The Second Life of Leaves

We opened up a box in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, and out came a potpourri of leaves, vibrant with Nick Merdenyan’s calligraphy and illuminations.

Books are not just for reading. Sometimes they are our best friends, sharing our longings. Photos of loved ones—mother, father, sister, brother, sweetheart—are placed with care between their pages, which are opened again when we miss them. After a day or two in the vase, flowers too are entrusted to an eternal resting place, pressed between the pages of a book, where they begin a second life. Sometimes a page can be a bed where a flower drifts off to sleep. Until the book is opened again, perhaps years later.
Nick Merdenyan too placed two leaves of a plant he particularly liked between the pages of a book. The plant had been a gift to him on the baptism of his son. He was not in the habit of pressing leaves in books. He just had a hankering to do it and randomly stuck the leaves between the pages of a book in his library. Then he forgot all about it. After a considerable length of time had passed, one day he needed to look something up. His hand reached for the shelf, for that book. Thumbing through its pages, he came upon the two leaves, like silk, and and was filled with an inexplicable thrill of excitement. The faded leaves stirred something inside him. Realizing the reason for his excitement shortly afterwards, Nick Merdenyan did something no one else had ever done. Pouring out the shapes, designs and messages he created in his head onto leaves using the arts of calligraphy and manuscript illumination, he would enter the homes of people around the world.

TOLERANCE, LOVE, PEACE

But let us hear the rest of the story from its main character, Nick Merdenyan, a merchant in the Jewelry Market (Cevahir Bedesten) of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar since 1968. “I couldn’t stop wondering what could be done with those dried leaves. I wondered whether or not they could be used for calligraphy. I shared my idea with a friend of mine, a master calligrapher, who used to come to my neighbor’s shop. Like me, he was very enthusiastic. Soon he came back with the leaves. He had inscribed Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s ‘tughra’ on one of them and on the other Yunus Emre’s famous words ‘Love him who loves you’ in Kufic script. An American couple happened to come into my shop the same day. ‘We’re looking for things with calligraphy on them,’ they said, ‘Where can we find some?’ So I showed them the leaf with the tughra. I’ll never forget the look of excitement on the woman’s face. I sold them the leaf, and that’s how it all began.”
Today Nick Merdenyan practices this art, which he undertook some ten years ago, as a profession, inventing myriad designs that employ a thousand and one variations on the arts of calligraphy and illumination. His designs are then conveyed to leaves by the skilled hands of Hülya Kalaycı and Ebru Yalkın, both graduates of the Ceramics Department of Mimar Sinan University of the Fine Arts.
“Islam is the richest culture for calligraphy,” says Merdenyan, whose first designs were inspired by Islamic subjects. “But eventually we began using themes from Judaism and Christianity as well.” Tolerance, love and peace are the most prominent themes that appear on the leaves designed by Merdenyan, who emphasizes that he uses pleasant expressions that would appeal to anyone, whatever their religion: “One very nice one, for example, is ‘Bu da geçer yahu’ (This too will pass). We used it on one of our leaves. Not long ago I discovered another one that I like very much, ‘Gel keyfim gel’ (How sweet it is), which I would like to see on a leaf as soon as possible.” Merdenyan also makes designs to order, for newlyweds, people with unusual hobbies, or parents of new babies. “Every year in the U.S. there is a big meet for motorcycle buffs called the Harley Run, and I even applied their emblem on a leaf and took it there.”
When asked about his source of inspiration, Merdenyan replies: “I’ve spent my entire life in the Grand Bazaar since 1968. In other words, surrounded by antiques and beautiful things. You’re influenced by a lot of things, of course. I also look through a lot of old books. Ideas just come to me that way.”

LEAVES ALL THE WAY FROM AMERICA

When you start drying leaves, they become deformed and in time even crack and crumble. But Merdenyan’s leaves are in perfect condition. Indeed, with the calligraphy and illumination that has been applied on them, they are like so many flawless tableaux. But this work cannot be done on every kind of leaf. Merdenyan explains that he uses the leaves of two plants in particular, dieffenbachia and caladium. Since these plants are not grown in Turkey, he first procured them from Holland. And when cultivation was discontinued there for economic reasons, Merdenyan started importing his leaves from greenhouses in Florida. “The advantage of the leaves of these plants is that they retain their elasticity even after they are dried. They are also very receptive to paint.” Explaining that they had big problems with paint when they started out, the artist says that they finally hit upon the correct technique after consulting some professors in the Fine Arts College of Mimar Sinan University. “A special mixture was derived by added various substances to the paint. In other words, our paint is custom-made for leaves.” When we asked how long leaves painted by this technique would last, his answer was prompt: “It’s been ten years now and I haven’t seen any deterioration. Since they are preserved under glass in frames, I hope they’ll last for hundreds of years. It will be a big shock for me if they don’t.”

A YEAR AND A HALF

One of the thorniest aspects of the work is the phase of drying the leaves. You’re going to be surprised but drying the leaves takes a year and a half! Merdenyan changes their ‘sleeping place’ at least twice a week for the duration. “I regard them as sleeping,” he tells us. “They fall asleep and a year and a half later they begin their second lives. If I don’t change their places, they can stick to the page.” Merdenyan, who manages to bring only 30 or 40 out of every hundred leaves to a second life, says that love is even more crucial than patience for this work. “Without love, there is no patience. The leaves have to occupy you every minute of your life, even in your dreams. I can’t think of anything else any more. The people around me keep telling me to ‘get a grip on’. But there is a positive energy in these leaves, and when I consider that that energy is going to enter tens, even hundreds, of homes, then I’m even happier. For me this is an exciting and pleasurable pastime...”

We leave Nick Merdenyan’s shop now. As we find our way out through a rainbow of sound and color, Orhan Veli’s poem rings in my ears: “Don’t turn up your nose at the Grand Bazaar / The Grand Bazaar is a closed box...”