The art of glazed tiles found its own story on Ottoman lands. Today, masters in Turkey continue to design and glaze tiles in the tradition of their predecessors.
Clay, fire, and glaze! Ceramic tiles are defined as a game played by these three. They are designed, painted, glazed, and baked in fire. We listened to five experts in Istanbul talk about the details of this art that emerges at the point where chemistry and art engage.
An Art That Cannot Be Learned in One Day
Güvenç Güven is an artist who has dedicated his life to glazed tiles. He has been working on İznik tiles with his wife Nursen Güven for years. Güven’s tile workshop is next to Tekfur Palace in Ayvansaray, where the tile factories were located in the 18th century. During our interview in his workshop, commenting on his relationship with glazed tiles, Güven says, “You can’t do this kind of work unless you love it. I called it love 35 years ago, but I understand now that this is something else. It is beyond love!” Güven knows the whole historical journey of ceramic tiles. Meeting with Faik Kırımlı opened the doors to this world for both him and his wife.
After pointing out that the Ottoman glazed tiles improved after the construction of the Green Tomb and the Green Mosque in Bursa, Güven adds, “The Turkish people put their thoughts, pleasures, and elegance into this art. In the palace painting quarters, masters began using different colors in glazed tiles, then greens and designs got involved. My wife and I work this way. We design the patterns ourselves and then paint them. We do everything ourselves from the foundation: from the paint, the glaze, and lining, to the frame. I even made the oven where we bake the tiles. Glazed tiles are an art that requires a lot of experience and patience. It cannot be learned in one day.”
The Real Material Is the Quartz Stone
Another artist working on glazed tiles is Ersin Fethi Öçal. We meet up and chat with Öçal at his workshop in Fatih Sultan Mehmet University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. In Öçal’s workshop his own works exist alongside those of his students. Öçal says, “I am someone who is in love with glazed tiles.” He continues, “I graduated from Istanbul University Art Department in 1972. My first position was in İznik. I did my military service in Kütahya. I always found myself at centers of ceramics. Immediately after graduating, I bought a small oven and started experimenting. I would see formulas and glazes in my dreams. It is difficult to succeed unless you truly love it. I always wanted to make İznik tiles. Quartz is essential for this. When my teacher, Faik Kırımlı, was alive we used to collect quartz stones on the Florya coast. Tiles are cooked in a fire that has turned an orange color. Those tiles are as strong as steel.”
Öçal points out that Istanbul hosts the most important works of glazed tiles and that the glazed tiles at Süleymaniye Mosque and Rüstem Paşa Mosque are the best in their categories. He says, “We see the most beautiful red tones on the glazed tiles of Piyale Paşa Mosque. The most beautiful green is at the Sokullu Mehmet Paşa Mosque in Kadırga. Of course, Topkapı Palace has the most important works in the art of glazed tiles.”
Tiles Also Bake Us
My next stop is Caferağa Madrasa in Sultanahmet. This place has been offering classes on traditional arts for years. The person who transmits the secrets of glazed tiles to her students is Emel Basut Gemici. In 1990, when she was a student at the Traditional Turkish Art Department at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, her teacher, Nezihe Bilgütay, contributed to her working on glazed tiles. Between the stone walls of this historic school, Gemici tells us the journey the artist experiences with glazed tiles with the following sentences: “We bake the tiles. But the tiles also bake us. You cover the object that you were involved in every step of its creation with glaze, then entrust it to the oven. And you pray and close the lid. While the product is baking inside, you are baking outside. As all glazed tile artists, I have also had broken products come out of that oven. The ability to leave that behind and to be able to make a new one, to gain that ability is what we call 'to be baked' (matured). This is why I want art enthusiasts at my exhibitions to touch my works. They should touch these so they can feel that fire.”
Whatever Comes out of the Oven Is Fate
My last stop is the Mümine Ateş Çini (Glazed Tile) Workshop in Fatih Kıztaşı. Mümine Ateş was introduced to tiles in her childhood years. She explains the process as such: “I spent my childhood in different Anatolian cities. I had the chance to observe and see the traces of the Seljuk civilization. With my father’s guidance I started my training in glazed tiles. I graduated from the Traditional Turkish Art Department of the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. I started teaching while I was still a student myself. To teach properly becomes a part of learning.” She adds, “Sometimes you spend months on one color. I spent six months on a tone of turquoise.” She says that what really excites her is the meeting of glazed tiles and architecture.
Ateş describes the glazing process that comes after the design of the tiles in the following words: “It is a mysterious process. In a way you cover your work with liquid glass. Every work requires a different glaze. In the oven, some works need to bake on top while others at the bottom. You listen to it and hear it. You think you have calculated everything and surrender your work to the oven. Regardless of the adjustments you make, you never know what will come out of the oven. You throw a piece you have been working on for months into the fire. Whatever comes out of the oven is fate.”
Everything Starts with Imagination
“Ceramic art is a part of my soul. As Yunus Emre said, if I do not say I love, the pain of love will drown me. Ceramics is a field where I can express myself.” These are the words of Fatma Şan. The venue where we had our pleasant chat was Şan’s workshop in Fatih. According to Şan, design is the essence of glazed tiles. “Everything starts with imagination.” She continues, “This art would not exist without design. This is why our work expresses us. Art is the reflection of the artist. The key to art is not simply in the skill of the brush, but in the soul of the artist that is reflected in the art.”
Şan says she was fortunate because she was born and grew up in Bursa, which is famous for its historical ceramics. She studied at Dumlupınar University in Kütahya, and went on to study at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul. In these cities that stand out with their glazed tiles, Şan cooperated with many artists and was involved in many projects. She explained her adventure in the arts in these words: “My journey in life gave me the chance to learn many secrets of the work I enjoy. Although the design process of glazed tiles is long and they are difficult to produce, my passion for this art has never changed. Maybe one of the reasons for this is that the secrets of this art are never-ending.”