Necmeddin Okyay (1883-1976): The Man Who Knew a Thousand Arts (Part 1)

In his book, Outliers, pop psych writer Malcolm Gladwell said it takes approximately 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” to achieve mastery in any field. Now this may or may not apply to every discipline, but in my opinion extended hours of practice is certainly needed in fields like art, music and sports. So, how long would it take to master roughly 16 different skills? This brings me to my artist profile of this month, Ottoman calligrapher Mehmed Necmeddin Okyay (1883-1976), also called Hezarfen (meaning: a thousand sciences), a title often given to someone who has knowledge of many arts. Here are list of some of his talents:

1-Calligraphy- He learned, practiced, taught and excelled in several scripts, including Riqa, Diwani, Jali diwani, Thuluth, Jali Thuluth,Tugra, Naksh, Ta’liq, Jali Ta’liq. He was one of the finest masters in Ta’liq and Jali Ta’liq, his teacher, one of the most celebrated Ottoman calligraphers of all time, Sami Efendi. Necmeddin taught at the School of Calligraphers, the Oriental Decorative Art Schools, and Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul

2- Ebru (Paper Marbling)- He was best known for his originality in Ebru (marbling) art and invention of calligraphy with marbling. Not only was he a master of ebru but he is also the inventor of an unique type of Ebru containing flowing motifs, known in Turkish (Çiçekli ebru) also called Necmeddin Marbling. Additionally, he is the first calligrapher to produce marbled calligraphy. A very difficult process that requires to write with gum arabic instead of ink, a practice known as Yazili Ebru in Turkish.

3- Archery- He was highly skillful in archery, hence his surname Okyay, Ok (arrow) and Yay (bow) in Turkish.

4- Scholar and Religious leader- He was a trained religious scholar and an imam (religious leader) at the same mosque for 40 years.

5- Botanists- He cultivated and raised over 400 species of roses at his home, which he knew all by their latin names. One of his students used to jokingly call him, “Rose Reprobate.”

6- Art collector and Historian- He had a vast collection of calligraphic work, which were later presented to the Topakapi Museum Library.  Also, he could identify with great accuracy unsigned Ottoman calligraphic works of artists and identify the dates they were produced.

7- Other skills- He was proficient in bookbinding, paper making (ahar paper) restoration work, and traditional ink-making.

So coming back to the concept of 10,000 hours (1year=8,750 hours), if we take each of his skills mentioned above, including each of the different calligraphic scripts, it would have taken him, non-stop, a little over 18 years of “deliberate practice” to master those skills!

When I read about Necmeddin Okyay, I was amazed by his relentless desire to learn new skills. Who can help but be inspired by his many talents? 

Part two will be a story about how Necmeddin invented the flowering Ebru.


Letters in Gold

Gallery of Necmeddin's Work