Beliz Iristay finds that in America, ‘the artist part of me has really flourished’

Beliz Iristay, who was born in Turkey and lives in Paradise Hills says: “Being able to make art in the U.S. has given me a lot of freedom to work with political commentary. The artist part of me really flourished in the United States.”
(Howard Lipin / The San Diego-Union-Tribune)

First it was work and then it was love that drew Beliz Iristay to San Diego. The Turkish native now calls Paradise Hills as well as Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico, home and has found the support to become an artist who feels free to question traditional religious and cultural assumptions as well as politics.

“Being able to make art in the U.S. has given me a lot of freedom to work with political commentary,” she said. “The artist part of me really flourished in the United States.”

Iristay, 39, came to San Diego 15 years ago to work on a project for Glass Furnace, a glass-blowing school in Istanbul, where she was a mold maker. Mexican-American glass artist Jamex de la Torre was also on the project. He is now her husband, and they have established a cross-border lifestyle that appeals to Iristay’s sensibilities.

“I like to live on both sides of the border,” Iristay said. “The diversity is amazing — so many colorful and different people, which is important to me.”

Iristay was born in the cosmopolitan city of Izmir, Turkey, on the Aegean Sea, where religious diversity was the norm.

“I had a great childhood. It was a secular, modern country, and I enjoyed daily life without much stress,” she said. “Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together.”

That is how she likes to remember her homeland, where her mother and sister still live. Things began to change right around the time she left with the rise of Islamic conservatism.

Iristay always knew she wanted to be an artist. Her now-deceased father owned a cardboard paper production company but was always an artist at heart.

“He had to quit the university. He had to become a businessman. That’s what his family expected,” she said. Being an artist “was always a dream for him — a dream that couldn’t come true.”

She had the full support of her family to attend the Dokuz Eylul Fine Art University in Izmir, where she studied ceramics, learning ancient techniques and designs and modernizing them.

One of her latest projects is making adobe bricks and decorating them with traditional Turkish designs in cobalt blue, a color used for centuries on Turkish tiles. The bricks, she said, are a manifestation of her home countries because they are created using Mexican soil and adobe techniques, adorned with Turkish motifs and displayed in the United States. They will be part of “Being Here With You /Estando aqui contigo,” an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Her social and political commentary covers all her countries. After the failed military coup of 2016 in Turkey, Iristay designed 55 rehals (the x-shaped bookrests for the Quran) and filled them with small minarets. Titled “Oku | Read,” the rehals are covered with military cards used by soldiers to keep track of their service days. The translucent cast-resin minarets are in jumbled disarray. The piece, part of the San Diego Art Institute’s exhibition “Beyond the Age of Reason,” warns of ignorance.

While a lot of her recent work is mixed media incorporating recycled items, ceramics is still Iristay’s main medium of expression. It’s a link to her native country and, at times, hands-on therapy.

“Clay has given me the opportunity to cope with emotions and experiences,” Iristay said. “The medium works with you, not against you.”

Iristay turned to tactile comfort of clay when she was homesick.

“Sometimes being an immigrant is not easy in emotional ways,” she said. “Often little things added up to bigger frustrations.” Little things such as learning how to fill a gas tank and getting used to people entering homes with their shoes on and eating with their fingers. “We even use knives and forks with pizza,” she said.

Her studio home in Valle de Guadalupe, where she teaches ceramic workshops, has been the anchor she needed to feel comfortable.

“When I go from the United States to Mexico, I feel like I’m entering my own country (Turkey). There are so many similarities. It gives me the emotional connection,” she said.

Iristay said her “cultural heart now has three sectors. I think all immigrants wrestle with identity. It is largely what my work is about. We learn to live as neither, or we learn to embrace our circumstances.”

“Beyond the Age of Reason”

When: Through Oct. 31

Where: San Diego Art Institute, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park.

Tickets: $3-$5 general admission

Phone: (619) 236- 0011


“Being Here With You /Estando aqui contigo”

When: Sept. 20 to Feb. 3

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 1100 Kettner Blvd., downtown.

Tickets: $5-$10

Phone: (858) 454-3541


Schimitschek is a freelance writer.