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Meet Ece Yildirok

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ece Yildirok.

Ece, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I moved to Los Angeles from Istanbul, Turkey in 2008 to study Music Business at UCLA. Until then, I worked in large scale music events and festivals in Turkey and I had already gotten a taste of the live entertainment industry. I grew up dreaming about studying abroad but that was a remote possibility for my lower middle-class family to afford. However, life has a funny way of tipping you out of your comfort zone. Having lost my father, my grandfather who raised me, and a dear friend to suicide in a short time, left me wanting to be anywhere else but where I was. With savings just enough to keep my head above the water for a few months, I took a leap of faith and found a program I liked in Los Angeles. I didn’t know anyone in LA, never dreamt of living here or held any “make it in the industry” dreams; and I had the very wrong idea that I spoke great English. That was the beginning of a 12-years and counting adventure that brought me to where I am today.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It was not easy at all. My education and experience in the largest music events in a 3rd world country did not mean anything to the self-proclaimed center of the entertainment universe. Add the 2008 unemployment rates to that and I could not find a job that aligned with my aspirations.

But I was determined to make it work. I started knocking on every business door that said “help wanted” until I got a job at a thrift shop for less than the minimum wage. I managed to pay for school, got internships and production gigs here and there to gain experience and make connections, all while going through some dreadful sales jobs. Eventually, I got an offer in Turkey for a dream job: Running the largest open music venue in Istanbul! I moved back to Turkey and took the job. But it didn’t take too long before the political climate put a huge strain on entertainment events. The government pressured all cultural organizations and events; and incapacitated them in any way they can: Banning alcohol sales in concerts, banning sponsorships, limiting licenses, you name it. It was like a crackdown on any initiative that was open-minded, cultural and intellectual.

Eventually, after two decades under a conservative and increasingly totalitarian government, Gezi Protests broke out. Millions of Turkish people were pouring out to the streets protesting oppression and corruption. However, police hit hard, and Turkey became the country with the highest number of imprisoned journalists, scholars and academics for years to come. Despite all our tear gas exposure not much changed in the aftermath. While it was magical to witness this movement in person, I joined the thousands in the brain drain. I decided to move back to LA.

I went through all the hoops and standardized tests and ended up getting accepted to the MBA program at USC Marshall School of Business in 2014. The school was amazing. I made great friends and even greater debt. But of course, I did not get a job on a silver plate at graduation. More hardship was ahead. First, my work permit was lost in mail and you’d be surprised how hard it is to get anyone to take responsibility and replace it. A year went by trying to sort it out and I had to survive with friends’ help, crashing on their couch as my hands were tied. After some more 80-hour work weeks, two jobs, unfair wages, mobbing, discrimination, and denied health benefits from employers when I needed it the most, I landed my most favorite job ever. I started working with the Los Angeles Arboretum, producing the largest light festival in Los Angeles: Moonlight Forest.

I loved everything about this job. I worked with the most inspiring management, most supportive team, in the most beautiful botanic garden in Los Angeles. Naturally, we created the best event. We brought in over 150,000 visitors in two consecutive years. Moonlight Forest became a beloved local tradition and one of the highest revenue generators for the foundation. After two years, the Arboretum offered me a permanent role as Business Manager to continue producing Moonlight Forest on a yearly basis as well as developing events and weddings. I started on March 2nd, 2020. One week after my start date a global pandemic was declared. We shut down all event operations for the foreseeable future. I got laid off at the end of the month with no hope of going back or finding a job in my profession anywhere else as a large-scale event producer.

Please tell us more about your art.
Did I mention life has a funny way of tipping you out of your comfort zone? See, I loved painting as long as I can remember myself. I was good at it too. I won all the art contests I participated as a kid. My teachers did not believe I painted my own artwork and called my mom to school only for her to tell them she couldn’t paint that even if she wanted to. But being an artist was the opposite of a steady job for many, and my parents were no different. They discouraged me from studying art and I did not put up a fight. In my adult life, I basically lived like I forgot about all this. I tried to be good at everything else but art. I envied people with obvious talent and imagined they had a calling that felt different than what I experienced. Last year I enrolled to a class and picked up a brush for the first time. I don’t know how those first 3 hours passed. I was infatuated. My painting turned out well beyond my and the instructor’s expectations. I did not know oil painting from acrylic. I started playing around with different mediums and practiced painting as a form of meditation. I could only find time to paint maybe once every two months.

When the lockdown began, I found solace in painting. I mean, frantic, neurotic, non-stop painting. I was mostly coping with the sense of loss of my career and the feeling of unknown. Working so hard and so long for a goal, reaching it only to lose it in a minute felt incredibly unfair. I have always been smart and hardworking to a fault; I never, never let an opportunity pass and yet I was left with nothing. My grief was immense. And the message was clear: Nothing in life guarantees a certain outcome for a certain input. Life was not math. That meant to me, there is also no point in doing anything but the thing you love. This is the only way where outcome becomes irrelevant and you own your story. A true revelation! When I paint nothing else matters and it’s like I am under a spell. If I feel down before painting, I start feeling better after. I paint full time.

I started sharing my art one month into the quarantine, around April. I have now sold over 30 original paintings and working on prints. My network’s support and praise were most unexpected and gratifying. The freedom of expression I feel painting is unmatched. I was always intimidated with how elitist art can be. I could not picture myself in pretentious art networks. But my need of expression surpassed my concern over how much of an outsider I am to the “art world”. I feel like I have been holding my breath and I have so much to tell. So that’s what I am doing. I am telling stories and feelings that do not exclusively belong to or need to be validated by any class, group, institution, or tradition. If I create something and that resonates with one person, we are connected and I am satisfied. I am one of those people who always (proudly) side with the underdog. We are made to believe we are not good enough and my main motive is to portray the beauty of the ordinary. In my art, I find myself reflecting concepts of self-acceptance, inner peace, self-actualization and female empowerment as well as elements of my bi-cultural background as a Turkish artist living in Los Angeles. Considering all, it is fair to say my style is art brut, but please don’t wait for me to die to check out my art.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
My mom telling me the exact same bedtime story word by word every night at my request and my dad taking me out on rides by the beach in the back of his red bicycle when I was around 5.

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Ece Yildirok

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