City creatives: Humanity in minyatür

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City creatives: Humanity in minyatür
Sermin Ciddi in her Torpedo Factory studio. (Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)
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By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]

In the right hands, a paintbrush and canvas can be transportive, taking viewers away to a different place, time or headspace.

In Torpedo Factory artist Sermin Ciddi’s hands, that’s certainly the case. Ciddi works in a modernized style of traditional Turkish miniatures, using the cultural traditions of her birthplace to transform landmarks from the real world into vibrant, fairytale landscapes.

Ciddi’s work spans continents, drawing on everything from the Hagia Sophia to Old Town for inspiration in an attempt to connect herself, her viewers and the broader world under one flag: humanity.

“I am connecting to the people with my emotion, as an artist, my colors, my positive attitude,” Ciddi said. “… The same painting, people are saying to me the same feelings [I had while painting it]. It means, as a human being, we are connected somehow.”

Ciddi’s work as an artist started before she knew how to put brush to canvas. As a child in Istanbul, Ciddi would stick crayons in her mouth before using them on the page, finding that the moisture made the colors brighter in an improvised form of watercolor painting.

Without television or many picture books, Ciddi’s imagination became her best friend. When she read or heard a story, she would create images, or mental paintings, that soon manifested physically in her art.

“I could imagine everything, everything,” Ciddi said. “… It’s a habit. If somebody is talking about something, telling me about their day or whatever, my mind, at the same time, [is] making a picture or thinking of painting.”

After high school, Ciddi attended the Istanbul State Academy of FIne Arts, where she started exploring more traditional forms of Turkish art, including miniature – or minyatür – painting.

Ciddi’s art may be contemporary, but she still draws on classic Turkish images, such as the Edirne Palace. (Courtesy image)

Miniature painting is a cultural tradition in Turkey, as well as other civilizations like Persia, that dates back centuries and peaked as a medium in the 17th century under the Ottoman Empire. Miniature paintings were given as gifts to sultans and presented at weddings in Turkey.

The form experienced a decline in the 20th century as modern art took center stage. In the 1980s, however, artists started to revive it.

Traditionally, miniature paintings are two-dimensional representations of people or places. The Ottoman Empire was known for extensive documentation, and miniature paintings played a role in that as well. They were used for cartography, to represent the known world and chart the unknown world.

For Ciddi, the initial appeal of miniature paintings was the color, style and rules behind such a traditional art form.

“I was [always] interested in … the colorful, child-like paintings because they are so innocent. They’re so pure,” Ciddi said.

Alongside her professors, and then as a teacher of the style herself, Ciddi learned how to recreate the classical approach to miniature paintings. However, she realized that although there is value in following tradition, it could only get her so far, she said.

“I always wanted to do contemporary work,” Ciddi said. “You can see all the [paintings] are different from the miniature paintings we know because in the old time, always, Turkish miniatures were presented at weddings or [to] Sultans. But we need to do something new because it’s the 21st century.”

At its heart, Ciddi’s work retains the hyper-detailed, almost architectural approach to process and planning that is traditionally a part of miniatures, but her color palette and subjects exist far outside the traditional miniature template.

Her move to Alexandria and acceptance into the Torpedo Factory in 2017 helped push her work to new places, literally. While the Hagia Sophia and Maiden’s Tower of Istanbul still make appearances, Ciddi’s more recent work draws inspiration from the historic streets and buildings of Old Town.

“[Istanbul] is my hometown. … But moving to Alexandria, because I’m living here, I started to do something that belongs to the places I’m living in or the places I’m visiting. This is me now,” Ciddi said.

When she first moved to the U.S., Ciddi didn’t know how she would get into the art business. Although she was a professional recognized artist in Turkey, each country has a different arts culture.

She eventually stumbled on the Torpedo Factory while visiting her son, who lives in the area, and Ciddi became obsessed, she said. She returned day after day, visiting galleries but remaining too shy to ask the artists how they got involved.

In 2016, while visiting her son for Christmas, Ciddi saw that the Torpedo Factory had issued a call for artists. She eagerly applied and learned two months later that she had been accepted via the blind jury process.

No matter where she is or what she’s painting, Ciddi strives to capture a sense of place, one that is authentic both physically and emotionally.

In order to do that, Ciddi does as much online and in-person research as possible.

“I need to go to places, take the photos or feel the energy and later on I can have a look at Google,” Ciddi said. “But I need to feel it.”

Sermin Ciddi’s depiction of Old Town in the moonlight combines traditional Turkish miniature techniques with Old Town’s historic architecture. (Courtesy photo)

Ciddi’s first piece that involved Alexandria, part of a series called “Old Town Alexandria in the Moonlight,” was inspired by her experience walking the streets of Old Town one winter night. Under the moonlight, a part of the city she had become familiar with transformed into something entirely new, she said.

“Many places [were like], ‘Did I see this place before?’” Ciddi said. “You can see all the depth of the shops, not only the windows. And the colors [are] coming out from the windows, especially vivid colors, the yellow of the lights.”

The final piece remains largely geographically accurate, drawing in specific local businesses and landmarks to create a blue, dreamlike and moon-bathed representation of Old Town. It’s become a hit with a lot of Alexandrians, including Mayor Justin Wilson, who purchased a recreation for his office, Ciddi said.

Ciddi is currently working on a companion piece that will shift the season and color palette.

Even when Ciddi’s work focuses on landscapes and architecture, she uses her art as a medium, connecting people from different parts of the globe through hope and positivity, she said.

In recent months, especially when the Torpedo Factory was closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic, that has become a little harder. Hope is in short supply, but Ciddi is still working to bring people joy through art.

“All the time, if I am very sorry or very sad in my emotional life … I never gave my feelings to my paintings. I always wanted to give hope, cheer to the people,” Ciddi said.

Like most Torpedo Factory artists, Ciddi worked from home from April to June while the site was closed to the public. Commissioned work she had started prior to the pandemic sustained her as her Torpedo Factory sales dried up.

During the pandemic, some of Ciddi’s work took on a meaning and popularity she didn’t anticipate. For her first reception series at the Torpedo Factory, Ciddi created a series of pieces depicting phoenixes, the mythological bird that burns up, only to be reborn from the ashes.

“Battle in Bloom” is part of a series that contrasts the benevolence of the phoenix with the ferocity of the dragon. (Courtesy image)

In the middle of the pandemic, a lot of art has been reinterpreted and inscribed with new meaning, and Ciddi’s series is no exception. It has connected again with people for different reasons, but the intent behind the series remains the same.

The Torpedo Facory reopened to the public on June 12, but unfortunately, Ciddi’s studio and the art center at large remain fairly empty, Ciddi said. People are still hesitant to visit, and even those who do come in rarely walk into an artist’s gallery unless they know they’ll purchase something, Ciddi said.

Still, Ciddi’s humanity-inspired work resonates with many in these unusual times. While people are isolating themselves in their homes and in their political and social silos, Ciddi’s work offers an olive branch, a reminder that we are all human beings.

“It’s my feeling, or my mission, to give to people more energy and more positive attitude because everybody is having a very difficult time,” Ciddi said. “… Even just one minute, or just visiting my studio, I like to give some positive thoughts. I want to reach their heart.”

For commissions, Sermin Ciddi can be reached at [email protected] or at her Torpedo Factory studio, studio 328.

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