Since the pandemic hit Turkey, I have been living in and working remotely from my hometown – Izmir’s cute little seaside district, Foça. I’ve come here for years and always adored the handcrafted signs embellishing the small shops, coffeehouses and restaurants of this beautiful town.
Turns out, the people behind all these impressive works are my neighbors. It was quite a shock at first because I was so accustomed to seeing the immaculate handiwork while wandering around the streets and Foça. I had always wondered who made them, yet never thought about asking a shopowner.
After I paid a visit to the couple, Tijen and Cumhur Külçe, I saw all the authentic wood, paints, brushes and other equipment lying on the table and immediately understood that Tijen Külçe was behind all the beautiful drawings. As a journalist, I realized it was the perfect opportunity to conduct an interview right on the spot.
I first asked Ms. Külçe how she started with the hobby-turned-profession in the first place, as she provides any wooden handicraft local people need and also sells her work through her Instagram page. “I started painting the wood that my husband Cumhur provided me. He gathered it from the ruins of houses that were about to be renovated,” she said. Many residences are constructed from stone in Foça, and it is a usual practice here to use the discarded materials from the rundown homes before they are renovated.
“We use natural wood and natural materials. They should all be compliant with the nature of Foça. Electronic signboards and other artificial things would corrupt the charm of this beautiful town,” she said.
“I’ve been doing this for nearly seven years,” she said. “I’ve always been into handicrafts, but after moving to Foça, my interest skyrocketed.”
“Our work represents the history, the culture of Foça,” she added.
Foça is indeed a historical town, dating back thousands of years. Its legacy is rooted deeply in the empire of Ionia, an ancient state founded on modern-day Turkey’s western coast, including this coastal town.
The couple produces signboards, chopping boards, plates, candle holders and many more goodies using only natural wood and materials, making sure to abide by hygienic standards during production. One step in the process involves covering the wood in a layer of lacquer to fill the tiny gaps the material naturally has. This technique also makes the final product easier to clean.
“Natural wood is the material we love most and also the one most sought after,” she said.
“I only use water-based paints compliant with safe food consumption,” Ms. Külçe said, adding that they also produce wooden plates for restaurants.
“They call this the ‘baby paint,’ which poses no danger to human health whatsoever,” she added.
Sometime during the impromptu interview, her husband spoke up, adding that they only use wood full of character.
“We use juniper and cedar. We only use wood with a story,” he said.
“Turkey has the ancient Taurus mountains. These mountains have the flora and fauna endemic to them, and I’ve always wanted to live among the natural plants and wood that come from the region. Also, the ancient Turks always used this natural wood, the nomads that lived uphill,” he added.
Later on, he showed me a plank of juniper that he personally gathered from Eskere Forest in southwestern Denizli province.
“I collected this wood from the forest at an altitude of 1,600-1,700 meters (5,250-5,575 feet),” he said.
“This wood is over 1,020 years old,” Külçe added, saying that the process of gathering the natural wood includes bureaucracy, and they had a certificate from the Turkish authorities to be able to use it.
“The tree was long dead, and the authorities had to cut it down. So we took the opportunity,” he said.
Külçe also added that they used the wood in the homes they renovated, including the stone house that they live in.
“The tree lived over 1,000 years, and it will continue to live with us,” he said.
“If Allah lets us live, we will continue to live with this historical wood and so will our children, and the children of our children. Where on Earth would someone have such a chance to experience this?” he asked.
A veteran timber merchant himself, Mr. Külçe later went on to explain the history of the cedar.
“This is known as Lebanese cedar around the world. Its Latin name is ‘cedrus libani.’ You can see this tree on the currency and flag of Lebanon. This is a holy tree, as mentioned in the holy books for its healing properties,” he said.
Out of the blue, Mr. Külçe surprised me with a fun fact: There is a species of tree whose very existence depends on another species. What a fascinating thing to learn!
“Juniper is the only tree whose growth depends on another species. Without the fieldfare bird, it is impossible for juniper to grow, even with today’s technology and developed laboratories,” he said.
“Fieldfares take the seeds from the junipers’ fruit and leave them between the rocks along with its feces. Be it a year, 10 years or months later, the time always changes, the juniper tree starts growing. They only grow between the rocks,” he said.
“The fruit of the juniper is also used for medicine. It was also used by ancient Turks, and it was holy to them before they converted to Islam. It is also said that they used to bury their deceased near the junipers. All these are why we always try to use wood with a story,” he added.
“Both juniper and cedar are antibacterial. They never produce fungus. These are very natural materials,” he said.
Such a lovely couple: Mr. Külçe provides the wood through his vast network of connections as a veteran in the timber industry, and his wife gives the wood a new lease on life.
They continue their efforts to beautify Foça at full speed. You should definitely check out their Instagram page where they offer special orders according to your taste and preferences.
But the best thing to do would be to come to Foça to see their work with your own eyes, enjoy some Aegean weather and go back to your city with your suitcase full of freshly made handicrafts from Atölye Ti'k.
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