Turkish Delight

By Gretchen Eichenberg

Art, travel, fashion and natural disasters

Truly, hers is a story of international intrigue. Turkish artist Nursel Birler Carroll has lived a life that sounds like the storyline of a film. From daughter of diplomats to student in Paris to public relations executive for a top fashion house to celebrity-socialite to art student of a master to earthquake volunteer, she found love, traveled the world and channeled it all into paintings and sculptures that speak volumes.

That life seems oceans away now that Nursel lives in Waco. When a friend told me about her art and the studio in her home — and her story — I wanted to know her, learn from her. Last month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Nursel in her home in Woodway.

A petite woman with eyes that match her chestnut hair, Nursel moved gracefully about her fresh, white kitchen. Casually dressed in off-white jeans and stylish Tory Burch flats, she served me a thick, strong Turkish coffee in a demitasse cup that was as delicate as her accent. She even offered me a piece of actual Turkish Delight, a sugary confection that is flavored with rosewater or citrus and often contains pistachios. We could have spoken in any of her four languages —Turkish, French, Spanish or English — except that I only know one. I couldn’t wait to find out how Nursel Carroll landed in Waco.

She and her husband, Charles, moved here in September 2012 from Istanbul, a city of 16 million people, halfway across the world in Turkey. An artist who works in acrylics and clay, Nursel is quiet and understated.

“Many people don’t even know that I’m an artist,” she said. “I don’t really talk about it. I love to paint, but if you were to ask me if I like my paintings, well, I like some of them.”

But Wacoans have come to appreciate Nursel’s art. Recently, she sold 12 paintings, ranging from $200-$800, at a special showing at Papillon, an antique shop on Austin Avenue. Her works are not limited to one particular style. She creates through the lens of impressionism, expressionism and abstract art. Her vibrant style evokes mystical, eclectic and multicultural imagery inspired by her own life, loves, travels and experiences.

It all began in the place where she was born — off the coast of the Black Sea in Tokat, Turkey.

“I was always into art as a child,” she said. “I was always drawing and painting.”

Nursel was born to Turkish diplomats. Her mother was one of Turkey’s first female judges. Nursel’s father was a district attorney who later was elected to the Turkish parliament and moved his family to the capital city of Ankara. He served as Turkey’s minister of state for two years.

Nursel was educated in Ankara, and she studied operational research and statistics at Middle East Technical University. In 1981, at the age of 21, she convinced her parents that she should pick up and move to Paris, France. There, she undertook the study of communications at EFAP, an international school specializing in the field.

Though she was serious about her academic studies, Nursel longed to explore her creative self as well. And what better place to do that than Paris?

“There was a lot going on in Paris in the ‘80s,” she said. “Paris at this time was clean and beautiful and not expensive. Artists came from all over the world to show their work, and I tried never to miss any of them.”

From concerts and cafes to galleries and museums, Nursel was in all the right places to surround herself with the color and culture she loved.

“Paris became like a painting to me — a living painting,” she said. “The architecture, the people, the coffee shops, the outdoor living. Every corner of the city was a painting to me.”

She soaked in everything the romantic city had to offer her, whether it was a gallery opening, a walk in the park or a Madonna concert.

“It was a wonderful time in my life and an important time,” she said.

Nursel went back to Istanbul in 1988, where she worked in the field of advertising and communications for the perfume and cosmetics division of the fashion houses of Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, Christian Lacroix and Boucheron. Her job was to coordinate press for the designers in Istanbul and throughout the Turkish market. Her career took her back to Paris regularly for meetings with the top people in the industry. She loved life in the vibrant city of Istanbul.

“It’s poetic and chaotic, all at the same time,” Nursel said. “It’s a colorful, living city.”

Because of her high-profile jobs, sharp business sense and prominent family legacy, Nursel became somewhat of a celebrity in Istanbul. No longer was she only coordinating press for other people; now, the press sought her out. She was featured in fashion spreads and personality profiles in Turkish Marie Claire, Turkish Cosmopolitan, Turkish Harper’s Bazaar and Vizyon (basically, the Turkish Vogue). She was even listed in one article as one of the city’s Most Chic.

Even amid all the glitz and glamour, Nursel listened to her inner artistic voice, and she began working with a well-known artist and sculptor named Ayfer Karamani, studying ceramics and sculpture. Captivated by what she learned, she then studied painting and sculpture for six years under Mehmet Guleryuz, one of Turkey’s foremost artists, who last year sold a painting called “The Two Banks” for $156,000 at Sotheby’s.

“I worked long hours in the studio,” Nursel said. “He became my mentor. And I think one of the most important things he taught me was not to look, but to see.”

She said Guleryuz taught her to notice details that she never considered before, and that often, people look at things without really seeing them.

“Seeing is very important,” Nursel said. “And now, I am much more observant and much more aware of the details and colors around me. I take notice of everything I can.”

But a different set of details came to the forefront of Nursel’s life in August 1999, when a disastrous earthquake struck Turkey near the city of Derince. The quake killed 17,000, injured 35,000 and left half a million people homeless. Compelled to help, Nursel dropped everything and headed to the ravaged region as a volunteer. Little did she know what a life-changing experience it would be.

When she arrived, Nursel was directed to one of many tent clinics set up to help the victims.

“And that’s where I met Charles,” she said. “Of all the hundreds of tents, there we were together.”

Charles Carroll was born in Costa Rica to missionary parents who reared him in Argentina and instilled in him a sense of compassion and concern for the poor and suffering all around the globe. He graduated from Baylor University and lived in Singapore for 20 years, where he founded Highpoint Community Services Association, an organization that provides aid and assistance to people in need. Highpoint sent medical teams to help in the wake of the earthquake.

The couple married in 2002, three years after the quake. Charles moved to Istanbul, where he worked as an English professor and editor. Nursel continued to focus on her art. They traveled the world together — India, Japan, Thailand and Singapore are some of their favorite places. But Bali may be Nursel’s all-time favorite destination.

“Bali is like a paradise to me,” she said. “The weather, the smells of spices and flowers, the gentle people. It’s a place full of beauty.”

Nursel’s parents both have passed away. So having no family in Turkey, Nursel and Charles found themselves visiting his parents, who had retired in Waco, several times a year. Charles decided it would be nice to live near his parents after so many years living continents apart. He and Nursel took a big leap and bought a house in Woodway last year.

The Carroll’s traditional home is not ordinary inside. Lovingly collected pieces of art from all over the world adorn every wall and tabletop, reminding them of all the places they’ve called home.

“It’s been a big adjustment,” Nursel said, “but I’m enjoying my time in Waco. It’s definitely a culture shock. But many of the changes I like. People move much slower here. They speak more slowly. They are always happy to see you or hold a door for you. After the fast-paced life in Istanbul, this feels like retirement.”

When she’s not painting, Nursel spends her time exploring the sights and shops of downtown Waco, dining in one of her favorite cafes, The Olive Branch, or taking in a Lady Bears game.

“I do enjoy the pace here,” she said. “But I am often homesick for Turkey. It’s funny, sometimes I even miss the temperamental Turkish people.”

That’s why Nursel and Charles keep a summer house in Bodrum, said to be the Saint-Tropez of Turkey. Their white Mediterranean-style home overlooks the Aegean Sea and even has a view of Greece in the distance. They spend several weeks a year in Bodrum, usually in August.

With these lasting ties to her homeland and a personal history that includes such diverse cultures, will Waco, Texas, be the last stop on Nursel’s colorful journey?

“I don’t know,” she said, “because you never know what life will bring. I don’t make too many long-term plans for that reason. We will see.”

Currently, Nursel’s art is on special exhibit and for sale at Papillon on Austin Avenue through March 15. In April, her work will be available at the Studio Gallery on Waco Drive.

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