Q&A with SVA’s Peter Hristoff and Carolyn Hinkson-Jenkins on ‘The Artist’s Journal’ in Istanbul

November 21, 2013

Artist and SVA faculty member Peter Hristoff, who teaches in multiple departments at the College, also leads a unique Arts Abroad program in Istanbul, Turkey entitled The Artist’s Journal. This past summer, he was joined by Carolyn Hinkson-Jenkins, coordinator in the BFA Design Department, who helped guide students on their journaling adventure through the historic city. SVA Close Up recently caught up with them via email to learn more about the experience.

checker425Can you talk a little bit about the origins of this program? Where did the idea come from to create an arts abroad experience centered on journaling?

PH: [SVA Executive Vice President] Anthony Rhodes and I had started discussing an Arts Abroad Program in Istanbul around the year 2000 – 2001. The soon-to-follow global events limited the interest in the program. Several years later I started teaching the “Arts Abroad Painting in Florence” class. It was a natural evolution to combine my interest in Byzantine History with the Renaissance. In 2011, I created a class that started in Istanbul and continued in Florence, examining how the fall of the Byzantine Empire (and the expulsion of the scholars and the knowledge of the classics) fueled the Renaissance. The format of the journal class—documenting these great cities, Istanbul and Florence—and all they offered seemed like the most logical and concentrated approach to both art making on location and understanding this complex historical relationship. In 2012 and 2013 we offered the class only in Istanbul, focusing on not only the Byzantine, but also the Ottoman history and contemporary scene.

carpet425How did you approach helping art students understand the social, political and cultural history of Turkey?

PH: I was born in Istanbul and came to the U.S. at a young age, but retuned to Istanbul on a regular basis in my teens and have continued to do so over the years. My knowledge of the city and my network of friends and colleagues there allows me to give the students an insider’s understanding of not only the history of the city (and nation), but also it’s machinations, unspoken rules and customs. I should point out that the overwhelming beauty and history of Istanbul is quite powerful and my best TA (Teaching Assistant).

turkey425CHJ: The course this year also incorporated guided assistance with Turkish artist Banu Tansug, an amazing talent and organizer. Guest lecturers included Dr. Ivana Jevtic, professor from the Koc University, who is a brilliant historian specializing in the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. She accompanied the group on the tour of Fort Rumeli, the city of Edirne, the Sabanci Museum and the Hagia Sophia. The trip also included a guided tour of old town Istanbul with Irfan Bey, and a few days tour with artist and guide Trici Venola, who shared her drawing expertise and knowledge on how to capture the essence, character, and story of each person portrayed in one’s art. Students learned the history of all places visited (in detail), which included corner markets, family businesses, candy shops, the best place for Turkish delight, restaurants, places to buy jewelry, silks, rugs and more. You name it, we learned about it—and then drew it.

The group was in Istanbul when the protests against the government began. How did that affect the trip?

PH: The dramatic protests that occurred in Istanbul this past summer profoundly affected our experience and (I believe) enhanced our understanding of the psyche of the Turkish nation. We happened to be in Istanbul at a “tipping point”—a large portion of

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the population reacting to government decisions, attitudes and policies. As the demonstrations grew and the police crackdown became more aggressive (combined with the close proximity of these activities to our hotel), we navigated the city in ways where we could still be aware and informed of what was going on and continue with our lessons. Towards the end of our stay we did re-locate to the historic peninsula as the Beyoglu area (the neighborhood of our hotel) was becoming uncomfortable and unpredictable. It was an overwhelming experience to see thousands of young people, the middle aged and older denizens of the city all demanding their democratic rights.

CHJ: We experienced history, the art of growth, a mission for change and upheaval. We saw and heard the anger from the crowds, while at the same time, the overwhelming sense of camaraderie and unity, through songs, chants, the banging of pots and pans, the tooting of horns, from cars and boats, from the rooftops to the streets and even the seas!

While the media reports looked frightening, we managed to occupy the students with more learning opportunities, at the Archeological Museum, the Topkapi Palace, the Koc Museum, on the Princes’ Islands, with boat rides on the Bosphorus, tea with the local merchants, a personal session with the master Sedefkar, in learning the art of carving mother of pearl (I have a new found respect for anything inlaid with mother of pearl), and through an elderly native who invited us in to sit and talk with her about her history, and who asked about our experiences in her country. This is to name just a few. The trip was filled with many serendipitous, magical moments.

And although the government did not appreciate the graffiti/art created on the city’s walls, streets, garbage cans, etc., this was indeed art nonetheless. The creations were extra work for some, but art for everyone else.

Istanbul has a burgeoning art scene with a number of contemporary art galleries. How did students respond/react to learning more about Turkey’s contemporary art scene and artists?

PH: Interestingly enough, my students—particularly this past session—seemed more interested in the history, geography, culture and political climate of Turkey and Istanbul rather than the contemporary art scene.

turkeygroup425CHJ: The students in this program came in with an eagerness to learn, adapt and become immersed in the unique offerings and balance of history and the innovative, young, hip atmosphere of Istanbul. Aside from the many mosques toured, we also experienced an intimate visit with artist Nihal Martli at her studio. She showed us her latest work and shared her life story as an artist and the challenges she’s faced as a female artist in Istanbul. We also saw an exhibition at the Istanbul Bilgi University, by the female artist Shirin Neshat, whose work was quiet, yet extremely bold, passionate and sensual.

mosque425What were some of the insights, reflections, and artwork students created that really stood out to you this session?

PH: As they did last year, the students’ testimonials speak for themselves, as do the exceptional artworks they created based on their journals. The curiosity and the maturity of our students, their inquisitiveness and engagement made the class and our time there truly exceptional.

Photos from top down: drawing at the Mosaic Museum of Istanbul; Rustem Pasa Mosque; view across the Golden Horn; in the garden of a local home in Edirne; and Hagia Sophia.

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