They love Beliz Iristay at the Rancho el Faro Orphanage in Baja California. She's in the cafeteria being bombarded from all directions. The faces of the girls, who range in age from four to 18, light up at the sight of her. Some girls want to know if they'll be doing an art project today. Others just want to give her a hug. One girl, Paulina, has other things in mind.
"She asked if I brought any cake," Iristay says, laughing. Playing coy, she looks down to the girl. "Maybe I have. I guess we'll see." Yes, she has brought some cake.
Down a dirt road and surrounded by the vineyards of the Valle de Guadalupe region of Baja, Rancho el Faro offers a glimpse into how many locals still live outside of the tasting rooms and wineries. The region is decidedly rural and Iristay, who grew up in Izmir, Turkey, appreciates that.
A rising artist in both the Baja and San Diego art scenes, she has a house in San Diego, but lives on a Valle ranch most of the time with her husband, son and three dogs. On the ranch, she churns out her trademark raku ceramic pieces that incorporate both traditional and unconventional methods.
Iristay has immersed herself in the local community. She teaches raku classes and traditional firing techniques to locals and tourists. Three years ago, a woman in one of Iristay's workshops told her about the orphanage and asked if she'd contribute one of her art pieces for a fundraising auction. Iristay heartily agreed. After visiting the orphanage, she says she felt a maternal connection to the girls.
"I immediately started thinking afterward, 'What more can I do?'"
She talked to the staff. Almost immediately she started teaching the girls the basics of ceramics. In her spare time, she began applying for grants and received one from the Synergy Art Foundation. With the grant, she had the girls begin work on a series of ceramic tiles that could be sold as a set of coasters at the neighboring wineries, with the profits going back to the children and the orphanage. They produced about 500 tiles and sold sets of four for $5 each.
"It was a huge success and we sold out of the tiles," Iristay says. "But it was really important, because it was a big help to the girls psychologically, emotionally and mentally."
When you get to know Iristay, it's easy to understand why she feels so strongly for these girls. Growing up in Turkey gave her a sense of how hard it can be for a young girl in a patriarchal society. She got into ceramics after high school and began studying the oldest traditional ceramics in Turkish culture. She uses these methods and patterns in her work today.
She moved to the United States in 2004 and dove head-on into the local art scene. She's become increasingly known for what she calls her ceramic "horns" (which can be seen at beliziristay.com). Iristay maintains she's a mixed-media artist. Perhaps because of her time at the orphanage, her recent work has taken a much sharper, more feminist turn. Some of her pieces at a recent show in Del Mar involved setting up a makeshift photo booth, similar to the ones you see at red-carpet gatherings, and having people dress up for pictures dressed in traditional burkas.
A recent piece she did for the cross-border IV Bienal Ciudad Juárez-El Paso Biennial 2015 consisted of a series of broken tiles that featured lips meant to represent the silenced voices of women who mysteriously disappeared and were later found in mass graves in Juarez.
"Since I've started to work with other materials and experimenting with different mediums, I feel much more comfortable speaking out," Iristay says. "I wouldn't be able to do that back in my country, but I see these opportunities here."
Iristay points out that there are more girls at the orphanage since the last time she was there. Most have troubled backgrounds that include abandonment, death and abuse of all kinds. A new project Iristay has the children working on is handmade veladoras. The children craft the receptacle for the candles, illustrate them and etch their hopes and dreams onto them. One candle has a girl's rendering of herself as a police officer. Another is a doctor. The idea is that when someone lights it, those dreams will come true.
"I told them it doesn't matter about the future," Iristay says. "Just put whatever comes to your mind. I had to help them a little bit, but I didn't have to change a thing."
The first round of candles is for the girls to keep, but Iristay hopes the girls will want to make more to sell, with the money going to a trust fund for when they have to leave the orphanage.
"I think every project is taking us somewhere," Iristay says. "They are liking it and that's what really matters, but I really don't want them to get bored."
As she gathers the children in the orphanage's makeshift art studio, it quickly becomes clear these types of arts programs—here in a relatively small orphanage in a small town in Mexico—are truly invaluable. One girl in a black shirt named Lupita just turned 18 and will soon be leaving the orphanage. She wants to be a photographer and says she was inspired by the art classes.
Iristay goes around the table and asks the girls what they think about the art classes. Most emphasize how important the program is in their lives.
"Inspirational," says Carmen, who adds that she now wants to be a painter because of the classes.
Lupita adds that she likes how she learned how to work with her hands.
"I like that you bring cake," another girl says.