Friday, December 31, 2010

Spanning years, cultures and creativity

Our avatar is a detail from a suzani, hand embroidered silk and cotton textiles traditionally begun at the birth of a daughter for her dowry. A suzani’s circular motifs represent Gardens of Eden, reminders of an abundant life here in an earthly paradise.

These circles imply connection, the arcs of bridges spanning divides and even cultures. Colorful rainbows leading to brighter futures, eternal curves encompassing the hands-on-hips symbol of strong women, as stitched in Turkic handcrafts for millennia. In 2011, we'll take the energy of this sustaining form into creating a culture in which girls and women, from Turkey, but also from around our globe, draw from the strength and beauty of these cultural arts and remake them to empower themselves, their families and their communities. 

It's now 2011 in Turkey, where Abit is, and still 2010 in California, where I am. We're temporarily bridging years for these 10 hours, but I'm eager to get back to being our creative, craftivist force for bridging cultures.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year, wherever you may be!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Manifesting Destiny

It took a random trip back to Istanbul in 1998 for me to recognize that I could create any kind of life I wanted.  I didn’t have to follow the American Dream to ‘success’:  the corporate high salary job, a big house, the nice car with the hefty lease.  I was living a good life in Los Angeles, but one that felt directionless and shallow.  

I was in a multi-cultural city, but that place did not reflect me.

A friend asked me if I wanted to travel with her to Turkey and Greece. I immediately said yes, since I rarely turned down a chance to do my favorite thing – travel. Istanbul had been my favorite place to work, the business trips I’d made there several years before.  The Turks I’d worked with had quite unlike the Japanese, the Chinese, the Indians, the Italians and other nationalities whose offices and factories I’d done business with as a clothing designer.

My agent and his employees in Istanbul went out of their way to make sure I saw their city, whirling me through Sultanahmet, along the Bosphorus, taking me to the latest hot restaurants and nightclubs. I didn’t realize that the agent’s wife Asli was one of Turkey’s top fashion designers at the time, until we were followed around one night by paparazzi and appeared in the local gossip pages the next morning. I was suddenly the ‘famous American designer’ gracing Turkey with my presence.

One afternoon, Asli took me to Pandeli in the Spice Market for lunch. But not until I’d visited the vast closet in her home with the Bosphorus view, donning heels, flowing silk, and a fur coat, since it was late November. Clearly my casual American work clothes had not met with her chic Istanbul standards. Cinderella stories like that never happened to me in the US, even in the fashion business.

With great memories of that amazing city that reminded me so much of a far more colorful and infinitely more social San Francisco, we planned our trip to Turkey and Greece. But just before we were about to leave, my friend went cold on Turkey.  She was afraid to travel the Western Turkish route I’d mapped out, though perhaps Istanbul might be safe enough for her to see before we left for Athens. We agreed to meet on a certain date at the Empress Zoe Hotel in Sultanahmet, near the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace.  

Once on the road, I was happy to be on my own.  I’ve lost friendships with people who were fine at home but could not handle the daily stresses of travel. I’m most alive when I don’t know what’s around the corner, or where a fork in my path will take me. Traveling with someone who wanted to plan every move would have been agony.

Turkey solo was a challenge.  I’ve never talked to more strangers in my life! By the time I got to the small Aegean town of Selcuk, next to the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus, I was talked out.  I’d over-shopped too, and was cursing myself for lugging an over stuffed duffel bag as I struggled up a small lane from the bus station after a bus ride from Pamukkale. Why do Americans think they can see half of Turkey in 1 week’s time? I’d barely scratched the surface in three.

I’ll save the rest of the story for my book. But that day in Selcuk, I met my husband Abit, who has called Selcuk home since the age of 13, though he’s also lived for 10 years in Istanbul and in Belgium for 3. If I’d turned down another street, we never may have met. I might have returned to California, settled back into my life. The life that was comfortable, but didn’t quite feel like mine.

I did ultimately meet up with my friend at the Empress Zoe Hotel, that trip in 1998. As kismet would have it, the narrow wooden building on Kutlugun Sokak, Auspicious Day Street, where Abit and I lived and had our textile shop this past summer -  is right next door. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Full bloom

Until I moved to Turkey in 1999, I didn’t fully realize that a person could have more than one home, more than one country, more than one culture. That we don’t have to choose.  Having a personal connection to multiple cultures is the best way we’ll learn to get along with each other on this planet.

Living in Istanbul, we all know the cliche about this city and the country of Turkey being a bridge between East and West. For the year of 2010, to celebrate Istanbul’s status as a European Capital of Culture, there’ve been big banners on the Galata Bridge in Turkish and English proclaiming that Istanbul is “building bridges between the cultures.”

 I’m working to bridge cultures creatively, a passion that I’ve long had, but which has only recently come fully into focus. And largely thanks to that ambiguous, magical catalyst called Istanbul.

The bridge metaphor makes sense to me. But I also like how my friend Tara Agacayak talked about the indefinable Turkey in her post on Turquoise Poppy:

The cliché about Turkey is that it is east and it is west. It is old and new. It is modern and ancient. Europe and Asia.  Religious and secular. The juxtapositions are numerous but they demonstrate something. They show that a place can be both, it just depends on where you choose to draw the line.

She goes on to write that line is imaginary – we can draw it anywhere we chose. And in 2010, I chose to draw it in Istanbul, where all my passions intersect. I can create a life that combines them all: creativity, culture, fiber arts, language, community and of course, love.

The tagline on Tara’s blog is Bloom Where You’re Planted. I’m a late bloomer because it wasn’t until I moved to Turkey in 1999 that I really challenged myself well across all lines, proved to myself that being a hybrid of multiple cultures can only make me stronger. Let me tell you how I got here.

I grew up in a California beach town, Santa Barbara, before it was overrun with celebrities from Hollywood. It was a lovely environment, with whitewashed, red tiled buildings that were required by code to reflect the Moorish, Islamic decorative architecture of Andalusian Spain. But the residents were a little homogenous, a mostly white population, though at least 30% of the residents were of Mexican ancestry. I identified with that Hispanic culture, never thinking it was a separate culture from my own.

When I went off to Los Angeles to study textile and clothing design, I got a taste of what it was really like to live in a multicultural city. My third job as a clothing designer in my mid-twenties launched me headfirst into global business travel, when the president of the company I’d just joined publicly fired the head designer at the first sales meeting I attended, then announced to me and the audience of maybe 100 that I’d be going to Hong Kong in the morning to head up the young menswear division.

Working in the clothing industry was a great lesson in trial-by-fire living, a constant test to prove myself since I was only as good as the success of my latest collection. A designer must constantly reinvent herself, be able to turn trends into something that reflects her customer. Learning that the only thing constant is change truly prepared me for expat life, for living in a global world.

10 years on, after living in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland Oregon, working in about 20 countries and traveling for pleasure to at least 25 more, I returned to UCLA to study interior design and architecture.  These fields still allowed me to work with my three favorite design elements: color, texture and pattern. Those three elements form a universal language to me, whether you’re creating embroideries, mosaic tiles, carpets or stair railings. Understand the language they speak, and you can design almost anything.

But I also learned that just designing something was not enough. You had to know how to build it. The loveliest of environments could live in my head, but if I did not have the skills to make it real, it was only a dream. While I was successful in creating items and environments that suited the needs of my buyers and clients, I’d yet to create a life for myself outside of business that truly suited me.  It took a random trip back to Istanbul in 1998 for me to realize that I could create any kind of life I wanted.  A life whose seeds were planted in Turkey a decade ago.  A life coming into full bloom the spring of 2011.