Artist of the Month: Ayesha Erkin

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Ayesha Erkin is a mulitpotentialite.

Her love for creating dissolves any sense of exclusive allegiance to any one particular art form. This proves to be as challenging for her as it is rewarding. Both a disciplinary and geographical nomad, she has known the feeling of having no deep roots and yet many. Ayshea currently works as an architect, but she has modeled, styled, has extensive drawing experience, is a photographer, and has an infinite number of potential futures. We met with her in her highly customized Hyde Park home on a weekday evening. We talked about fashion, food, and Tyler, Texas.


Jason: Did you read the Game of Thrones books?

Ayesha: No I haven’t read the books. I like reading, but those are some hefty books. They’re like Lord of the Rings, where it can just be too much sometimes. 

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J: I like those plates!

A: I love collecting plates! Some of them are my grandmother’s from Turkey, some of them I got traveling, but a lot of them are just random thrift store plates. I have more over here, this is a recent on I found at a garage sale! 

J: Wow, what? At a garage sale?

A: Uh-huh! This one I got from South Africa recently and it’s made from a local stone of theurs. I have a lot of plates that I need to put up. I got into a very irresponsible bidding war on eBay and bought these Gucci plates. (Ayesha unwraps bubble wrap)

These pretty chair ones! They’re set and you can hang them up. I love them. Probably the most irresponsible stress shopping I’ve ever done.

J: Is your whole family from Turkey? 

A: No, so I’m super mixed. It’s actually confusing. I was born in Pakistan but none of my family is of Pakistani descent. Culturally, we do consider ourselves Pakistani but my Mom is half Arab and half Turkish. My Dad is half Uzbek and half Uygur. Uygur is a very small Muslim minority in China. They’re going through a genocide right now. 

So I was born in Pakistan, raised in Saudi Arabia and Germany and moved here when I was 14. So we’ve been around. 

J: So there are probably a lot of languages spoken in your family.

A: Yeah both of my parents speak six languages each. Half that for me, I speak three. I speak Arabic, Urdu and English. I guess four because Urdu and Hindi are more or less the same. I speak Arabic with my Mom and I speak Urdu with my Dad!

J: What language do they speak with each other?

A: Mostly English! (laughs) 

My parents met in Pakistan. My mom moved to Pakistan where my Dad was living and she had to learn a new language. People speak English over there but it’s just easier when you know the language. So she learned a full language in her mid-twenties. 

J: And then you moved to the states for high school!

A: Yes, we moved here in 2006. To Tyler, Texas. 

J: To Tyler? I’m sure that was very different. Where were you right before you moved to the states?

A: We were in Pakistan, in Islamabad, the capital. We had already moved so much by that point. Obviously we couldn’t decide which country to live in so we decided to gamble and see where we would get a Visa. It was between the US, Nova Scotia, and England. And the US came first! So we moved to Tyler, which was a culture shock. There’s a small creative community there, but mostly, it’s a bunch of racists. (laughs)

J: Oh no! Was it tough for you?

A: For me, it wasn’t as tough because I kind of blend in. But my mom still wore the headscarf and it was super tough. People would yell at her in Wal-Mart, you know, ‘Go back to your own country!’ It just started to get dangerous. I tried to assimilate. As a teenager, you aren’t as proud of your culture, you aren’t proud of being different. So I was always insecure about, you know, my nose, or not being white basically. It was tough. I realized in college that I got bullied and I had no idea. I had friends who would always say racist things. They would always make terrorist jokes and I just thought my friends were like that. Then when I went to college, I realized that was not okay! (laughs) 

J: Yeah!

A: Yeah, and my Mom took her headscarf off for a while, but then she was like ‘Fuck everyone!’ and she put it back on! (laughs)

J: What was it about your experience in college that made you think about your past and reflect on it differently? 

A: Meeting a different group of people. More or less, I’m a super third-culture kid because every culture of my own also feels foreign. I’ve never felt Arab enough, Turkish enough, Uzbek enough, Uygur enough, et cetera, et cetera. When I went to college I kept trying to find my niche – I’m still trying to find it – and I would tell those stories of high school and they were just like ‘That is not okay! I can’t believe people would say that to you.’ So that’s how I found out! (laughs) 

I just thought that’s how Americans were, that this was the sense of humor. So I just went with it. It was pre-social media days. A small group in a small city. It’s hard to know what’s right or wrong. I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was just going to leave it as is. (Ayesha looks down at her ringing cell phone)

Oh! A fake number from Tyler! (laughs) Speak of the Devil!

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I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m well into my architecture career, but I’m still thinking “Maybe I’ll go into apparel design!” Once I get my hands on something, I want to learn everything about it. 
— Ayesha Erkin

J: You’ve been talking about finding your place with regard to culture…

A: Yes. 

J: Did you go through something similar in deciding what you wanted to do in life?

A: Yeah for sure. Coming from Asian parents, there was this stigma of ‘You’ve got to pick a stable career. You’ve got to be an engineer, lawyer, or a doctor.’ Creative fields were frowned upon because they were not seen as being stable. I wanted to go to school for art, photography, or cooking. And then my parents were like ‘No! We didn’t come to the United States for you to go to college for art!’ I couldn’t argue with them and architecture was a good in-between for science and art and for my family, it was a “respected” career. I didn’t know anything about architecture. I had one aunt who was an architect and I never saw her. I just picked it because it sounded like a good in-between. I didn’t even know who Frank Lloyd Wright was. (laughs)

But being in the program expanded my mind to understand the design aspect. Architecture is multifaceted. Through school I learned furniture design, I learned how to weave, I learned how to make books, I learned how to paint. The classes that were supplemental classes were my favorite. I’m the kind of person that wants to do everything. I don’t know what I’m good at. I’m a Jill of all trades, a master of none. I’ll pick up a new thing, and then I’ll get to a point where I’m happy with it, and then I’ll get bored with it. 

With architecture, it is design, but 80% of the time, you aren’t designing. It’s hard. That’s why I constantly struggle. I don’t know what the future holds for me because I really don’t know what I’m best at. I like photography, I like to cook, I like climbing…cycling I did that for a while. I heard a TED Talk once that made me feel a lot better about [adopting many interests]. It’s called being a multipotentialite. Having so many interests that you get overwhelmed with your interests. I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m well into my architecture career, but I’m still thinking “Maybe I’ll go into apparel design!” Once I get my hands on something, I want to learn everything about it. 

J: With a career, you often end up having to choose just one so that you can support yourself. Do you feel like it’s been difficult for you to your balance your many interests with your career in architecture? 

A: Yes! Well for one, I work a full-time job. I spend seventy-five percent of my day in my office, sometimes I work on weekends, and recently I’ve been studying for my licensing exam. Even though I don’t really need it since I’m not necessarily planning to be an architect forever, but that’s my next step to finish, and then I’ll go on to the next thing. It’s a goal that I want to reach. So it’s just been work, study, work, study, work, study. Last year - even earlier this year - it got to a point where I was just miserable. I felt like I had no creativity and I wasn’t creating anything. My only outlet was Instagram, which is why I started organizing my posts and working on them. Things were just going out of control and I just realized “Wait! It’s not fun!” (laughs) I get bored easily. If work isn’t fulfilling then I don’t want to do it, even if its easy. I think a lot of creatives struggle with that. If what you’re doing isn’t enjoyable, you just don’t want to do it. I’ll put work off and it just becomes a stressor. 

J: Which areas do you feel yourself moving into the most right now? 

A: I actually was thinking about this the other day! I wrote down the next steps that I want to take. I do like architecture, but I do want to expand into something else. 

One of the steps I’m thinking about is working more toward real estate development. I would work with homes, renovating the interior. That’s something I would do. 

Another one is apparel. I’m not sure which companies, but I’d like to blend architecture and apparel design. Architecture is just all-encompassing design. We learn how to use programs that graphic designers use, they try to teach us weaving, they try to teach us everything. Tapping into those little pockets that I learned about in school and talking to people I know in the industry- maybe I could get my portfolio in order. I love fashion that’s one of the things that I wanted to do when I was younger, but my parents didn’t think it was a career. So, I’ll try that. (laughs) Just to give it a shot. 

Another thing I was thinking was digital design. And the fourth thing would be just to take a break from all of it and travel to all of my home countries, working on a cookbook. My family is very diverse but the one thing that ties us all together is food! Everything that we eat was taught to us by our grandmothers, grandfathers, our aunts and uncles – the recipes are pretty special to us. A lot of the elders in my family are dying and we immigrate constantly. My parents are immigrants, my grandparents are immigrants, my great-grandparents are immigrants. I’m an immigrant. We haven’t set roots down anywhere because we constantly move. I had always felt bummed about it in the past – I didn’t have roots anywhere – I didn’t know where home was. Then I realized that I have many homes. I’d like to visit all my home countries, gather recipes, and compile them into a book. 

Hopefully that wasn’t too many things!

J: No, not at all! I think there is something about the age that we live in that allows you to explore many sides of yourself. 

A: Exactly!

J: Architecture is really big. Very broad as a subject, but you all do a lot of drawing…

A: Yeah! I’ve got some in my room I can show you. A lot of sketchbooks. This is actually one of the sketchbooks – so this coffee table (Ayesha taps on the table in front of us) comes from this sketchbook. It was made from a slab of walnut. I designed it this way because I wanted built in coasters. 

J: (laughs)

A: I hate stains on the table! (laughs) I used marble…I know marble is pretty porous but it’s better than stains getting on the wood. I spent so many hours laying this marble out because I really wanted the veining to match. It was almost an all-nighter because I can get pretty obsessive about things like that. I wanted it to be able to be taken apart because I know that I move a lot. So, these legs actually come off! And this… (Ayesha extends a wood sheet from the tables underside) is a working table that can support up to 100 pounds. There’s another drawer here, and a hidden drawer back here. It’s really frustrating going to the store where they just have regular coffee tables. You’re spending so much on a coffee table that’s not really special! I love this coffee table, It has withstood a lot. 

J: In this example, you’ve designed something to fit your specific need. Have you ever designed something that was intended to change you or other people? 

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A: Hmm! With furniture, I haven’t delved into that so much yet. I’ve been looking to making a Murphy bed – one that would just fold over. I was looking into moving to New York! That’s another thing (laughs) stay tuned. 

With architecture design, yes. I worked on residential designs for two years. Your design a building for a specific person, but when you are working on a public building its really different. You really have to think about psychology. You really have to think about how people are going to function in the space. Their comfort levels are really important. The company I work for is always thinking about green space and sustainable materials. We call them living materials. The materials you are using in your building matter because people are breathing, living, moving in your building. 

Climate is another thing to take into consideration. We’re in Texas, so this is considered a “hot-humid” climate. You can’t use dark colors because it will absorb all the sun. You’re supposed to use long forms so that you get air flow through the building. Use reflective roofs. It’s the total opposite in Colorado, you use dark colors and a sloped roof. We use higher windows here. In Texas, you want North window and you don’t want Western windows because it will be hot all the time. The breeze comes in from the North. In the North it’s the opposite. But air condition has changed a lot of that, they don’t care now, they’re just like ‘Make it work somehow!’ (laughs) Architecture is design but it’s also science. It’s about being attentive to your environment. To the people, to the soil even. To the plants, to the materials. It goes from big picture and you just narrow, narrow, narrow - down to the details of a doorknob. 

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J: It seems very ecological. It’s funny because natural ecologies take millions of years to build but here you are, inserting something into an environment in a much shorter span of time. Do you feel that you are generally responding to your environment or creating something new in it? 

A: I make things based on what I need. I need a coffee table. Like this? (Ayesha points above her head to the corner of her living room) I needed a lamp. I wanted some thing cheap and different. And then I just started sketching. And then I just started doing it! (laughs) I have to have some sort of order for me to be able to create. Contraints help me be a better designer, because it’s problem solving.  

J: In the surrealist movement, people started making art that didn’t make sense, purposefully. I don’t think you could do that with architecture, or at least you couldn’t get it built, right?

A: Some architects can! (Ayesha leaps to her feet) I’ll show y’all.

Have you ever heard of Zaha Hadid?

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Ayesha Erkin is a designer of buildings and furniture, a photographer, a stylist and a cook. Her most recent building is the new Tecova building on South Congress. Follow her adventures on Instagram! Jason often wonders if alkaline water will neutralize the effects of his apple cider vinegar shot. Photos by Eileen, our inhale photographer and graphic designe

Jason Ikpatt