It suits Mr. Onik Merdenyan just fine when people call him ‘The Lord of the Leaves of Tolerance’. He is an artist-craftsman with a small shop in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. His ‘leaves of tolerance’ are on display inside his shop and in his store window. These are dried dieffenbachia* leaves onto which he has engraved exquisite examples of calligraphic and illumination art. He has started doing this about 24 years ago when he found two of these leaves between the pages of a thick old encyclopedia where he had stashed them away to dry and then had forgotten. He was delighted with the smooth texture of the dried leaves and decided to use them as the base for his calligraphy and illumination work. In time his fame expanded and he started counting people like Hillary Clinton, Bill Gates and Barbara Bush among his customers who have visited his small shop and purchased his work.
‘Master’ Onik is a humble man, typical of similar artisans of the Grand Bazaar. He sweeps and washes the pavement in front of his store right after opening his shop early in the morning. Next, he orders a glass of clove scented tea from the nearby coffee shop. He is then ready for the day’s business. His shop, located in the ‘Ic Bedesten’ section of the Bazaar, measures 9 x 9 feet, barely accommodating a desk and four chairs.
Merdenyan was born in 1958 in the a small village of Asia Minor. He moved to Istanbul with his mom when he was six months old to be with his father who had found employment in the ‘big city’. His younger years alternated between living in his village with his grandparents and in Istanbul with his parents. He fondly remembers the times when his grandfather used to take him on rides on his motorbike with the name ‘Merdanyan’ engraved on it.
He started working as an apprentice in an antique shop in the Grand Bazaar when he turned 10. He would open the shop in the morning, get it ready for the day and later go and catch the first class at his school at noon. At 17, Onik became partners with a shop owner in the Bazaar who specialized in Meershaun pipes and hand crafted gift boxes. He got married and had a son. During the time he was selling pipes and boxes, he took courses in drawing miniatures and calligraphy. In 1991 he opened his own shop.
One day a relative brought him a dieffenbachia plant as a gift. Ho took an immediate liking to this plant with large green and white variegated leaves. Later, when the plant dropped two of its leaves, Onik could not bring himself to trash them but stuck them in between the pages of a thick encyclopedia to dry but forgot about them. Two years later, when he was flipping through the pages the two dried leaves dropped out. He was very impressed with the silky surfaces which he thought felt like wings of a butterfly.
STARTED OUT AS A HOBBY
That night he engraved the tugra of Sultan ‘the Magnificent’ Suleiman on one of the leaves. A tugra (or tughra) is a calligraphic monogram, seal or signature of a sultan that was affixed to all official documents and correspondence. On to the other leaf, he engraved ‘Love Him/Her Who Loves You’, a well-known saying by philosopher Yunus Emre. He then ornamented the edges of the leaves with the traditional art of illumination. He had them framed and hung them up in his shop for decoration. That is when his fortune took a turn. An American couple who came in to see the Meerschaum pipes noticed the framed leaves, asked to purchase them but Onik politely refused. When they left the store he remembers having regretting the fact that he did not agree to sell. To his luck, the couple returned later in that afternoon. This time Onik asked them how much they were planning to pay. The offer was tenfold of what he had thought he could get for the pieces. This time he did not miss his chance and sold the items and immediately decided to produce more.
Early next morning he was at the Flower Market in Eminonu and purchased most of the pots of dieffenbachia plants that he could find. He waited six months for the leaves to dry. On the first leaf that he worked on, he engraved three roses and in each rose he placed one of the symbols of the three major religions. He named the piece ‘The Meeting Point’. He saved his first work for himself and placed the next one in his store window. Interested buyers begun to come in and soon he started having difficulty in meeting the demand. The level of interest generated by The Meeting Point still puzzles Merdenyan. He says that is his most popular template, sought by his visitors coming from four corners of the world. He figures it symbolizes a common wish of the mankind. ‘It must be the universal desire to live in harmony and piece’ he says. His work soon started to attract fans from France, UK, Canada, Germany and the USA. Interviews with him appeared in many magazines with international readership. An article in a UK weekly coined the title ‘Lord of the Leaves’ to describe him.
He likes to narrate an anecdote about the early years of his rising fame. “One day a portly gentleman with long white beard walked into the store” he says. The visitor was an American and he bought one of his pieces. While chatting with Merdenyan the man noticed a photo of Nick on his grandfather’s motorbike. They soon got into a congenial discussion of motorcycles and choppers and the like. The customer turned out to be Philip Peterson, the iconic Harley Davidson dealer in Florida. He invited Merdenyan to the Harley Rendezvous Classic held annually in Pattersonville, NY. Onik glady accepted the invitation and attended the event. He befriended many bikers who started to call him ‘Nick’, which they preferred over the more difficult to remember Onik. That was another milestone in the expansion of his fame when people started to speak of him as ‘Nick, The Lord of the Leaves’. Since then, luminaries such as Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, Hillary Clinton, Italian prosecutor Antonio Di Pietro and Barbara Bush have been dropping by at his small shop in the Bazaar.
Merdenyan, uses a special type of die which he helped develop at the Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University in Istanbul. He works on his creations late in the evening at his studio he set up at his home. He says he believes there is, indeed, a common language of the humankind. This language usually takes shape in aphorisms such as ‘That will be over, too’, ‘Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet’, ‘A true friend emerges in the darkest of the days’ and ‘Everything is rooted in love’, etc. He uses many of these aphorisms in his engravings. Although he started out working with sayings that are common in the three major monotheist faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) lately he started to incorporate symbols and traditional truisms of other faiths such as Shintoism and Buddhism into his work.
BILL GATES SAYS ‘HI’
Another distinguished visitor, whom Onik also failed to recognize, was Bill Gates. When Gates inquired about the process he uses to produce his leaves, Merdenyan said he ‘lays them to sleep’. The fact that the artist used this term instead of ‘drying’ rather impressed Gates. He purchased several pieces and left. A few days later the guide who brought Gates to Merdenyan’s shop stopped by and told him that before he left Istanbul he asked the guide, next time he dropped by his store, to say ‘hi’ to Onik.
* Dieffenbachia = ‘Dumb Cane’ or ‘Leopard Lily’