UPDATE TO THIS STORY! I would have posted this sooner, but quarantine has had the unexpected effect of zapping all my alone-time…
As luck would have it, I saw Ilker one last time before my area received the mandate to start social distancing. I came into the Starbucks to work on the “Simon Is On the Ground” comic while waiting to pick up my kid from day care, and there he was, happily chatting with the Starbucks manager, who gifted him with a Starbucks hat while I ordered my tea.
A week had passed since our first meeting, so I wasn’t sure he’d recognize me. Lo and behold, as I turned the corner, I caught his eye, and he waved at me. This time, I asked if I might sit with him, and he warmly offered the seat beside him.
While I settled in, he told me that his project was being delayed and that he was going to leave the area and fly home before COVID-19 could make it impossible to travel. The hat was for his wife, whose only understanding of Starbucks was that Ilker really liked the coffee.
As one might expect, we immediately fell into another conversation about art, except this time, I eagerly abandoned my work to hear him talk.
And friends, did I ever get a master class.
He pulled up a painting on his phone which he’d sold for $800. It was a life drawing in ink and watercolor of a woman in a demure gesture, barely detailed and colored in but for her rose-tinted lips and the shadow cast across her neck. He said he felt sad that he’d sold it because he really loved how it came out.
“This is no detailed like yours,” he said, comparing his painting to my panel of Simon and Baz. “Mine is simple. But in a few strokes, I can capture the life of the lady.”
He took his napkin, turned it over, and pulled a pen out of his chest pocket. “Look there,” he said, pointing to a man sitting a few tables away. He began to scribble away on the napkin, lines and lines and more lines. “You see,” he murmured as he ran his pen over the napkin, “I can, with speed, capture the man. I don’t have hours to ask him to sit. I must let go of the planning.”
In seconds, the man across the room took shape on the napkin in a series of confident if also messy lines. It was incredible to watch.
I could instantly see what he meant. He had not produced a photorealistic version of this person on the napkin. But he had captured the man’s essence. The aura of a real person sitting contemplatively with his coffee while reading the Washington Post. I could feel the life of the drawing radiate from the paper.
(When he was done, to my horror, he crumpled up the napkin.)
I shyly mentioned that I’ve been working hard on my own gesture drawing, but had a long way to go, so he asked to see my sketchbook.
I mean… is there even a word in the English language to describe the combination of dread and embarrassment that precedes showing an art master your crap-ass sketchbook that no one sees but you? I didn’t know what to do with myself as he sat there and flipped through the pages.
Eventually, he nodded approvingly and said, “Okay! Is good. But this is sketchbook like every other.” He gestured at the page. “Where are you?”
I was lost for how to respond, but lucky for me, he’s a talkative guy seemingly incapable of awkward silences.
“The world needs to see you in the lines,” he explained. “Someone can look at my work and know, ‘that painting is from Ilker Kocahan.’ You need to draw more and more so that when people look at your drawings, they will know: this work is Venessa’s work.” Then he shrugged and said, “And who knows. I will maybe see you in two years at this Starbucks, and by then, your drawings will be truly yours.”
I’ve shared this story with some close friends who took mild offense on my behalf at his observations, but I really think it took sitting there watching him draw to understand exactly what he was talking about.
Ilker Kocahan has no imposter syndrome. He is supremely confident in every possible way where his art is concerned. The lines that flowed from his pen were fueled by his soul, not his brain. I didn’t think artists like him existed anymore until I was sitting there looking over his shoulder while he scribbled a man into existence, like it was nothing. When I asked if he plots out the perspective on his building sketches in advance, he shook his head no and doodled this on my cake pop wrapper while he rambled on about the components he likes to include in his architecture concepts:
(Don’t worry. I kept it.)
So when he talked about “finding me” in my sketches, I really think he could sense—by the light scratch of the pencil, the trace evidence on the paper of my erasing and failed attempts—my own lack of confidence, my second guessing and self-doubt. My desire to be as good as other artists instead of my desire to express myself.
And in that sense, everything he was saying about my sketchbook was correct. He urged me to get off the iPad as often as possible. To sketch with ink, which is riskier because you can’t erase it, and in that way, give myself no choice but to commit to the lines.
The conversation turned to lighter things after that. He’s apparently an extremely talented basketball player who loves hanging out with his wife and kids. His daughters are both designers. He thinks quirky viral videos are the best thing about the internet. (I agreed.) He’s weak for New York pizza.
Eventually, he bought me a refill for my tea and asked if I would meet him again in a couple of days so he could talk to me about my artwork and help me with my sketching. He even added me as a Facebook friend. When I left the Starbucks to pick up Colin, I was so excited and overwhelmed and grateful to the universe for bringing me into his acquaintance, I texted everyone in my family about it.
But as fate would have it, that night, the local government released its mandate regarding social distancing. He’s likely in Belarus right now with his wife.
I won’t lie and say I’m not devastated that I lost the chance to be his student for an afternoon. But the impression these coffee shop chats left on me was profound. I think about it all the time. For one who struggles with feeling like the artist version of Pinocchio waiting around for permission to be a real boy, it makes all the difference in the world to linger in the huge, unstoppable energy of someone who lives without an inner critic.
I hope I get to see him again after the quarantine is over. I’d love to see if I can fulfill Ilker’s prophecy and meet back at that Starbucks in two years with a different sketchbook in tow. One that I can hand over knowing without doubt or trepidation that anyone looking for me in the work need look no further than the bold stroke of my hand.
Taken the last time we chatted:
[UPDATE:] I am absolutely gobsmacked and grateful at the way this post has resonated with so many folks on Tumblr, artists and otherwise. Some have asked whether Ilker and I have kept in touch, and yes, we have! He occasionally messages pictures of building designs he’s working on or happy family photos (which I assume he’s sending en masse to his friends list) and I basically gush in return. I’ll also occasionally drop a line to check in; he knows I’m still working on my inking and sketch work. He remains so very encouraging and kind. He wishes me “happy art days.”
That said, you can imagine how my heart sank when last night he sent a message out to his Facebook friends letting us know he contracted Coronavirus and has been hospitalized. He’s been ill for two weeks now.
I asked for his consent to share this with friends in case it could inspire some good vibes, and he agreed. If you felt moved by his wisdom and kindness in the above posts and feel inclined to send a healing thought his way today, I would be grateful. While I believe his constitution is strong thanks to his being so active, this virus doesn’t discriminate, and the world needs humans like Ilker Kocahan right now. (Or at least, I do.)
Thanks, and I promise to report back with any news. ❤️
As promised, I have an update on Ilker’s condition!
I am happy to report that he is back home from the hospital as of this week and reportedly feeling better. He said he feels extremely lucky and credited his healthy/happy lifestyle for his resilience via text message. I quote:
“No smoking No Drunk Basketball Good food Family life enjoying And happy character”
While he was in the hospital he generously texted me photos of little notes he’d scrawled on paper napkins of his vitals (temperature, blood pressure, blood O2 levels) since I had asked him to keep me posted. Of all the notes he sent, this one was the most interesting, as it shows they’ve been making patients sleep in a prone position with some kind of ventilation over the face, presumably to leverage gravity in opening up the lungs?
Anyway, I’m so grateful to everyone who sent well wishes and look forward to passing along those kind messages to him after this. Thank you, thank you for those good vibes. ❤️
I hope that if and when I ever come down with something scary like COVID, I can handle it with as much grace as this guy right here: