Great art can come from many unexpected sources. In the case of international artist, Gültekin Bilge, the evolution of this most extraordinary artist came from Turkish Cyprus by way of Scotland. His is the story of an artist who has overcome immense odds. During a difficult childhood he came to see the beauty of nature and has since miraculously transformed things he saw, sometimes which only he could see, into creations of amazing richness, depth and color.
Bilge was born in a small village in Cyprus. Initially he had an idyllic life, working on the family farm and enjoying the nature that surrounded the area. The family had plenty of fresh organic food and a very clean, comfortable home, but the village life offered only limited educational opportunities.
There was also the looming specter of discrimination from the Greeks, who controlled much of the island. The Turks were an ethnic minority, regularly subjected to bigotry and discrimination and the target of ethnic cleansing by Greek extremists. In spite of the loving family, the fifties and sixties were disturbing times to be growing up as a Turk on the island of Cyprus.
“I remember I went with my grandmother to a Greek village to sell some vegetables – I was only a small kid maybe five years old and boys threw stones at us and called us ‘Turkish Dogs’,” Bilge says. “None of the adults stopped them from doing this. I was very upset for my grandmother, as she was a very good, kind, decent woman. These are memories I don’t like. I was most happy and free in nature on our land and around the village but I didn’t like the feeling of being frightened to go to swim in the sea in case we were attacked for being Turkish.”
It was nature that was to provide salvation for the young Bilge. As a child of five he remembers retreating into the forests and exploring the countryside, and seeing things that were quite astonishing, images and faces that appeared to him in the trees, rocks and water. His early artistic instincts led him to start drawing things in the mud with a stick and the images of donkeys and birds with a small knife in the limestone rocks that he found by the streams. “Those faces were important to me,” Bilge says. “I was always looking around, at the rocks and trees and all of the beauty in nature. As a very young child, up until now, I would always see many faces around me everywhere in nature. And I would sometimes say to my friends, ‘Look at those faces,’ and they couldn’t see it. In nature these things are not very obvious.” His genius started to come to the surface. He started seeing the world in a way that nobody else does.
The more Bilge reflected on those faces in nature, the more he came to understand that the concealment effect present in nature, was also something that could be seen in human behavior. This realization was very formative in helping him develop as an artist. The more he really looked at things he realized that what was seen on the surface was not necessarily the underlying truth. “This concept of concealment applies to everything,” he says. “We meet people and talk to them, but we really don’t know what they’re feeling or what they’re thinking. And I tried to bring that idea to my paintings. I try to express in my paintings that there is much more going on than the eye can see at first. With our dulled perceptions we are not attuned to experiencing something on a deeper, more emotional level, to resonate with the things around us, to get to the true feeling that exists in someone or something.”
Bilge explains, “In my art philosophy I join these two ideas. I take the hidden faces in nature as a metaphor for the way humans hide many things in personal and political relationships. So I hide many portraits deep inside the colors and textures in my artworks to symbolize this concealment.”
Gültekin is the artist who has the will to bring the unimaginable into existence. He is teaching about a deeper side of humanity and that is analyzed now even in quantum physics. Where Einstein left it off saying, “it is too spooky” today scientists know more and more and we are getting answers. But, Gültekin translates the music of the invisible wind, the calling of a landscape that talks simply by its being. And, that is really all to life: being. Most of us do not notice this, as being cannot be explained. It can only be felt by the heart! Bilge brings you to that far away, deep down “feeling” inside that we seldom discover until we see his work. His work heals, but it also takes you to a dimension where you realize: life is complete and deep and a lot more than we see in our whirlwind lifestyle. He is asking us to slow down to see what really is ours. His work is life transforming!
Eventually the young Bilge got encouragement as an artist, as his art teacher encouraged him to draw and paint more seriously. He had no money to buy paints so he had to try to make his own paints by mixing olive oil with shoe polish and any paint he could borrow from his friends. “I kept experimenting with anything I could get my hands on,” he says. I started to dream that I could become an artist.” And, THAT way of thinking and mentality is the difference between someone who is enormously successful out of nothing and those who believe the “cannot” approach! The biggest names in the world all have this in common. Bilge was determined.
That habit of experimenting stayed with Bilge all through his academic studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul, where he received his M.A. in 1972 and studied under Devrim Erbil and Ali Çelebi before graduating from the atelier of Dinçer Erimez. After completing his formal studies, learning all the techniques involved in serious painting, Bilge began to search for a style that would help express the images that he saw in his head and in nature.
“First of all I was trying to make paintings in the Turkish style, with the sgraffito technique. After a couple of years working in that style I decided to do something different, and tried other styles for another year, but it wasn’t artistically satisfying and I began to look for something that would be more international in its appeal, something very new.”
In 1974, Bilge experienced the worst thing that could happen to an artist, when his hand was wounded during an ethnic conflict and he lost the use of it. The hand was so badly damaged that surgeons wanted to amputate, but when they found out that Bilge was an artist they worked to save it. His hand was eventually saved after many months of surgery, skin grafts and physiotherapy. However fine motor skills were lost and he entered a thirty-year period of being unable to paint. But, his spirit never gave into this debilitating enemy.
From 1975 until 2005 Bilge worked as an art teacher and also taught photography, pantomime, theatre and folk music. Despite the frustrations associated with his injury he continued to maintain his artistic vision. He worked for many years to rebuild his drawing and painting skills. At the same time he researched different art forms and investigated alternative methods of expression. Over this long period of artistic frustration he never gave up until eventually he began painting again full time beginning in 2005. Bilge is not only inspiring us to do the impossible, but he himself has become the impossible. And, THAT is the inevitable sign of a genius.
During the years that he was unable to work Bilge’s imagination was working overtime and the thirty years of imagery that he was now free to express has come to life! He had seen inspiration in everything, and told people that he had a thousand paintings in his head and had finally found a way to express his art again. This once in a lifetime artist not only understands life, but just by his story he inspires all those who would otherwise give up. What a gift to the World!
Making up for lost time, Bilge worked at a furious pace, resulting in a very productive period between the years 2006 – 2011. He restlessly explored different forms and developed new techniques and became increasingly satisfied that he was able to express his ideas and feelings in the work he has produced. Most importantly yet, he gifts all of us who do not have the natural talent and ability to really see the World and its immeasurable beauty.
In 2006, his paintings again explored forms and motifs that were typical of a Turkish style and he experimented with ways to adapt them into oil painting using the sgraffito technique. These forms, which he now calls “Turkish Weave,” began to emerge in late 2006-7 and are predominant in the paintings produced in 2008, most notably the Cyprus Time Bomb series.
Late in 2008, Bilge tentatively began playing with the boundaries of the images to break free from the convention of working within a rectangular frame. During 2009 he also experimented with trying to use the Turkish Whirling technique in acrylics and mixed media. The paintings in the Joy of Discovery Series (2009) are the outputs from this period of using the sgraffito and whirling techniques to produce a series of images that play with form, color, and texture. He also began to use a ripple texture in his work that gives the appearance of a ceramic finish.
“One day, in Cyprus I saw a tree that had been cut in rounds and I looked at the wood and it seemed like a painting. And I said to myself ‘I found it,’ as I saw that I could make paintings on wood. So I asked friends to find a good piece of cedar wood. I finally got a tree trunk, had it cut it into sections, aged and dried it for a year and then began a series of woodcarvings. I wanted to change the rules of exhibition by breaking free from rectangular frames. This was a major transition in my art, a transformation of the way I was working.”
In 2011 Bilge’s ideas of playing with boundaries led to the creation of the Carved Wood series. In these pieces the wood is carved into imaginative shapes before being painted. Many of them consist of two or three pieces, so the composition is multilevel, paintings within paintings. In 2011 he was searching for a new texture when he discovered that he could use cedar resin combined with oil paint to achieve the effect he was searching for in order to refine the “Dissolve” technique, which is predominant in the 2011 Carved Wood series.
Bilge met his partner and manager Anne McCann in Cyprus. She was inspired by his paintings and together they decided to move to Scotland, where Anne lived, in order to get his work appreciated by a wider audience.
“After the ethnic war, Cyprus was split in two, and the Turkish population didn’t have full human rights,” Anne says. “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus had been under embargoes, but as a Cypriot citizen, Gültekin was entitled to a European passport, and I knew once he moved out of Cyprus that his work would be able to be seen by a much wider audience.”
The move to Scotland transformed Bilge’s perspective and also his art. “The transformation began and I conducted my artistic exploration of three concepts – revolution, evolution and metamorphosis,” he says. These principals are proven in Quantum Physics today. But Bilge has always been ahead of his time. Yet again, the sign of a genius! “I could now see that everything we do is creative in life. We have so many thoughts and emotions in one day that are like the shadings in a painting. Everything is about change and now I am working on a very big scale, sometimes paintings 3 meters in size, and also using different materials, like many kinds of woods, sometimes old wood louver window covers that have been discarded and then I create what I call and assemblage, a continuum of pieces that can be as many as twenty or thirty pieces. I think of the assemblage as a transformation, like fragments of people’s lives. If you look at the bits and pieces of people’s lives, it doesn’t make sense sometimes, but when you put it all together you can see it make sense in a larger way. When I talk about ‘transformation’ what I mean is being able to take fragments or pieces and putting them together so that they take on a new meaning.”
If only the public at large could see his work and hear him talk, their lives would change forever. Bilge is the first artist in our century that not only understands life without being a quantum physicist, but precisely due to that he is able to explain it in a way that is miraculous yet can be understood. He talks to people through his work. And, those who know that there is more to life than what we can see, touch and taste and practice every day are drawn to him because like attracts like. And, all of the above is happening on a cellular level, it is part of his body and he owns it. Others are stunned by his paintings. He is certainly a Picasso. His paintings are not only unique but he heals you with them.
Like the highly evolved creative artist he is, Gültekin Bilge is always a work in progress. True to his principles of Revolution, Evolution and Metamorphosis, he continues to develop his ability to express what he sees in the world, always exploring new ideas and transforming what he sees into beautifully complex works of art.
“Transformation, evolution, metamorphosis – that is what human beings are on earth to do. We are always in the process of creating the future,” he says. “We are always in the business of creating our lives.”
As he constantly works toward creating his future, the success and recognition that Bilge has received in Europe and many other countries for his imaginative vision is now carrying over into the Unites States. His goal, ultimately, is to be represented In MOMA and the world’s other great art museums.
“I make my paintings not for decoration, not to just be hung on walls,” Bilge says. “I am making my paintings for many people, to make the world more beautiful, to give new ideas to the world. As an artist your goal must be to get your work in places where the most people can see them, so they can enjoy them and see more deeply into the world, to think.” And, our Picasso is touching and transforming lives because he is a man who selflessly dedicated his life to speak to people in ways nobody has ever done. He heals, he makes you happy and laugh, he makes you mesmerized by his art, but most importantly he leaves you with questions thus touching you deep in your soul and inspiring you to feel as opposed to think. He dares you to look at our Universe and realize that we look at a gift every day! And, that is An Honorable Cause.