An Istanbul Artist’s Big Break

Ismail Kilinc's circuitous journey from convict to Kadikoy mainstay

By / April 2012

The Turkish painter Ismail Kilinc was sitting in his house one day in the western Istanbul neighborhood of Cerrapasa, when Tolga, his ten-year-old nephew, came running through the door. Blood all over his face, he had been popped in the head with a rock slung from a homemade slingshot, a contraption jerryrigged from a plastic bottle and balloon.

It was the late 1990s. For Kilinc, who had recently returned from a mandatory stint in the military and was increasingly fed up with Cerrapasa’s rough-and-tumble street life, the site of Tolga was the final provocation.

He stormed the street in search of the culprit. He found the little devil, grabbed him by the ear. He marched the kid home to have a word with his parents. But the house turned out to be a haunt of lowlifes. One of them stepped forward, bottle at the ready.

This is how a painter gets sent to prison: He whips a knife from his pocket. He slices from temple to chin. When the police cars arrive, he refuses to surrender. Then he lifts a broken bottle to his face. “If you’re going to take me, you have to take these drunks, too,” he hollers. “Or else, I am going to do something terrible to myself!”

The standoff lasted five hours. Finally, the police relented. They rounded up the hoodlums. Then they rounded up Kilinc, who was sentenced to twenty-two months in Edirne Federal Prison in northwest Turkey.

Recounting this story now, from his tiny art studio in Kadikoy, across the Sea of Marmara from his old stomping grounds, Kilinc is quick to add that the man who wielded the knife and went toe to toe with the police in Cerrapasa that day was a different man, a rougher, more volatile iteration of himself. “Now, you have to remember,” he tells me, as I sit on a plastic stool in the studio, hanging on every word. “I was fiery back then, not like I am now.”

But he is also patently aware that had he not had that fire back then, he might never have landed in prison, and had he never landed in prison chances are he would not be half the artist he is today.

But at first prison seemed the farthest thing from art school. The first month behind bars was all gruff guards and drab corridors. Kilinc bunked with thirty cons. The de facto leader, to hear Kilinc tell it, was a maniac. There was speculation that he’d killed five men. He flexed considerable muscle, made nasty threats. Kilinc sharpened a ten-inch piece of thin metal and slept with the shiv under his pillow.

Kilinc broke from his brother and moved into his own studio in 2010. The two no longer speak.

As the days lapsed he began to feel as if he’d go crazy if he didn’t find a way to paint. Though he had never done art commercially, painting had always been a part of his life. Growing up in the southern Turkish town of Adana, he had sat alongside his brother at the foot of his father’s canvas while the old man painted landscapes, still lifes, and portraits in oil.

Hussein’s art was ever tinged with melancholy. He had worked as a spy in the Middle East for the Turkish government. He had spent four years in a Syrian prison when Kilinc was school age. They pulled out his fingernails, stuck knives in his feet, left him hungry for days. The experience had broken him. He concealed the cracks fairly well, but in his artwork, the sadness seeped through.

Money was tight and art supplies were hard to come by. Hussein showed the boys how to stretch canvas over homemade frames. When they went to buy melons from a farmer selling them out of his horse-drawn buggy, Hussein, pretending to pet the horse, would shear hair from its mane to make paint brushes.

Remembering his father’s antics, recalling how he always managed to find a way to create, Kilinc was inspired. He convinced the warden to let his family bring him canvases, paints, brushes, and an easel. He set up shop in the corner next to the last grey metal bunk bed. Brush to paint-smeared easel, easel to canvas, he started to paint. Scenes from Istanbul, mostly. The Maiden’s Tower, the Bosphorus, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia.

He painted for twelve to fourteen hours a day, leaving the easel only to eat and sleep. Some dig tunnels under guard towers to escape from prison. Kilinc had found a measure of freedom right inside the prison walls.

While Kilinc was locked up, his older brother, Ilhan, was finding success as a painter in his own right. He had been featured in Turkish art catalogs, had established relationships in the Istanbul art community, and had become known for creating city scenes and still life pieces with a particular life-like feel.

In 2000, upon his release from prison, Kilinc began what became a ten-year apprenticeship under Ilhan in Istanbul. Kilinc explains the apprentice process, “It’s not so much that he taught me anything as I watched him, imitated him, and then slowly began to mix in my own ideas to my work. What I saw in my brother was how he could chain together the first brush stroke to the ten thousandth brush stroke and at the end have one whole, complete piece.”

Kilinc began by cleaning brushes and making tea. Six years later, he moved on to assisting his brother on the canvas. He would paint the rough color elements, a blue sky, a gray building, faceless people. Ilhan would take over from there. Despite the hours he put in, Kilinc says that his brother didn’t pay him a cent from the sale of the paintings. The shafting became a sticking point that threatened to rip the brothers apart.

Also at issue were their competing visions. Ilhan did mainly landscapes. Kilinc excelled at portraits and wanted to experiment with surrealism and mixed media. In 2010, the two separated. Kilinc moved into his own studio, a small space in Kadikoy with a glass front and lots of natural light. Kilinc says he doesn’t lose sleep over his strained relationship with his brother. He says the only thing that he frets over these days is the tension between selling what he creates versus creating what sells.

The most gripping piece in his shop is a two-by-three foot oil painting of a five-year-old girl with torn clothes and terrified eyes. In the foreground is a Kalashnikov rifle and a soldier’s camouflaged leg. It is a haunting juxtaposition, conjured, perhaps, from Kilinc’s years in the military. No one has made an offer on the painting, or on Kilinc’s other large oil, of a street beggar holding an infant.

“You are always going to offend someone,” Kilinc, a Muslim, says of his work. “If I display Jesus, the Islamists get mad, if Ataturk, the leftists get annoyed, if Che Guevara, the nationalists are upset.” Paintings of all three men hang inside the studio.

But Kilinc’s bread and butter are Istanbul scenes and personalized portraits. During a two-hour chat over tea, Kilinc was interrupted three times by young patrons, all recent high school graduates studying at a nearby tutoring center for a college-entrance exam, all holding out snapshots of their girlfriends for Kilinc to render in paint.

Like the aspiring novelist who bangs out jacket copy and book reviews, Kilinc takes on these quick-hit commissions, begrudgingly, to pay the bills. In the future he envisions moving into a larger studio, a place large enough to offer classes to local kids, perhaps a place in Acibadem or Kosuyolu, “where,” he says, “people appreciate and can afford art.”

But when he starts to grow discontented, he need only remind himself of that violent day in Cerrapasa, of the prison sentence in Edirne, of the dull years spent slogging away alongside his brother. It is good, after all, even when things could be better, to be free and healthy and living in the big city with your fingers dirty from doing the work you were born to do.