A native of Sivas, Turkey, and a Muslim convert to the Catholic faith, Meltem Aktas works as a painter and iconographer in her studio, Imago, in Chicago.
Her works combine Turkish, Byzantine and medieval elements, and she has been commissioned for projects by Italy's San Giovanni Rotondo, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Washington, D.C.. She spoke with features correspondent Tim Drake.
Did you grow up in a devout Muslim home?
I have a liberal father and a religious mother. She prays her path of five times a day. She is neither fundamentalist nor conservative. Interestingly, when I was growing up the town where we lived bordered with Syria where there were a lot of Christians and our house was next to an orthodox monastery. I remember sitting on our balcony watching the orthodox monks meditating in their garden. All the while my mother was teaching me the Islamic prayers. I was being exposed to both worlds.
How did your conversion to the Catholic faith come about?
When I came to the United States, I had the opportunity to visit monasteries to study. It was natural as an artist to feel a calling to icons. I wanted to learn early painting and I picked an icon of St. Marina to copy in order to learn iconography. Painting the icon was a profound experience. St. Marina has a very interesting story and it was one that I could relate with. My conversion 14 years ago was a very personal calling. I felt called, and felt comfort in this form of religion, while respecting all religions.
While your icons bear some resemblance to traditional icons, they are unique. What do you hope to do with your art?
Yes, they are religious paintings, depicting religious subjects, but they do not look quite like traditional icons. They are meant to be prayed with. I studied both traditional icons and early Flemish painting. The Flemish paintings are amazing … so full of passion and poetry and expression. Their style has affected me. My own style is a combination of both.
I paint primarily for Catholic Churches. Icons typically come from an Eastern tradition and it used to be that only orthodox men could paint them. So, it is rare that I, as a female convert from Islam, am doing iconography. I try to follow the path of fasting and praying as I paint. The traditional icons have a look that is both serious and severe. You might have a baby that looks like an adult in a baby's body with a divine, serious look. In our time, we have much more of a nurturing conception of God. We want to be able to see holy people and a God that we can relate to. That is where my personal art enters. I try to convey that message of connection between the divine and human beings and the fact that the whole purpose of icons is not the image itself, but the image is a vehicle that takes you into a transcendent world. In my way of thinking, the more welcoming the image is, the more open we are to the divine world and the more it calls us to prayer.
Have you read Pope John Paul's letter artists? What was your reaction?
Yes, I have and I agree with what he is saying. I was happy to see his recognition that an artist plays a role in the spiritual world.
Fortunately, that is part of our job — to bring that spirit back that had been lost for so long. So much of our music and art and paintings started with Church art. Timeless, powerful pieces come from a spiritual source. When that union takes place, the work transforms to a universal language, and I think it goes beyond the individual artist. Years later, when the artist is long gone, something that they have created in love continues on. The work has a life of its own. That is why when you walk in front of Jewish, or Buddhist, or Christian art you are taken to a different place. You're much more drawn into it and you walk away with awe.
What are you working on at present?
I'm currently working on one of six large icons for St. Barnabas Church in Beverly, Illinois. The five-foot icon I am working on is of Elizabeth Ann Seton. I have a particular love of children and have enjoyed reading about her life and her devotion to children. Reading about her life has been quite inspiring and I look forward to painting the icon. The project is important to me because we feel it will be the first shrine dedicated solely to American saints. It will be completed and hanging in the Church in time for her feast day, Jan. 4.