Nancy Porter Atakan ’68 stared at the images of the Hagia Sophia in the pages of her art history textbook. A Mary Washington classmate told of visiting the mosque-turned-museum in Istanbul, Turkey.
For Atakan, then a teenager from the tiny mountain town of Galax, Virginia, such a place couldn’t be more remote. That she’d left home at all was more than her mother could understand.
The only child of a nurse’s aide and a factory worker, Atakan could afford to apply to only one college. She chose Mary Washington for its distance from Galax and proximity to Washington, D.C.
As the young art history and studio art major read about the Byzantine Hagia Sophia, she couldn’t imagine that within a few years she’d see it for herself, much less that Istanbul would become her adopted home. She wouldn’t have believed that she would run her own nonprofit art space there, or that her art would hang in galleries in New York, London, and Berlin.
Her time at Mary Washington “was the first time in my life I felt happy,” Atakan said. “I adored my classes. I loved everything about learning. I never wanted to leave.”
Atakan always had a knack for drawing. But to explain why she chose her path, she quoted artist Jasper Johns, raised in rural South Carolina: “In the place where I was a child, there were no artists and there was no art, so I really didn’t know what that meant. I think I thought it meant that I would be in a situation different from the one that I was in.”
During her freshman year, she met University of Virginia sophomore Mehmet Atakan at a Mary Washington mixer, and they married the summer after she graduated. A year later, she moved to his family apartment overlooking Istanbul.
Soon she was experiencing the history and culture she’d only read about. She recalls walking through archaeological ruins brimming with flowers. “I knew there was no way I could make my family or friends understand the beauty of this country,” Atakan said.
She earned a master’s degree in education and a doctorate, writing her thesis on conceptual art in Turkey. She has worked as an artist, teacher, art historian, and art critic. She uses a host of mediums, from needlepoint to photography, exploring topics such as history, gender politics, and her upbringing. She has two sons and two granddaughters.
In 2008, she co-founded a space where artists collaborate on research and projects; she named it “5533” for its address in Istanbul.
Forty years after she graduated, Atakan returned to the place where it all began – this time as an accomplished artist. Her collection of candid photos of Turkish women factory workers hung at Ridderhof Martin Gallery as part of the University of Mary Washington 2008 Centennial Alumni Exhibition.
– Kristin Davis