While growing up in a small town in Turkey near the Syrian border, Meltem Aktas came under the influence of two vivid religious cultures. “I was born into a secular Muslim household. There were Islamic symbols everywhere–in the rugs, in the daily rituals,” recalls the 31-year-old painter. “But we also lived next door to a Christian church. I would quietly observe monks in the cloister chanting and praying. Their devoutness left a deep spiritual impression on me.”

While attending art school in Istanbul, she was introduced to European art through books of reproductions, and started creating large-scale paintings that depicted figures adrift in a dream world.

About seven years ago Aktas came to the U.S., where she studied English at Kansas State University before moving to Chicago. Once here she took classes at the Art Institute. Fascinated by religious icons she’d seen on murals in area churches, Aktas began to copy them stroke by stroke. “I scrutinized them, trying to figure out how they were painted and with what materials,” she says. By then she’d met up with filmmaker Joseph Ramirez, who was a specialist in church restoration. The pair–who eventually married–have garnered a reputation as skilled iconographers.

“That’s my side job,” Aktas says. “I want to be recognized as a cross-cultural painter with a universal appeal, an artist stimulated by the confluences of East and West, Islam and Christianity.”

An exhibit of Aktas’s paintings runs through October 13 at Ann Nathan Gallery, 210 W. Superior. For gallery hours and further info, call 664-6622.