Between Moments Of Being and Non-Being: A Quick Sketch Of An Artist

In arts, it is so common that an artist will be forgotten if they/she/he continuously does not produce any piece of artwork, especially when their/her/his network connections are not so strong. The audience, generally, recognizes their work after the death of the artist and this process is common worldwide, but countries like Turkey (which creating is a very strong struggle for the artists or authors, according to their political views/status among the ruling party) artwork may not be appreciated even after the death of the artist. This is why I am trying to discover and search for the silenced and muted artists or authors and make an effort in different ways (writing critics, making interviews for the magazines etc.), in order to make them feel appreciated and know somebody is still following their work in my own way. The reason I’d chose N. (I will call her “N.” due to privacy issues) can be explained with this argument, but also there is another fact should be added: Not only I loved her paintings, but I also loved her stories, and there was a question in my mind: Why did she stop writing? How was her art enthusiasm shaped? What are the unforgettable moments in a 80 years old lady’s life?

First, I’d like to give a piece of brief information about her. N. is an artist and author born in the 1930s, in Turkey. She is best known for her paintings composed of various kinds of cats. She had ended her education when she was in the first grade of high school. While she was writing and publishing her stories, she sought out another tool to discover and express her imagination world, she started to paint on her own. But soon after she has needed professional help, she began B.R.’s (a very famous Turkish painter) special courses at his taller in Narmanlı Han. While she painted her first paintings, she also published her one and only book. After the publication, she admired much by the critics of her time and Behçet Necatigil. Then she stopped writing and has many exhibitions, but after 2000, we cannot see her name in any art network or magazine.

She is now  about 80 years old, lives in Cihangir with her 11 cats, does not go outside, or see anybody except her daughter who is also an artist. My specific interest on her is not limited with the art or publishing sector, as an 80 years old memory, I was searching for a personal history in the socio-cultural and political history of Turkey.

I conducted the interview in her house located in Ağa Hamamı district in Cihangir, recorded 3 hours of dialogue. Her general response to my questions was sincere, warm and honest. Sometimes we had to talk on the same subjects over and over again because she liked to go over every single detail as she is living it again, that was the most challenging part of the interview, and amazingly her memory is so clear, she’d always chosen the same words to describe the facts.

My analysis of the narrative will locate Virginia Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” as a focal point depending on the common relations, family issues, intimate moments, childhood and position of the mirror that I related with N.’s and Woolf’s narrative. Around this framework, I’ll apply Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux de Mémoire notion, Nazli Ökten’s November 10 comments, Esra Özyürek’s public memory concept, Freud’s screen memory concept and Connerton’s social memory issues that we discussed earlier.

The White Tiny House

“There are several difficulties,” writes Woolf. “In the first place, the enormous number of things I can remember; in the second, the number of different ways in which memoirs can be written.” (Woolf, 64). So, I should’ve chosen my first question kindly both to be persuasive and inspiring about the first image that she could recall from the deepest layers of her childhood memoirs. The first thing she can remember from past is ‘the most beautiful, two-floored, tiny house with a garden in a small city of Turkey that she wants to paint’ (she tried several times to paint the house, but she is not content with the results). In the only room of the ground floor there was a couch (sedir) with clean veils, she remembers the place with mint candies because whenever they sat there with her grandfather who gave her mint candies. That should be a personal memory according to Connerton which refers to those acts of remembering that take as their object of one’s history, a memory that we speak of them as personal memories because they are located in and refer to a personal past (Connerton, 22). The second thing, she remembers with the house is a dead yellow cat which she recalls her first crying, in the rooms bay window (cumba), is for that cat. She covered the cat with a pink blanket, also she covered herself, cried continuously but surprisingly she cannot remember any significant attachment with the cat. “This should be the first time that I realize I’ll have strong bonds with cats,” she says and also this can be a personal memory because this memory claims figure significantly in her self-description. According to Connerton, that’s the reason why our past history is an important source of our conception of ourselves; our self-knowledge, our conception of our own character and potentialities as N. states out here.

When grew up, she traveled to İstanbul with her mother and N. recalls these short travels with two words: “silent city”. Non- existence of cars, people, chaos, she remembers İstanbul with “such big silence” (she also painted this silence) and after she started primary school in İstanbul, she took long walks with her cousin in the same silence. From Sultanahmet to Bahçekapı, until feeling the cold into their bones, they walked through the ‘silence’; she recalls these memoirs as part her cognitive memory which her knowledge in some way be due to, the existence of, a past cognitive or sensory state of herself (Connerton, 22).

The Myth of Atatürk

 “The strength of these pictures,” says Woolf. “[T]hat is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen.” (Woolf, 67). This just like N.’s father’s picture, sitting in front of the radio and whenever somebody mentioned Atatürk’s name, the tears accumulated in his eyes. Also, I suppose this phrase is connected to the N.’s comment that her father’s signature was exactly like Atatürk’s. This is the history which will began to widen, as Ökten mentions in “An Endless Death and an Eternal Mourning: November 10 in Turkey”, being the most important hero as well as a controversial figure on the Turkish political scene and Turkish citizens unanimously agree on his role as savior of the country. N. cited that when Atatürk came to their city before his death, her father met him and all he could said was: “You cannot look him in the eye, you cannot look him in the eye.” She admits that, this is one kind of mythicizing up a human being.

Beginning to Paint

 In primary school, with the efforts of her fine arts teacher, she remembers her first paintings, she tells that she always painted the same scene that was a pink blinded tiny house (maybe their house) and her teacher was proud of her, told all the class that they could not paint like N.. In my point of view, this is the habit memory which remembering is frequently said to be a mental act or mental occurrence (Connerton, 23). In middle school, her fine arts teacher was B.R.’s fiancé (what a coincidence!), her name was Melahat but kids used to call her ‘Marika’, who gave homework to the class. The day after, N. took her art homework, but Marika didn’t believe that she, painted it by herself, but Sacide who was in the upper grade of the school, did it. She felt so bad and couldn’t prove. But after some other paintings, she realized that Marika treated her like she was a real painter, soon she perceived as a painter. These memories remind me Woolf’s phrase: “I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace, and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.” (Woolf, 67).

Meeting Saik Faik

She began to read novels and poetry, in the guest room where no one uses in normal days of life as a Turkish tradition, trying to discover the literary taste with Faruk Nafiz’s Han Duvarları. But she remembers the first novel she read which was Saint Exupery’s Night Fly, thought that Varlık Yayınları published good stuff. I believe that this is the cyclical perception of time as Connerton emphasizes which the life of the interviewee, here N., is not a curriculum vitae but a series of cycles (Connerton, 20).

In Resimli Hayat magazine, she saw Sait Faik in his classic dirty trench coat, at that time she was about 18, she can clearly remember this because of the death date, 1954, and read the story “Lüzumsuz Adam” (later she painted a self-portrait while she was reading the book named same as the story). This is also cyclical, because she began to read those stuff when she was about 13, but she jumps to her early 18’s as a linear time fact. “Lüzumsuz Adam” affected her deep inside, and she said that she began to love the real-life with Sait Faik. But soon after, she is not sure about she read other novels before or after Sait Faik. The pure fact is that she recognizes the real ‘literature’ except of American films she watched in the cinema.

Screen memory and cinema

Her only entertainment was cinema because her younger brother never let her go to the picnics (another entertainment for young), mostly took place in the Anatolian side of İstanbul. One day she secretly went to a picnic, with her blue dress and danced with a boy.

She tells about the photo-stories that she created after every movie. Here the unique thing she cannot forget is the petroleum-green swimming pools she painted which she watched at every movie; she crumbled the pastels to have the exact color. She admits that she is 13 or 14 years old at that time. But she told me the same story afterwards when she left school, her only entertainment was sketching photo-stories, and here, her memoirs catching up with the same petroleum-green color she had, crumbled from the oil pastels. “The independent memories of childhood owe their existence to a process of displacement,” says Freud.  “As the indifferent memories owe their existence preservation not to their own content but to an associative relation between their content and another which is repressed.” (Freud, 83).  Depending on these two memoirs I shall call them screen memories referencing Freud.

But French movies opened her eyes in the way of discovering her sexuality (after opening of Sinematek). She strictly separates French movies from the American ones, that she learned her femininity from these movies, firstly began to wear high heeled shoes. She never has a boyfriend as her peers do.

 American Way of Life or Tradition?

Reading the Seventeen magazine, she decided to wear like American girls and design her own clothes. Her friends called her ‘American girl’ because of her style. Her mother punished her because of her make-up but besides they had never forced her to marry or have children. She defines their lifestyle as ‘bourgeois’, that a father earns the money but the girls sit at home and spend it to the clothes but not to parties, coffees or restaurants. Between modernity and tradition, her family wanted her to be modern but also wanted her to be conservative. She hated the go-betweens who were coming for her older sister, she refused to see them if they wanted to see her also, threatened her mother to commit suicide.

1960 coupe memoirs

During Adnan Menderes governance, she and her family always listened the radio (she defined herself as radio generation), she is in love with Salim Şengil’s voice. But another voice she cannot forget is Alparslan Türkeş’s voice, while 27 May 1960 coupe, explaining the “army is now on governance”. Her response was to cheer up, and everybody in their street was cheering up, giving hugs to the soldiers. I’m going to call these as Public memories, referencing Esra Özyürek’s article; yet there is a generally accepted distinction between individual and social memory, and also between memory and history (Özyürek, 9). She claims that Menderes and his colleagues tried to change Turkey to the political situation before Atatürk, to the unsecular environment and everybody thought the same with her, as a result they cheered up. This is linked what Özyürek writes: “Such divisions suggest that individual memories can be diverse, yet social, collective, cultural, or written memories are shared by all members of the group. The phrase public memory, on the other hand, connotes both the shared and the contested aspects of memory at the same time.” Again, as a shared memory everybody was upset about the executions (she says it was not necessary to execute the rulers).

A Lonely Girl in a Lonely World

Until 27, she says that she was all alone, had no friends (for a short time she has a friend called Helga) and could not maintain relationships with boys, sat at home all day, create photo-stories. And suddenly somebody gave her a notebook which was full of Nazım Hikmet’s banished poems (this should be around 63-64, because Nazım’s poems were published at 65 for the first time in Turkey). She was shocked and thrilled! And then she published her first poem in Varlık Magazine.

She wrote many stories but there was something missing for her. She did not feel so well with the writing, she wanted to paint, tried but there was lack of some spirit also. She needed some assistance to paint properly, she knew it; liked writing but slowly she was aware that she was born for painting. At 14, she tried to go to academy in both opera and fine arts section but her father didn’t let her go. After 13 years, she tried again, saw an advertisement on Cumhuriyet, a private arts course called LCC, she asked her father again and luckily her father let her go to LCC, B.R.’s class. And the life had changed.

B.R. and 4 Elements of Painting

Every Saturday, she began to go to Nişantaşı for courses from Yeşilköy (family now was living in Yeşilköy) with private car. B.R. was around his 53’s, N. was so fond of him and she was 27, he had charms and was a real Casanova. In Nişantaşı B.R. taught her the 4 elements of painting: line, stain, color and spot. He said: “If you learn these 4 elements well, you open all the gates of the palace and enter inside.” N. liked the stain much more than the others and she began to paint limitless, she could get beyond her dreams.

Woolf talks about the looking-glass in their hall. I connect her memory with N.’s, which she started to paint self-portraits feeling strong emotions to B.R. and was aware that he was feeling the same to her. “Yet this did not prevent me from feeling ecstasies and raptures spontaneously and intensely and without any shame or the least sense of guilt, so long as they were disconnected with my own body,” says Woolf (Woolf, 69). While looking at her with her self-portrait, she also had her first kiss. “once when I was very small Gerald Duckworth lifted me onto this, and as I sat there he began to explore my body,” Woolf continues. “I can remember the feel of his hand going under my clothes; going firmly and steadily lower and lower. [T]his seems to show that a feeling about certain parts of the body; how they must not be touched; how it is wrong to allow them to be touched; must be instinctive. It proves that Virginia Stephen was not born on the 25th January 1882, but was born many thousands of years ago; and had from the very first to encounter instincts already acquired by thousands of ancestresses in the past.” Yes, N. was not disliking it but the self-portrait which is now hanging her living rooms wall, whenever she threw a look to it, she recalls the LCC, B.R.’s frivolous moments and just like the looking-glass, she sees herself with a sense of guilt as her feelings are disconnected from her body. After the kiss, B.R. was afraid that she would never come back to courses because of the shame she felt, he took her address and visited her at her house, in Yeşilköy. And their relationship was started. “He was a real bohemian,” tells N. “His clothes were stinking, but he dressed up so different beyond fashion, he was looking so charming, married, living in Kalamış with her wife.”

Narmanlı Han as Les Lieux de Mémoire

 Sometime later, B.R. quitted LCC, continued to give lessons in Narmanlı Han at his atelier. She confesses that B.R. was not in love with her, it was just a sexual relationship, but she was glad about it. He was saying: “I am too old now, you’d see me when I was younger.” She remembers him saying: “I am waiting you in the line of the light.” Secret meetings in his house and Narmanlı, she recalls him with his breath full of wine or alcohol smell. As Pierre Nora states in “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”, where memory crystallizes and secretes itself has occurred at a particular historical moment, o turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn, [t]here are lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieu de mémoire, real environment of memory (Nora, 7); she cannot remember exactly where they has first sexual relationship (in Kalamış, Yeşilköy or Narmanlı) but she attributes all the sexual memories to Narmanlı Han. Memory is a perpetually actual phenomenon, a bond trying to bond us to the eternal present as Nora mentions, N. feels strong regret about B.R. that she didn’t save any stuff related to him (letter, paintings, books etc.) so lives in the memory of him (I lean on this statement because it was my third time with N., sitting and talking, she walks around always the same themes about B.R.).

Now torn apart and reconstructing again, Narmanlı Han, was a famous place for writers and artists, a monument, a memory museum for Turkey’s cultural history as Nora mentions, “a generalized critical history would no doubt preserve some museums, some medallions and monuments but it would empty them of what, to us, would make them lieux de mémoire” (Nora, 9), is a unique lieux de memoire in my point of view. And for N., “return of the narrative” always comes with the 4 elements and the moist smell in Narmanlı Han.

Being or Non-Being Moments

Of course, there are so many things happening in N.’s life story, but I want to conclude the story here, that because of her definition of these years mention above, that the 1965 era of her life was the most shining era (further story can be read in appendix section). An era in which she found herself, her style of painting, discovered sexuality despite repression and a way of life to live in a changing country. I’d like to turn to Woolf here, where she says: “A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing order to Mabel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger. [T]he real novelist can somehow convey both sorts of being.” (Woolf, 70).

N., lived her youth mostly with the non-being moments maybe, but from 1965 she knew how to survive from separation, broken hearts chaos, how to love a man, how to express her imagination through arts. This is, a real artist can somehow convey both sorts of being, even if she waits for the death, paints too little, but still remembers unique moments of her life, she knows her moments of being in her mind.




–      Connerton, Paul. “Social Memory”. How Societies Remember. Cambridge University Press.1989.

–      Freud, Sigmund. “Childhood Memories and Screen Memories”. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1901.

–      Nora, Pierre. “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire”. Representations 26. The Regents of the University of California. Spring 1989.

–      Özyürek, Esra. “The Politics of Public Memory in Turkey”. Syracuse University Press. 2007.

–      Ökten, Nazlı. “An Endless Death and an Eternal Mourning: November 10 in Turkey”. (Available on

–      Woolf, Virginia. “A Sketch of the Past”. Moments of Being. San Diego : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Second Edition. 1985.


Photography: Tuğba Turan (Memory)

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