Istanbul-based glass artist Feleksan Onar is a multi-dimensional storyteller who chooses to work with media as fragile as the ideas she shares through them. Giving her works new depth through research, she embraces the challenge of her long-term artistic goals.
“Everyone thinks that to make glass simply means to blow it, and that’s it,” glass artist Felekşan Onar said during The Guide Istanbul’s first visit at the glass coldworking workshop in Beykoz, where her designs are brought to life. She isn’t far from the truth: on the way to meet her it briefly crosses my mind that perhaps glassmaking could at some point become a new fashionable Istanbul pastime, such as ceramics or plant design, and we would be the first ones to say it. A quick look around the workshop is enough to understand that this could never be the case. In order to turn glassmaking into a realistic pastime, one would have to be in love with the process, just like Onar herself, and accept the meticulousness, capriciousness, and infinite number of failures that come with it.
The glamourous works at her Fy-shan studio, and artistic projects signed with Onar’s name, come to life in between two workshops that operate on two opposite sides of the heat spectrum. In one location, the hot pot heats up a blend of sand, silica, and lead to 1250 degrees Celsius in order for the glass to be shaped, which can be done in different ways, with the most common being blowing into a mold. An annealing furnace, which is a highly controlled environment, slowly brings down the glass to room temperature, and—depending on the type of project—the process can take even up to a few days. “If the glass cools down too quickly, it breaks,” Onar explains as we try to take a photo for the split second the furnace’s door remains open. There are no corrections at this point, only do-overs. If we let the cold air into the furnace, a week’s worth of work will go to waste.
Strength in community
By the time the pieces are out of the annealing furnace, we’re still not entirely sure of how the final product will look. The coldworking workshop is where the finishing touches take place, and Onar openly admits that Ruhcan Topaloğlu, who runs the place and with whom she’s been working for 15 years, is a key element in her glassmaking puzzle. He knows everything there is to know about cutting, polishing, making patterns or texture on the glass. A former production manager at Paşabahçe factory, back in the days when it was still based in Istanbul, Topaloğlu made his first tea glass when he was only 12 years old. “Today, no parent wants their kid to work in a workshop like this one,” Topaloğlu told The Guide Istanbul. “Everyone wants their children to be educated.” This major shift is clearly visible inside his atelier, where the next generation of Istanbul’s glassmakers are all university students and graduates.
Even though it’s been almost three decades since the Paşabahçe factory moved from Beykoz to Denizli, the infrastructure necessary to keep the craft alive still exists in the neighborhood today. “Many former workers who didn’t move in the 1990s still live here and have the necessary skills to produce,” Onar said, adding that such a decision is rather controversial: “Glassmaking is a memory passed on from generation to generation, requiring an extended lifetime to master. An abrupt decision like this erases this memory.” Emphasizing the importance of community in the glassmaking process, she believes in the capabilities of local human resources. “They are scattered, but I’m in the position to gather them around. And when you devote the time, there is no limit [in creativity],” she said.
Seemingly attached to the process in an emotional way, on the one hand, Onar is also very realistic about it on the other. “It’s not easy when you work towards something that seems a success at first, and then put it with all your efforts into the annealing oven just to take it out broken,” she said. Unlike in commercial production, in artisanal work there is a struggle every step of the way. To make a colored glass piece, like those that Onar is best known for, one needs a dense color rod—a raw material that serves as a base for all items in the series. Before it’s melted in a furnace, it’s being cut to a few millimeter thin pieces—their thickness is directly tied to the intensity of the final color, and if there is any mistake in the initial cutting, one might end up with a set that doesn’t match. Following Topaloğlu into the room where he does the cutting himself, I’m expecting to find a microscope and a work environment where everyone holds their breath. Instead, I see a pair of very steady hands working with sharp objects so precisely I begin to doubt the power of automation that one day might be replacing them.
Seeing such passion among people working together, I can’t help but wonder how does one become interested in this line of work. Onar thinks about the answer for a second and says: “To me it was always something captivating.” She recalls the first time playing with painting glass in high school, and then continuing in her free time between study sessions, dedicating herself to it to the point that her mother suggested she apply to a fine art school. Having envisioned a different professional path for herself, Onar dismissed the idea, focusing on business instead. Cultivating her soft spot for glass artworks, admiring them, collecting, and drawing in her free time, she has never really made a detailed plan for that to become her new professional path. But as the old saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear, and for Onar, things started to fall into place at the first fusion glass workshop she began to attend in 2003.
“From my business experience I knew that what you draw needs to make production sense,” Onar said. “So my motive [behind joining the class] was a very industrial one: if I wanted my product to come alive, I needed to understand the production process.” Facing many variables on the path from a design drawing to the final piece, there was no way to learn other than hands-on. So, within a month, Onar decided to buy her own kiln and set it up in her garage. “First, I learned fusing and casting,” she says, recalling having a different teacher for each technique. “Artisanal works never come to life using just one technique, and there are not many places which can help with all techniques at the same time,” she said.
Founding the glass furnace in Riva in 2004 added another dimension to Onar’s artistic scope, where she began experimenting with glass blown into a mold, followed by the challenge of translating her creative vision into an actual product. “You might require a special mold to blow into, but the craftsman who makes it can’t imagine what you’re trying to achieve,” she says, recalling an example from many years back. The only solution back then was to reverse the process. “We blew and cut a piece of glass to make it look like it was blown from a mold, and then made a mold out of that,” Onar explains, admitting that this type of work is only possible with the best people.
Finding her calling
Today, Onar fulfills her calling not only as an artist, but also as the industry’s ambassador, ensuring that the historic ties between people—made of fragile material, after all—are kept alive. Creating glassmaking memories of her own through historic research and a detailed record of her own current activities, she participated in Venice Glass Week, where she had the opportunity to put her research into a broader context. Exploring ties between the Ottoman Empire and the Venetian Republic, home to the world’s most reputable glassmakers from Murano, she investigated a story that included a personal aspect through her 14th great grandfather, the Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmet Paşa, who fought against the Venetians. His wife Esmehan Sultan, the daughter of Sultan Selim II, commissioned renowned Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan to build a mosque in her husband’s name while he was away, placing an order for 900 oil lamps from Murano, despite the inconvenient political situation. “What I’m trying to say through this story is that beauty has a great impact on people, even if they’re enemies,” Onar explained. “If someone is affected by beauty made by another person, they will want to be around it no matter what,” she said. The story, where glassmaking serves as a bridge between people, gave birth to the idea of 41 glass bridges, presented by Onar within the scope of the “Istanbul-Murano. A Glassmaking Journey” conference.
Although technically able to do all of her work in Istanbul, Onar chose to travel to Berlin to work on her “Perched” project—a series of mold-blown wingless swallows telling a story of refugees in the world, including the ones in her home country—brought to Turkey from Syria, yet unable to spread their wings and fly. “I wanted to do this project in Berlin because it’s a city with a long history of refugees and migrants, especially the ones from Turkey,” Onar explained. “The owner of the studio I was working with called the Pergamon Museum about it, and it turned out they were interested,” she said. The birds were exhibited in the museum’s Aleppo Room, a selamlik-type restored space that used to belong to a European merchant in Aleppo, and then at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London during Refugee Week, where Onar had the chance to meet Louis De Bernieres, author of the book “Birds Without Wings” that inspired the artwork.
Having been incredibly busy over the past two years, Onar finally sees her own work as a part of a larger master plan. “Now that I have all of this in my bag, I want to become a catalyst that puts Istanbul back in the glass art scene,” she says. “My narrative has become very clear to me recently. I’m a person with a mission through art, and I found the media through which I can do it. Fy-shan studio is a commercial storefront, which funds the artistic projects I want to continue. I have a five year plan and that’s how I work on it.”
Learning the craft
Although interest in the craft of glassmaking has faded over the last few decades, newly opened glasswork departments at various universities around Turkey are attracting craftsmen of the next generation. Through grants that nurture the professional development of the best students, Felekşan Onar supports future glassmakers at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul. “Seeing them at work I realized that my fears [about the profession disappearing] are no longer valid. They are building up memory in the young generation,” she said.
This article was originally published in The Guide Istanbul (January/February 2020) with photos by Merve Göral.