Q&A with the artist
::: Why are you an artist Gizem?
Before I took a brush and put the paint on canvas, I had not understood what “freedom of expression” meant. Art makes you free.
::: Your paintings are quite expressive, with distorted shapes and animated colors as dominant features. What has inspired this peculiar style? What is your method?
My method is layering. I work on the canvas through several levels, sometimes dozens. I start with priming the canvas with gesso. This is traditional. I then attach objects, either bought or found at home, to the canvas, so my canvases have texture. They have mountains and valleys. In a way, they are flat sculptures. The objects I attach are paper towels, tissues, even doilies; leaves found in the yard, glass beads, sculpting paste, plaster, cracking media, and more. I then cover all this with paint. Then I put on my composition and start painting.
It all started as experimentation. The distorted shapes are the natural consequence of using the same canvas over and over. When I am unsatisfied with a painting, I turn the canvas upside down and try to super-impose another image, with the remnants of the previous image still showing. So in a way, the paintings are palimpsest works with several layers of features and shapes, a technique which is open to surprises and excitement.
::: Do you remember your first encounter with the arts?
I grew up in Istanbul. In Istanbul, you don’t go to a museum to see arts and culture; it’s around you. In our small town called Kuzguncuk, painters and sculptors had studios. I remember going to school on the weekends, and being taught by famous painters. For them, it was about community. For us kids, it was fun. I remember how we had the art competition in the town- we were told to depict a location in our lovely town, to hang our paintings on the shops- the pharmacy, the post office, the bakery, and the townfolk voted. I remember painting a woman looking out to the sea, waiting the ferry. She had very short legs, and I did not win. I remember the winner as well: He had painted the barbershop in the corner. Later when I discovered the identities of the painters who instructed us on those weekends, and realized that they were indeed quite accomplished artists, it became about appreciation.
::: How were your first years as a painter?
I started painting at 21. Before then, I did drawing. For some reason, I thought drawing came first. Now I realize that it doesn’t have to be the case. I also did ceramics and small sculptures, which I think gave me some idea about form.
The beginning of painting was a bit timid, but I liked to distort the shapes. I used a lot of colors. At least I wasn’t scared to use color.
I also liked to repaint my canvases. I had a lot of fun, because I could see things differently. If I decided to cover up a canvas that had tea glasses, I would turn the canvas upside down and if I saw a big nose, the tea glass in the previous painting would become a nose for the next painting. I absolutely loved this aspect of painting, and I still do. I guess what I can say about my painting is that I experiment a lot with shapes and colors.
::: What artists have influenced you, and how?
From Westerners, I really like Cezanne, and I like Matisse, because they feel very warm to me, as if I know them. Of course Matisse’s decorative elements feel very close.
::: Your day job is quite far from painting: You are an economist and teach at a business school. How do you live in both worlds?
I always loved economics starting from the first class I took. Economics is about finding good solutions to complicated problems. Of course, it’s more mathematical and art is absolutely boundless. But both involve the same mixture of creativity and hard work. I am also lucky enough to always teach at top schools, with good students. I am able to specialize in the intersection of art and economics. In class, we explore a range of subjects: How museums can sustainably raise funds; how economic systems influence artists; the labor market in the arts; etc.
::: Could you talk about your latest series of paintings and what you are trying to achieve with them?
My latest collection is inspired by Ottoman ceramics and tiles. The artistry ( originally adopted from the East), started in the region called Iznik and the designs were then accepted to the Ottoman court. Since calligraphy was important, there was work on paper. What is great about this art is that, as the researcher Walter Denny points out, there was no “fine art” mentality. Decorative arts were important, as well as calligraphy, miniature painting, or pottery. Artisanship was as important as creativity. Meaning was important. The Cintemani design, that I love, represents the three ways of looking at the world, all in harmony.
The vessels that were painted on can now be found at the Louvre, or the Victoria and Albert, even in LACMA.
In my latest collection, I rely on the color scheme of original ceramic painting as well. The Iznik palette started with cobalt blue and then grew to incorporate first a turquoise, then red, and in the second half of the 16th century, a wonderful addition of emerald green, which improved the turquoise. I strive to match that color in my palette, although it is difficult. I use about ten different turquoises and try to mix them in different combinations.
::: How do you keep going when things get tough in the studio?
There is no painter’s block for me. I don’t really believe in waiting for the muse. I never had an idea in the middle of the night and got up to paint. I approach this a bit scientifically, and I know that this is not the romantic view of the artist.
The biggest difficulty for me, and I guess this would be true for other artists as well, is that my talent is so much behind my vision. I try to get close to the images in my mind, and more often than not, the two are not even close.
::: What advice would you give to an artist just starting out?
Don’t be preoccupied with style. As my art teacher used to say: “Just put the paint on the canvas.” The rest takes care of itself. If something goes wrong, you’ll scrape the paint off with the palette knife, or you’ll cover it once it’s dry.
Do not edit yourself, or be timid or cautious about the way you use color or shapes. Do not think about theories, or what you are trying to achieve. No one has to like it, no one has to even see it. There are lots of ideas and criticism, and some do have merit, but at the end of the day, this is your painting.
My art is about experimenting with shapes and colors. I see art as an expression of feelings but more importantly as a domain for freedom. Painting has given me the flexibility to expand in all directions: expanding along the surface of the canvas vertically and horizontally and then going deep into the painting, which completes the idea of space and movement in that space. It's vast.