the Philosophy and the Arts conference at Stony Brooke University, and present my piece along with a response essay by Vicente Muñoz-Reja, a Fulbright scholar from Spain. We got great responses from the grad students and Doctorate candidates, and I felt encouraged to continue with this. My thesis at MICA, titled ‘Negative Pleasure’, is about three philosophers — Nietzsche, Jean Deleuze and Maurice Merleau Ponty. I have animations for Ponty’s ‘Eye and Mind’, and for Nietzsche’s ‘The Birth of Tragedy’ — annoyingly, his first book, written in his 20s (laughs). Deleuze is probably the one that I like the most, and the one that affects me the most. Philosophy is considered elitist, for high society, and it’s not approachable for people. I wanted to use toys, to explain these philosophers’ ideas, to make them more approachable. I chose to make optical illusion toys which incorporate animation, because the philosophy of aesthetics makes us question how we see the world, and these toys do the same.
With your thesis you’ve almost come a full circle from your original choice to do graphic design over industrial designer. You’re making these toys, and you have to still think like an industrial designer for that. How do you feel about that?
That’s a good point, I didn’t think about it. In the first year at MICA, we were introduced to different things and forced to go out of our comfort zones and experience new ways of making. One of those workshops was laser cutting, and I played with cutting wood. Later, I created Kukla, a series of small puppets that people could interact with. I really enjoy the idea that the illustrations or art that I make can become something that people can interact and spend time with. It’s a powerful feeling. With animation, it’s almost like I’m trapping people in time. They watch it and for a certain time, I’m directing their eye movements, and what they’re listening to. It’s the same with illustration, but it’s more obvious in animation, you have more control. Ru Kuwahata, my animation teacher from last year, said “If I want my character to sneeze, I can make them sneeze. I feel like god”(laughs). That power kind of takes over, and I really got into animation and toy design. Before I applied for an MFA program, I was trying to decide between sculpture, animation and illustration. Now, in the MFA Illustration Practice program I’m able to take my illustrations and put them on toys, or 3D images, or animations, it’s so open ended. The program is called illustration practice, so it’s really let me experiment.
As someone who does this vast range of work, what does the word ‘illustration’ mean to you? Do you think ‘illustrator’ adequately describes what you are now?
Before I came here, I would not have thought of all this as illustration or as part of my work as an illustrator. From my classmates and teachers, I’ve seen that illustration can mean many things, and it’s very open, and not restricted to paper, or 2D things. Now, I do think of myself as an illustrator, and that sculpture, animation, toys and so on are the nature of my illustrations. I wouldn’t get these resources in Turkey — being able to 3D print, or learn to use Arduino. So while I’m here, I’m trying to expand myself and see how I can take my illustrations further.
Sculpture, animation, toys and so on are the nature of my illustrations.
You were at the Gezi Park protests in Turkey. How important do you think it is for artists, designers, illustrators to be involved in political and social happenings around them?
I think it is necessary, but shouldn’t be obligatory for artists. But in the case of Turkey, I think it helped to spread the word. There were illustrations that a friend made about what was happening, that went viral. Sometimes an illustration can be more powerful than a photograph, because of how it emotes.
It’s less real, without taking away from reality.
Yes. That’s important. In the Gezi Park protests, people started living in the park. They pitched tents, they would exercise in the morning, some people were giving art lessons, there were readings, there was a free library housed in a bus that they hijacked from the government. It was a really peaceful environment that helped people cope with the stress that the government and police were putting on them. There was a biennale in Istanbul at that time, and there was a lot of debate about whether it should happen or not. The curator of the biennale said what he saw happening on the streets during the protests, was better and more important than what was in the galleries of the biennale. There was so much street art, so many clever slogans; it really helps bring people together, to change things. Art and illustration are crucial for that.
A lot of people are convinced that if they are on a path, they should stay there. How do you stay so receptive to the idea of changing directions?
I think that’s the way I am. I can’t stop and be satisfied that that is the end. I had a visiting critic tell me that I should not focus on just 2D illustration, and instead be like an entrepreneur and find as many ways to work in. It’s something I’ve held on to. Sometimes it amuses me, that I’m interested in all these things. Of course, I struggle when I am learning something new. But I push through it, knowing that there will be green fields on the other side. There’s no end to it, and that’s important. If you stop and stay in one place, it’s like eating yourself, you can lose the motivation.
What do you do when you are stuck?
I’m trying to fill myself with a lot of things, not necessarily just related to illustration. One of my main sources for creativity is actually non-visual resources like literature, mythology, philosophy. They feed me, they give me a different way of looking at things. It helps me get that distance from my illustrations, so that when I come back I can approach it in a different way. When you work on something for hours, you can lose objectivity. It’s like Deleuze says, you become the artwork. Sometimes, it’s important to detach too.
How important is the idea of collaboration for you as an illustrator?
I think it’s really important. When you collaborate with someone who has a different brain than you, a different area of interest, they can bring so much to what you do. You may need to edit some of your work to allow for those additions, or adapt it, and that is a valuable process as well. I mean there is a nice freedom that comes with working by yourself, but I think both are important. When I go to Istanbul, I meet up with people — musicians, artists, family friends and share my work them, and they share their work with me. One of my best friends, Mert Kocadayi, is a musician studying contemporary music at Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria. He composed the music for my animations and for my thesis show. His music improves my animation, the movement in my work improves his music. Through collaboration we’re able to carry each other’s work further.
What would you want to leave behind with your work?
(laughs) When I die?
Or when you are old and people are writing books about you.
I watched this documentary on Mark Rothko, where he talks about the experience that people have when they look at his paintings, and what he was aiming for. Morton Feldman composed music for the Rothko Chapel, where Rothko’s paintings were arranged. Feldman’s music would play an important part in how the space was defined. They were working collaboratively, to try and create a certain mood. With my illustrations and drawings, I am aiming for that ephemerality, the experience people have in the presence of my work. Sometimes I try to make people feel uncomfortable too, it can have more impact on people. I want people to be able to leave the work with questions, about philosophy, or social issues, or gender issues.
What would you say is the most interesting thing that you’ve worked on so far?
Last year, I would say, P is for Pussy, the book that I illustrated for Elissa Blount Moorhead. It was my first book in the U.S.A and it got a lot of media attention. I think it was important for the college-student-Meltem, that people knew my work and recognized it. This year though, my thesis is driving me crazy, it’s so exciting, I’ve never had this much freedom. It’s a year long project, and being around my classmates, their projects and our teachers really fed me and my project too. I’ve had access to so many resources — 3D printing, laser cutting, Arduino workshops, and being able to spend as much time as I have on it, and making toys and animations, this is definitely the project that excites me the most right now. I’m able to bring together so many aspects of my practice, and plan an exhibition for it, with music, and arrange how people interact with it. I haven’t been able to make, until now, one compact piece that can direct how people interact with it and feel in the space. All my ideas and ways of working have come to realisation with this project.
This interview with Meltem Şahin is an edited transcript of a long afternoon conversation between her and Shreyas R Krishnan (who is also from her cohort at MICA) for The Illustrator as Auteur. Meltem’s MFA Illustration Practice thesis ‘Negative Pleasure’ is on view in Baltimore as part of MICA’s Grad Show 2016.