Inside grant-winner Ates Isildak’s eclectic journey through music, film and photography
In one of his most recent videos, Ates Isildak describes navigating the global tumult of 2020 as “a lesson in dialectics—thesis/antithesis.” In March of last year, he lost his job of seven years running social media for nightlife guru Rodney Mayo’s Sub-Culture Group and found himself, as a freelancer, ineligible for employment. As the plague year dragged on, he lost one friend to suicide, another to COVID complications.
“I got to spend a lot of time thinking about the importance of art,” says Isildak, 36. “We went from having the whole world to having whatever was in our house. For me it was art.”
Not only did Isildak spend quarantine rejuvenating his visual art, completing unfinished projects and recording new music; 2020 also happened to be his most lucrative year as an artist. Last September, he won a $15,000 South Florida Cultural Consortium fellowship, and was the only grantee in the Palm Beaches. Fort Lauderdale’s NSU Art Museum, which exhibited his work alongside other Cultural Consortium recipients, would go on to purchase two of his works for its permanent collection. It was a heady period for an artist who hadn’t thought of his work as a commodity.
More than anything, Isildak sees the Consortium grant as a peer-reviewed affirmation that he’s on the right track—an important validation, given that he’s spent the past decade-plus juggling various creative endeavors. A child of Turkish immigrants (his first name is pronounced ah-tesh), he graduated from the University of Central Florida in 2010 with a bachelor’s in English literature. He taught English for a while, and played in two revered Florida bands: The Strangers, a psych-rock collective out of Orlando, and the Band in Heaven, a West Palm Beach dream-pop quartet he led for five years before the project dissolved in 2015.
“It felt like no more doors were opening,” he says. “As an artist, there was nothing I was so curious to try. I thought, I still have this desire to make in me, but I don’t feel like I’m fulfilling it through music.”
At some point during the latter days of Band in Heaven, Isildak picked up a camera and “was amazed at how fulfilling it felt immediately.” Local band Symbols hired him to direct a music video for its song “Death Valley,” and Isildak’s contribution functioned almost as an independent film—a disturbing short about teens banding together to bury a predator that went viral and was picked up by horror distributors Fangoria and Troma.
“I would have thought I would make a lot of stumbles and falls, learning editing software, having no clue what to do with lighting or the gear I had,” he says. “Instead, I caught something magical, and it gave me a lot of encouragement.”
Isildak has directed more than 20 music videos since, and along the way has developed a retro visual language, his work often conjuring the analog feel of worn-out VHS tapes and staticky tube televisions.
“I watched everything on a square television growing up on MTV, with bad reception, and scratchy VHS tapes you’d watch a thousand times,” Isildak recalls. “And at some point, you’d upgrade to DVD or digital, and something would feel like it’s missing. You end up trying to find ways to get that feeling back from when you first fell in love with something.”
Lately, Isildak has expanded his creativity into photography. What started as atmosphere shots of events and parties at Rodney Mayo’s nightlife venues led to a passion for portraiture—of “people in my life, that I’m close with, or maybe even want to get close with, or get to know.” Many of these portraits include members of the LGBTQ community, exhibiting the sort of gender fluidity that might have felt provocative to patrons a decade ago.
“I’m really interested in that, and I’m curious about it in myself,” Isildak says. “I think there are parts of myself that I know I did not let out at an early age, with having slightly Muslim parents, [and attending] private school.
“I would experiment with things like painting my nails, and glitter. … I was beat up a lot. So I am now a white-passing, and for the most part heterosexual male. But I see parts of myself that I didn’t get to explore, and I’m almost exploring vicariously through other people. And I know we’re living in a time and age where anyone would be comfortable with me exploring it in any way I want, but some of those feelings and ideas have been pushed down so deep that they really only come out while working with others and through others.”
Isildak doesn’t know what his next artistic venture will be; if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to let things happen and see where they lead. “I don’t know if it has to be more photography or video; I might end up going back to music. For a while I was just a musician, and then I was doing video work, and then I was a photographer. Now I feel comfortable just saying I can do all of it.”