Orhan Pamuk: Nobels, Genies, Junos, Junkshops and Genius
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, Ph.D.
Ever seen those bumper stickers that read, Keep Austin Weird?
I want to make a bumper sticker for artists that reads, Keep Artists Weird.
And in my eyes, the poster child for staying weird as an artist is a certain Turkish author. I think he must eat handfuls of “super-genius” vitamins for breakfast.
His name is Orhan Pamuk. Ever heard of him?
Pamuk is a classy writer and professor from Istanbul. And In 2006 he even won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
So far, distinguished and normal right?
But wait for the weird. It’s coming.
Four years prior to Pamuk’s win, back in plain old, pre-Nobel, 2002, the writer spent the majority of his days crafting a fairly not-weird political novel entitled (Snow).
But on nights and weekends, Pamuk was heeding another insistent internal voice. It was the voice of his muse who had even bigger (and weirder) dreams for him.
As a metaphorical representative of Pamuk’s creativity, his muse conveyed the message to him that he needed to birth two new meaningful projects — in tandem, (aside from Snow.)
The First Set of Instructions from Orhan Pamuk’s Muse Involved Junk Shops
The first half of the instructions from Pamuk’s muse had him spending ten years searching for significant “bric-a-brac.”
You know, cheap stuff. Like broken mantel clocks, faux pearl clip-on earrings, and small plastic reindeer from the 1970s.
(Some would refer to Pamuk’s junk store treasures as “clutter,” the kind Marie Kondo fans might stroke out over.)
However, in Pamuk’s big, bright, imagination, each mismatched saltshaker or 1950s panorama photo of Istanbul at night that he purchased (or pilfered, and we’ll get to that in a minute) had a backstory.
Orhan Pamuk was birthing a new dream novel in his head. It was to be called The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi.) And he visited Turkish junk shops to gather stuff he saw as “belonging” to all the various characters in his future dream novel.
Are we on the outskirts of weird yet?
As American inventor, Ron Popiel used to say, “But wait, there’s more.” The bric-a-brac and the novel were just the first half of the muse’s instructions.
The Second Set of Instructions from Orhan Pamuk’s Muse Involved Making an Actual Museum
The second half of Pamuk’s muse’s instructions entailed him constructing a real, physical, museum in a then run-down part of Istanbul.
This real museum was going to house the bric-a-brac that Pamuk saw as actually belonging to the fictional characters in his future novel.
Have we fully touched down into weird yet? I’d say so.
But in Pamuk’s defense, we’ve arrived at weird… for a cause; weird, in service of a creative dream from quite a creative soul.
To follow his creative dream instructions, Pamuk went on purchasing thousands of objects like 1960’s ashtrays, broken bakelite radios, and even a taxi meter from Turkish junk dealers.
And if that wasn’t enough crazy, Orhan was also guiltily pilfering strange, “useless” things like sewing notions and quince graters from his own mother’s junk room.
Orhan Pamuk Pocketed His Mom’s Sugar Bowl for His Museum “Universe”
Artists throughout time have stolen small stuff that lights their creative fires, (see my article, O’Keeffe the Thief.)
And Pamuk is no exception.
Orhan’s tandem novel/museum idea was so wild he couldn’t even tell the truth about it at first, to anyone – not even his own mother.
“Sometimes I’d spot a teacup I wanted in an acquaintance’s house or inside the old cupboards where my mother kept the pots and pans she no longer used, her porcelain, her sugar bowls, and her trinkets for display, and one day I’d take it without telling anyone that it was destined for the museum. I began to collect these things from the mid-1990s onward to create the universe of objects that fills the museum and the novel.”
So you see, all these objects were helping Pamuk flesh out characters and imagine scenes for his dream book.
Isn’t that cool?
“The more objects I collected for the museum,” said Pamuk, “the more the story in my mind progressed (21).”
One reason I think Pamuk is the bee’s knees is that despite the weirdness of his idea, despite not even being able to speak it out loud to his family and friends for the first year or so, and despite having to battle a Turkish political regime who wanted to deport him for writing about Turkey in an “un-Turkish” way — Pamuk still devoted twelve years of his life to fulfilling his wild idea of a novel and museum for Istanbul, anyway.
Orhan Pamuk’s Genie Made Him Do It
Orhan Pamuk was filled with conviction but like us, he was also filled with self-doubt. In fact, almost every morning Pamuk sat down at his desk, he asked himself the same question everyone else had been asking him during the twelve years he worked on his inspired idea.
That question Pamuk asked himself was:
“‘Why are you building this museum?’- And I could not seem to find a rational answer,” Pamuk said.
But Pamuk pressed on anyway because as he wrote:
“Some spirit possessed me, and almost forced me to make this museum. Alladin had been scared of the genie that came out of the lamp, but what I was doing was making me happy, so I consider myself lucky (The Innocence of Objects, 255).
And we too can be lucky if we muster up the courage to follow the instructions of our inner genie, or should I say our inner genius?
Genies, Jinns, and Junos
Did you know the words genie and the word jinn are derived from the ancient Greek word genius?
And those ancient Greeks got it right when it came to genius. Genius for them was not a label for an elite few.
You didn’t acquire genius. You didn’t become a genius. Instead, you had a genius-and that genius lived inside you.
Every man had a Genius within him that gave him his most incandescent ideas. And every woman had the same guiding creative force within her, in the form of her Juno. (More on Genius/Juno in Roman religion here.)
I think each one of us still does have a Genius or Juno within, waiting for our call, don’t you?
Only You Get To Determine You’re an Artist, a Writer, or a Genius
Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence project reminded me it takes courage to have a lifelong conversation with one’s Juno or genius.
Because we often get more condemnation than confirmation from society while we’re in the trenches taking dictation from our muse.
Mythologist Robert Graves made a profound observation about creativity in his book Mammon and the Black Goddess that I hope artists reading or hearing this will remember:
“No public honors, no consensus of other poets, no album of press cuttings, nor even the passage of time can give me, or anyone else, more than the courtesy title of poet. The one sure reward for whatever labors we may have undergone is our continued love of the Muse.”-Robert Graves
If Robert Graves is right, and we extend his observation beyond poetry, we can say that no one else can crown us a genius, an artist, or even a scholar.
The Greatest Reward Is The Creative Process Itself
“The one sure reward for our labors is the love of the muse.”
By that, I think Graves means the greatest reward for artists and writers is the creative process itself.
My friend, the mythologist Daniel Deardorff writes in his beautiful book The Other Within: The Genius of Deformity in Myth, Culture, and Psyche:
“Genius, then, the guiding source of creativity, is confirmed alone and in the soul.”(143) – Daniel Deardorff
We wait around for decades for “an important authority” (ie not us) to pronounce our creativity as legit.
When all along the permission to be wildly creative, to tend to our in-born Juno, lay within.
Just like in the Wizard of Oz or other fairy tales.
The Happy Ending To Orhan Pamuk’s Fairy Tale
Speaking of fairy tales, Orhan Pamuk’s fairy tale has a happy ending. His novel The Museum of Innocence was published in 2008 and became an international bestseller.
Four years later in 2012, his team opened the doors to their magical museum; a hushed, lush, refurbished brownstone. Each vitrine within it is filled with the objects the characters in Pamuk’s fictional novel “used, wore, heard, saw, collected and dreamed of, all meticulously arranged in boxes and display cabinets.”
And in 2014 the Museum of Innocence, on the corners of Çukurcuma Sk and Dalgiç Sk, in Istanbul won the European Museum of the Year Award.
And what a gem of a museum it is. Check out some of its eighty-three vitrine boxes here, (Pamuk made one vitrine for each of his eighty-three chapters- genius right?)
Objects Let Creatives Live Out Lives That May Have Remained Unlived
I want to end by telling you I find this story of creation so powerful for a reason.
Embracing his weirdness granted Pamuk a boon even greater than a best-selling novel or a successful, highly original museum.
It allowed him to live out his long-suppressed dream of becoming a visual artist.
“The six to eight months I spent going over the tiniest of details in the museum,” said Pamuk, “resuscitated the dormant painter inside me. For years I had sat in a room by myself writing novels and now I worked with a boisterous crowd toward a common aim and was as happy as I had been when I was painting during my university years.”
(The Innocence of Objects,255).
What might following your Genie or Juno do for you?
“The painting series or book of yours that critics will label as”refreshingly original,” will stem from an idea you now have that is so weird, so crazy, that you don’t even want to tell your mother about it. Take a chance on your weird.”
Feel daunted on how to access our genius?
Me too. But why don’t we take a clue from Orhan Pamuk as to how to start?
Your best and wildest ideas usually lie locked in the same mental suitcase you keep your most embarrassing creative eccentricities.
Open it. Or re-open it.
Let’s keep listening to the genie who comes out.
And stay weird my friends.
You may also like these Charmed Studio Posts:
How to Approach a Museum Store: 5 Surprising Dos and Don’ts for Artists
How To Sell Your Art in Museum Stores
Melissa Zink and Her Magic Suitcase: A Little Story of How Creatives Can Access Their Own Brilliance
Does Meditation Help With Writing? Heck Yes: 3 Healing Meditations for Writing
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Denise McCanles says
I absolutely love this blog! You just find the most obscure wonderful people to highlight. I mean who would’ve known about this guy? I love weird! I was the black sheep of my family and I’m proud of it! I remember as a young teen loving Frank Zappa because he was so weird and different and unique. Listen to your muse and be proud of weird! Thank you so much for this.
Viva all the black sheep of the family out there! Why restrict ourselves linguistically with one unusual sheep color? I like this book line: “The black sheep? You and I are more like the tie-dyed sheep!”
― Karl Wiggins, Wrong Planet – Searching for your Tribe
Denise McCanles says
That’s how I will refer to myself from now on.
I LOVE this post!!!! Yay your book is coming. Please keep us posted. I love artists that get so involved in their work that every item and every person comes to life. Its so incredible. Like living in an alternate universe filled with life and creativity. It reminded me of an artist Carolyn Hillyer. She created something called the weavers oracle. It was a group or warrior women. She created a painting for each character. Some of them 8 ft tall. Every item the characters held or jewelry they wore she sculpted or created. She worked on the project for almost 30 years. This type of creation is something I long to do. The immersion of it is so exciting and interesting. I love the idea of connecting with your muse and being brought through by your muse. Making a life!! Indeed!! Thank you for all these gifts They! 😘💖💖💖
Wow Gale I just found a video that looks through a few images from the deck- amazing. The deck is so refreshingly inclusive as far as race and age go. I’m surprised though there is no website for it, (or I couldn’t find it) that has interviews with her, shows you a few of the original paintings -they must be magnificent. Thank you for bringing up such an important point about these projects taking decades. Hillyer took 30 years to create that work and it was done on several levels, yes, with objects and fieldwork! SO cool. Pamuk took 12 years in junk shops alone. As time speeds up with social media we get drunk from the speed and assume genius comes to the surface at the speed of FB. But honoring one’s muse often takes decades or even a lifetime. It is a slow winding or spiral path with twists and root-shaped turns. I appreciate you listening to the podcast and commenting and thanks as always for your sparkling insights.
Janee Ward says
I love assemblage, bric-a-brac and I’m a bit of a maximalist 🙂 I have always been a big admirer of Joseph Cornell since art school and this artist reminds me of him. And also love that I have now discovered a wonderful new (to me) author and artist. Thank you!
I love it Janee! I have described myself as a ‘maximalist” too, you crack me up. On the podcast episode for this post I was talking about my love of Cornell and how I thought that many of Pamuk’s boxes were as good as Cornell’s. I don’t think I have thought that about anyone else’s vitrines come to think of it. But Pamuk’s have that deep, meaning-filled, spooky beauty that Cornell’s did. Have you read that bio of Cornell’s Utopia Parkway yet? Quite good. I love that Cornell grew up on a street called Utopia Parkway!
Anyway I am a fan of your assemblage and your 2D art as well, you are so gifted. Thanks so much for reading this piece and for sharing your insightful observations.
Kristen Dunkelberger says
Thea – I’m always excited to see an email about your latest post, and they never disappoint! Entertaining, inspiring and make my brain explode with details I want to chase down rabbit holes. Thank you!
Kristen you are the best friend a writer could have. Thanks so much for telling me that and for reading and for commenting. I really appreciate your writing as well. Remember, you are one “smart cookie” (Old NYC expression).
Kevin Doberstein says
Thanks, Thea, for introducing author Orhan Pamuk. I will have to check the author’s books out. The bumper sticker idea is neat. Being weird in creativity can be a strength. Here are some thoughts on being weird, is it peculiar or magical? It all depends on how you look at it. Sensational ideas came from magically weird people.
Hi Kevin! I appreciate your thoughts on being weird and I would have to answer the question this way: Being weird is peculiar AND magical. Cheers to being weird.
Karen Morningstar says
I love this blog post! Orhan sounds like someone after my own heart! We sell vintage items in our eBay store and because of this, I have developed a strong appreciation and love for anything vintage. Our house almost looks like a museum with all the vintage items we have up for sale in our store. They sit displayed on shelves waiting for the perfect, loving home. Orhan’s vitrines are beautiful, I bet the museum is spectacular!
Karen, you are so kind. It warms my heart to hear Orhan Pamuk is someone after your own heart. I can’t image what being in the midst of all those meaningful vitrine (filled with stories) feels like. Can you? All objects hold many stories, in your eBay store’s case-generations of stories.
Thea, you warmed my heart by talking about one of my favorite authors, Orhan Pamuk. I discovered him when I was living in Turkey in 2006. Somehow the English mystery novels I’d brought along failed to entice me, and one of the books I picked up in the local bookshop (in English translation) was Snow. I was immediately smitten. He draws you into a world that’s a little surreal, but at the same time more intensely real. A true genius. And as you point out, a genius because he dared to listen to his Muse and follow her guidance – with the book and the museum – which resulted in something uniquely human and beautiful that would not otherwise have existed. I only wish I could visit the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul in person – maybe someday…
Mineke, how cool are you to have lived in Turkey? I have seen Turkey but only through Pamuk’s books and your gorgeous watercolors. You will get to that museum and fingers crossed, I will get to see it in person too. The objects add such depth to the story he wrote in Museum of Innocence. Studying the objects he collected (via his book The Innocence of Objects) made me feel I was in Istanbul in the 70’s and reaffirmed my belief that home museums of artists and writers need to include more of their little cast off objects. Things give us such a jolt of energy and information that a little written plaque on a wall don’t.
Thanks as always for reading and letting me know your astute take on things.
Not cool, just lucky 🙂 But it changed me. I’ll have to read The Innocence of Objects soon, would love to dive into Pamuk’s world again and read about his observations and obsessions. Keeping my fingers crossed too, that we will both get to the museum in person, and I’d love to visit it with you if the fates could arrange it, haha.
That would be wondrous, and fingers crossed-possible, because those fates gals, they do work wonders.
more weird, please! All of us. Weird is the great equalizer – it is creative vulnerability and confidence mixed into one tasty soup.
Great t-shirt idea Lola. “Weird is the great equalizer!” So true, other people may know how to be captains of industry but they’ll never have our Weird. And weird is the source of the greatest of innovations. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
Janet Fons says
Orhan sounds like a very cool guy. I love love the #37 vitrine, mainly the tiled “floor” leading you into the space. Thanks for sharing his weird story. Always a pleasure.
Wow Janet, I never noticed the floor, and now that I have, it might be linch pin to its coolness. It really adds dimension and wonder. Thanks for letting me see that.
I was just looking at the arm I guess, bemused.
Dotty Seiter says
Thea, thanks for becoming of part of this day in May that is unfolding before me! I’m grateful to the info to Orhan Pamuk and the celebration of weird. I inevitably feel myself to be most alive when in conversation or cahoots with my Juno : )
Oh Dotty, I love your writing, what whimsy, and style. I also love the idea of being “in cahoots with my Juno”! Yes, we are most alive when we enter the weird tango with her when we partner with her instead of getting irritated with ourselves for not listening to her whispers. Happy Spring, thanks so much for reading and commenting, I truly appreciate it. Now I have to run and look up the origin of the word CAHOOTS…so curious looking, hmmm.
Oooh ok so apparently “in cahoots” may derive from the French word CAHUTE, meaning cabin or hut; “Suggesting the notion of two or more people hidden away working together in secret.(Merriam Webster)” Such a cool image right Dotty, to be up in a forested cabin with your Juno or genius, collaborating not the big idea.
Sheryl Perry says
Thea, I loved this story and can’t wait to read Pamuk’s novel.
You are right on target that whatever direction our creativity will go is already in us waiting to be discovered. I’ve been painting with watercolors for years but while in Covid lock down ventured to take an abstract mixed media ecourse. I fell in love with the process of collage, paint, and mark making. The hours and days have passed rapidly! It’s also very true to trust the process and not worry about the outcome. Of course, that’s easier said than done as I’m trying to finish illustrations for a children’s book. I always love your posts!!! They are fun and inspirational!Thank you!
Sheryl, you made my day. It’s so nice to get confirmation that my posts inspire you. Sometimes as I write them I think I am nuts. lol. I am also so excited for you and really admire you for exploring something new and daring creatively during lockdown. Please do send your new art to my email when you want so I can post some in future posts. For anyone who hasn’t seen Sheryl’s cool work, eyeball it over here in my post 51 Fresh, Art Newsletter Topic Ideas.
Sylvia Larkin says
Thea, how wonderful to wake up this morning to this wonderful treasure trove of a blog! I never heard of Orhan Pamuk and where in the world did you dig him up? I would have liked to crawl into his brain! How amazing to connect his bric-a-bracs to his main characters in the novel! Now I understand so much better why I have been collecting all these strange and bizarre objects for years. Neither did I know about the Greek connection to jinn or genie. Robert Graves statement is so to the point verifying that I create because i must.Just imagine building a vitrine for each chapter of the book? Thea, congratulations on your 50th episode! Fantastic! I hope you throw yourself a party! Thank you for stoking my creativity with your unrelenting research!
Hey Sylvia! Good Morning and thank you! I dug Pamuk up at the end of my dissertation on great artist’s and writer’s relationship to certain objects. I had to edit him out of the diss because I ran out of time to keep writing and needed to just finish. (ugh eye roll, over-researching, can be a form of writing resistance friends.) But I keep an edits file on every major project I do (it makes it easier to let yourself cut stuff out if you promise to “keep” it somewhere in your computer). So I never forgot him. He’s going in my book though because, like you, I just find his ideas inspiring. You have genius ideas when you work with your objects too. Cheers to you.
Sylvia, I’m so glad Thea introduced you to Orhan Pamuk, and I hope you’ll read some of his novels. They draw you into a different world, and to me they exemplify the artistic genius.
Sylvia Larkin says
Mineke, thank you! I look forward to reading one of his novels. You are fortunate to have visited Turkey. Always wanted to but never got around to it.