Community Engagement through the Mosaic Arts in Istanbul, Turkey

Working on the "Peace Mosaic" in Beykoz, Turkey


 Community Engagement through the Mosaic Arts

I was honored to be selected by the U.S. Department of State and Meridian International Center to be a cultural ambassador in Turkey through their Community Engagement through the Mural Arts Program. I specialize in community-based public art and work with communities to create mosaic murals and street art that have cultural significance and communicate messages of empowerment, awareness and social justice… while fostering well-being through creative expression. I travel often for my work and whenever I go to a new place I try to keep an open mind and heart to welcome in the new.  I had been to Turkey one time before, in 1992… so a really long time ago… and I was really excited about this project.

Before I left my studio in New Orleans, I was in communication with Meridian and the Consulate/ Embassy in Istanbul and Ankara for preplanning and discussions around the structure of the trip, project partners, locations and general info… all very helpful.IMG_3844IMG_3861I was to do the fist project in the municipality of Beykoz, on the outskirts of Istanbul, working with Turkish mosaic artist Suha Semerҫi on a mosaic mural on the front of one of the municipality buildings located in plaza with tons of foot traffic and visibility. A lot of marriages are performed in this building.. so it’s also a community destination.

Based on conversations with project stakeholders, I created a design draft that included a bridge (based on those that span the Bosphorus) as a symbol of bridging cultures and unity, and natural elements inspired by the decorative arts of Turkey. The wall was 40 feet long and angled from 6 feet to 2 feet in height. So we had a lot of space to cover. IMG_3864Suha and I work in a different styles and with different materials for large-scale projects, so the design included a combination of styles and materials, which was exciting. Suha was in charge of procuring supplies and materials and we communicated through Google translate and Facebook beforehand. (By the way… Google translate gets a C- for Turkish-English translation… they pretty much butcher things up. But we worked it out!)

I was really looking forward to working with a group of teenaged girls from a local vocational school who would participate in the project.
I was really looking forward to working with a group of teenaged girls from a local vocational school who would participate in the project.

When I landed in Turkey, I was met at the airport by Sevil Sezen, from the U.S. Consulate, who would be my point person while in Istanbul/Beykoz. Sevil is an amazing person and I am happy now to call her a friend. From the moment she met me upon arrival to saying goodbye at the end of my stay she was just a stellar point person and offered an incredible amount of support.  She met me at my hotel in the mornings and we took the ferry over the Bosphorus to Beykoz. I loved the ferry ride. It was a slow, fresh 20 minute ride to the Asian side and then a short walk along leafy streets to the site.

Day one included getting acclimated and visiting the project site, meeting Suha, checking out the materials and meeting project stakeholders at the municipality. Everyone was super nice and excited about the project. Suha was psyched to show me some of the special materials he had gotten for the mural, including blue glass Turkish eyes, some beautiful printed tile and ceramic and glass tiles. Suha is a very kind and mellow person who is dedicated to the mosaic arts and has organized many conferences and exhibitions in Turkey.

On the first official day of the project, the girls form the vocational school and a couple of their teachers arrived early. It was great to meet them and practice the four words I know in Turkish. They all have apps on their phones for selfies that somehow took ten years off me so I was all for them. More selfies! The girls were shy at first and over the course of the ten-day project they warmed way up… it was a great group. Lots of good energy.

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We had a big press event the first morning with a welcome breakfast with all the girls and the Assistant Mayor and people from the municipality and the U.S. Consulate. I met Adrienne Bory, Cultural Affairs Officer from the Consulate, who was heavily involved in the planning of the project and was also a huge support, super cool person and now mosaic addict. Adrienne went out of her way to make me feel comfortable, welcome and supported.


After the cameras and interviews we got into the studio (empty large office the municipality offered) to get started! I showed images of my work and talked about life as a professional woman artist… it was a good girl’s empowerment session. Suha talked about art school and the importance of pressing forward. It was a good launch into the project and a way to get to know one another and give some context to our project. I brought to-scale patterns that I had enlarged in my own studio to work from and we got all set up. Suha and I worked with the girls, each showing our techniques for cutting and arranging pieces of tile and glass. It was great to see the gals breaking tile and getting into it. Everyone loosened up and we shared tea and laughter and support. It was a great atmosphere.


We worked long days over the course of the week to create the giant flower forms using tile tape, an off-site creation method I often use for large projects and detailed areas. Suha’s and my styles combined in the more detailed radial mandala-like forms and we worked together to select colors and areas for different materials and styles.

Mandala based on Turkish designs with modern color collaboration by Suha and me.

I could see the girls’ mosaic setting skills improving by the day and I have to hand it to them, they really stuck it out. I am used to working long hours, but the girls were tired by the end of the day!

The number of participants, with teachers, visitors and the girls from two schools was swelling to numbers that got a bit too high for our space and level of complexity, so two great things happened:

  1. We divided the girls and teachers into groups for AM/PM shifts so everybody got a chance to participate
  2. My former student, colleague and fellow mosaic artist Ozgur Ozer joined us on the project as a co-facilitator and proved to be a great role model for the girls. Ozgur has a mosaic studio in Istanbul and she even recruited her adult students to come and help us during the installation part of the project.

Ozgur’s energy is infallible and infectious and she added greatly to the project.

The ceramic teacher from the vocational school, Emine, was working with us every day and was so committed to the project, along with community organizer Salva.

Salva brought the most amazing dessert she made one day. It was insane… it involved Nutella.

Speaking of food, the municipality provided lunch every day for the entire gang every day at a huge long table on the top floor of the building. Sevil was full-on coordinating everything all the time. She’s awesome.


When all of the design elements were complete, we began the installation onto the wall. I had worked with a small team of girls to transfer the entire design onto the wall using a combination grid technique and templates. Ozgur and I worked on the bridge using small strips of black tile that Suha cut and mirror strips (gotta have the mirror).

IMG_4150After about 5 days of working inside we moved into Phase Two: Installation and on-site mosaic setting for the background! The more public part of the project.

It was so great to be outside working with the team and everyone walking by. So many people… hundreds… every day… and people saying things like “blessings to your hands” and wonderful stuff like that. It seemed that everyone loved the mural and watching it develop. Beykoz is a mixed community of traditional and modern. People from all walks of life, young and old were complementing us and saying how beautiful the mural was.

The girls were really proud. And people were proud to see the girls working on the project.

I could tell that the mosaic technique was really clicking in in a big way for some of the girls.

They all did a great job. At the end of the project I asked for a show of hands of how many of the girls (and adults!) thought they would continue to work in mosaics… and every hand shot up into the air. Nice.

After everyone left the mural site at the end of the day Ozgur and I stayed until dark almost every night, working side by side to finish certain areas, make adjustments, clean up, etc… We were so in tune, like sisters.

One evening a man came up to us and his reaction to the mural included this:

”All we need is peace and happiness and beauty. This country needs more women like you.”


After work Ozgur took me to open air markets, bakeries and small restaurant stands that served fresh-caught fish served on newspaper with a pile of arugula and a pile of onions. Bosphorus street food tastes pretty darned good at the end of a long, hard, hot 12-hour day :)

On our final weekend, we had a big push to finish and grout in time for the big dedication celebration that Beykoz municipality organized.
On our final weekend, we had a big push to finish and grout in time for the big dedication celebration that the Beykoz municipality organized.

I can’t say enough about the effort and energy they put into the mural finale and dedication. What an event!  The man who sells simits (Turkish bagels) on the plaza wore a suit. (Ozgur and Suha and I added some mosaic decorations to his simit cart during the project), all the girls wore their project t-shirts and we got spiffed up.


The municipality really did it up. There was band of traditional Turkish musicians, tents,  flags, the mayor and U.S. Consul General came, lots of press, everyone who worked on the mural. All the girls and teachers and the principals from the schools, Adrienne, Sevil, lots of community members from Beykoz, plus all the people walking by stopping. It was very well attended and super fun. They characterized the project as the “Peace Mosaic” on a huge banner above the mural.


Suha spoke, I spoke, one of the girls spoke, the U.S. Consul General and Mayor of Beykoz and other project stakeholders spoke. Suha and I were presented with lovely gifts and swag. Lots hand shakes and hugs. We did a formal ribbon cutting and there was a confetti machine! It was over the top… a really special ending to a wonderful, heartfelt project.

It was one of the most special community projects I have ever worked on.


Other highlights of a magical week included a four-hour boat ride on the Bosphorus with Adrienne and a group of her international friends, a family dinner at Ozgur’s and a whirlwind tour of the spice market, the “New” Mosque (built circa 1500) and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul on the way to the airport.

All in all, it was an intense, amazing experience I will never forget. A huge undertaking with a great process, a great team and a great result.


So many thanks to everyone involved!


I was sad to leave. But also looking forward to chapter two and another project in Ankara… more on that in the next installment…