An artist's journey from transparent oil paint to transparent faith

by Ryan Heslinga

For painter Meltem Aktas, a religious painting becomes an icon "if you are sitting down and praying with it." This is a reflection of Aktas' varied approach to creating artworks of faith. She has used such varied styles as traditional icons and the retablos of Mexico. St. Crescent, like most of her retablos, is her own design. A friend told Aktas the story of St. Crescent's church in Galesburg, Illinois. the body of St. Crescent, originally buried in Italy, was moved, to Galesburg, which had been known for its destructive tornadoes.

There have been no tornadoes since the saint's body came to town. The painting playfully shows St. Crescent protecting his church and Galesburg, symbolized by the palm tree, from a tornado.

This is an odd subject and style if you consider Meltem Aktas' beginnings. She grew up in a Muslim family on the Syrian border of Turkey. However, in the evenings, from her balcony, she would stare into the Orthodox monastery next door and watch the monks meditate. Later, in high school, she would sneak into the church to light candles; it was here that she had her first exposure to icons.

After earning her master's degree in Istanbul, she came to the United States to study at the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1980's. It was in the United States that she finally had the opportunity to convert to Christianity.

Aktas' favored medium is transparent oils. She feel s comfortable using oil paints because they can be manipulated for hours since they dry so slowly. The use of transparent oil paint sometimes requires up to fifty or sixty layers of pait per artwork. The light reflects through each translucent layer as if it were stained glass. This technique causes the intense colors of her paintings to be breathtaking.

Crucified Image

Crucifixion (p. 58) was Aktas' first painting on the subject of the crucifixion. She wanted to present a unique, contemporary perception similar to Salvador Dali's reinterpretation of the crucifixion. Aktas decided to portray a naked Christ in acknowledgment that the Romans traditionally stripped their victims to further humiliate them. Aktas wanted to faithfully depict the torment that Christ suffered on our behalf. Surprisingly, this controversial presentation has received almost no negative feedback, Aktas said. Presentations of a naked Christ are not without precedent. Even Michelangelo painted one.

Aktas also wanted to focus on the dual nature of Christ's death: the sorrow of the crucifixion and the joy of the resurrection. So she painted Christ with an ambiguous facial expression. He can be seen as caught in the pain of the crucifixion or the ecstasy of His resurrection.

In imitation of traditional icons, Aktas did not sign Crucifixion. Instead, borrowing a technique from the Flemish painters she also admires, she painted herself into the background. Aktas can be seen lamenting in a building resembling the Hagia Sophia, in the lower right. Aktas notes that the Hagia Sophia is a holy place for both Islam and the Orthodox Church. The rest of the background is based on her childhood town, Mardin.

Blessed Mary and Son

Pieta was originally created to be a personal, devotional painting. Aktas wanted to explore mary's reaction to Christ's death, to examine the attachment of mother and Son in this context of grief and glory. Once again, Aktas acknowledges the dual nature of Christ's death by painting on the back of the box a pomegranate tree which traditionally symbolizes life.

Aktas initially intended for Pieta to be just a personal piece that permanently remained in her own collection. However, Aktas recently lent the piece to a friend who broke down in tears after viewing it. The friend was so moved by the piece that she restarted a novel that she had abandoned ten years earlier. Aktas considers this ability to reach other people's hearts the purpose of art. As a painter, it causes her to remember that "something beyond yourself, as a person, is involved." This something else is God who has given us all the gift to relate to others, she elaborates.

Restoring the Old

Though she has been involved in restoration and iconography work for churches for many years, Meltem Aktas has recently formed her own company, Imago, with Joseph Malham, a friend whom she has worked with since 1995. "Imago" is Latin for "image."

She has spent the last two months restoring the Sacred heart Shrine, dating from the early 1930's, at St. Gregory the Great parish in Chicago, Illinois. This involved not just the restorationof the main image but the entire shrine, including all the woodwork and the surrounding pictures that portray angels holding symbols of the Crucifixion.

Any church restoration is an arduous task. First, Aktas must chemically test the paint to discover what cleaning solution would work best to remove the protective varnish that has become darkened from years of grime and candle smoke. Then, she must slowly remove the varnish and painstakingly clean the painting. Next, she repaints the entire surface. Any faded portion must be reconstructed, requiring Aktas to carefully match the original's style and technique. Lastly, the gold leaf is added.

As a woman, during this restoration, Aktas had to face more than just the physical challenges. Many of the older attendees of the church, on Sunday mornings, would unwittingly congratulate Joseph on the restoration work, assuming that he was in charge.

Though church restoration differs significantly from her own work, Aktas reports feeling a similar emotional loss when she finished. After finishing the Sacred Heart Shrine, she felt at one with the piece, which was particularly resonant for her due to the special connection she feels to painting Christ's face.

Meltem Aktas may be reached at 2003 W. Estes Street, Chicago, IL 60645. Phone (773) 274-7490.

Christianity and the Arts
August, 2001 Vol. 8, No. 3

© 2001 Christianity and the Arts
Reproduced with permission

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