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i was born in brooklyn. when i turned five, we moved to valley stream, long island. i was accustomed to the community spirit, intimacy and vibrancy of crown heights, brooklyn, not to mention the roar of the crowds at ebbets field, close enough to my bedroom that the night lights shone through the blinds. long island was like being exiled to a foreign land. i'm a brooklyn boy!
when I was in kindergarten in brooklyn, my teacher remarked, in an evaluation of me as a student, that I was fascinated by construction workers. thirty years later, drawings and paintings construction workers were to become my core subject matter during my fifteen years in greece. *see the image below.
i drew and painted from the time i could hold a pencil. my high school art teacher noticed and encouraged me to pursue art as a career. my uncle mort, who was studying to be a commercial artist while living in our basement, saw that almost every afternoon i would come home from school with new drawings and paintings, which he thought were very good. he gave me lots of encouragement.
i read constantly. lots of greek mythology, until i knew all the gods and goddesses so that they felt like family. orwell. any book on africa i could get my hands on. and of course comics. when i was about 16 my dad turned me on to quirky radio host jean shepherd, and i became an avid fan, listening every night to the very end of every program. his frequently prophetic, bitingly humorous commentaries about ordinary life in America were superb.
at that iconic moment when he told fans to place their radios on the window ledge, open the window and turn the volume way up, i did it. then he blasted his "i'm sick of this and i'm not going to take it any more!!!" into the night. as one of the "night people," i was thrilled to have my rebellious teenage rage so beautifully represented..
for 8 weeks every summer, from the age of 5, i was a camper at sonya & otto rosahn's birchwoods, on norwich pond in huntington, mass., in the berkshire hills. birchwoods was not an ordinary camp. it was a dream space, in the aboriginal sense, much like crestone where we now live. it was colored by the "ethical culture" environment flourishing in nyc at the time. the councilors, all young and hip, were not in it for the money. there were no bells, whistles or bugles. every morning otto would approach the bunks, stop, cup his hands around his mouth and sing out, in his deep melodious voice:
e-e-v-vv-erybo---d--y UP! seven o'clock, nice day (or rainy day, or whatever) SHORTS! and so on.
on rainy mornings we stayed extra long in the dining room overlooking norwich pond singing songs of the spanish civil war, russian songs, american/english folk songs. one councilor i recall read us james joyce short stories at bedtime. another related his personal experiences fighting in the lincoln brigade against franco, in spain. it was incredible.
we took overnight hikes, caught and released frogs and tadpoles, attended unforgettable performances at tanglewood & jacob's pillow. the landscape was strewn with glacial rocks. it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with rocks.
friends remember me lying on "big rock," (many of the rocks had been given names), gazing at the lake and the hilly berkshire landscape and daydreaming. at birchwoods, daydreaming trumped any scheduled activity. campers were often left to dream undisturbed for hours. more than anything in my life, this is what shaped my future. the intervening 9 months of school seemed to me an annoying interruption of my dream time at birchwoods, and i would count the weeks and days leading up to that july 1st morning when my dad accompanied me to grand central station, which was permeated by the intoxicating aroma of coal burning steam engines. the train took us to northampton, mass., where we boarded busses for the 16 mile drive to birchwoods. the last few miles were on a narrow dirt road with a hairpin turn we all knew and waited for. when we arrived, we went to the rustic wooden structure known as town hall, where otto would talk about the history of the area, the native americans (i swore i could see and hear them hiding in the trees) who lived and hunted there, and how and why we would be participating in a self-governing platform designed to teach us the american system of democratic process.
birchwoods has never left me. it is imprinted on my psyche. every year, around mid june, i get that feeling of anticipation. in only 2 weeks we'll be at the station, on our way to my dream space.
at valley stream central high, i was the cartoonist for his school newspaper & was cast in high school theatre productions. so i found my niche, but i knew something much bigger was happening. i heard stories from my bunkmates at birchwoods, many of whom attended the top private schools in nyc. i became aware that just 23 miles from our house in valley stream was an artist's paradise: manhattan, where my dad, a cpa, commuted to work every morning on the long island railroad. by the time i was 16, following a blind date with a beautiful blond 15 year old from manhattan's west side set up by a friend from camp, i was in NYC every weekend hanging with my girlfriend kathy.
my life long love affair with the met had begun. i discovered the painters i knew all along must exist. there they were, hanging on the walls of the met! i studied them endlessly, wondering how i could make paintings of every day life like my heroes vermeer, hals and goya, within the context of the abstract expressionist movement that was dominant. valley stream was just a place i had to be in between my weekends in nyc.
meeting henry geldzahler
i was accepted to antioch college in ohio as an art major. all i can remember from those years were a few inspired professors like ollie loud in physics and louis fuller in history, who had been kicked out of prestigious schools for their leftist views and ended up at radical antioch. i made plein air paintings in yellow springs' glen helen while devouring the full 3 volume edition of van gogh's letters; probably the greatest gift my dad, or anyone ever gave me. i got to know hermine tworkov, also a student at antioch. she was the daughter of abstract expressionist jack tworkov. during the summer i attended the provincetown workshop, founded by my friend peter manso's dad, painter and master collagist leo manso. tworkov had a home and summer studio in p'town, so i got to know hermine and her sister helen and had the opportunity of seeing tworkov's studio. one day, i said to myself, i'm going to have a studio like this, with the perfect north painting light, high ceilings….
one summer morning in provincetown, i was out of sugar. i walked a few feet to the bungalow next to mine and knocked. a barefoot pudgy guy in shorts opened the door. "got any sugar?" i looked around and saw lots of art history books. following a short conversation, i learned his name was henry geldzahler.
henry came over and looked at a full length portrait i was painting of my room mate and former birchwoods bunk mate arthur miller. he liked what he saw and let me know. a few hours later, following a thrilling conversation about abstract expressionism, van gogh, vermeer…..i was on my way over to the tworkovs to let them know i had just met a total genius.
jack's wife wally laughed. "young artists are always blown away by art historians!" she said. you'll get over it. "no wally, this guy is different! you'll see when you meet him." this was the beginning of a life long friendship with henry. i stayed in touch with him during my 15 years in greece, and when i sent him a small book with the work of my friend & mentor tsarouchis, he immediately offered him a major show at the then just opened PS 1 in queens. tsarouchis, who had many commitments at the time for commissions and who didn't fly, declined, saying it would just take too much time, traveling by boat, etc.
when i returned from greece, henry had left his position at the met: curator of contemporary art,.and was commissioner of cultural affairs for nyc. he aquired one of my greek paintings and gave me introductions to nyc realist galleries, including fischbach, where i became a gallery artist and showed in the '80's.
one day in provincetown writer fielding dawson (known as fee) asked if i wanted to come with him to the studio of franz kline. "are you kidding??" he helped kline stretch a canvas while talking baseball, while i checked out kline's studio. it was a brief visit, but it was a moment i'll never forget.
after antioch, i spent a year in a storefront studio on elizabeth street in little italy. i painted large abstractions on canvas tacked to the wall, attended the school of visual arts (very boring & predictable), camped out at the met, the frick, & MOMA & smolked a lot of weed. i wandered into the cedar bar now & then, to get a glimpse of an abstract expressionist painter.
meeting henry moore
a friend named joe, who i had met in p'town was planning to hitch through europe and asked if i'd join him. i had never left the country and impulsively said yes. we landed in brussels and hitched through europe, splitting up in spain, where it was easier to get rides if there was just one of you.
on a ferry from yugoslavia to corfu, i struck up a conversation with a beautiful blond who said her dad was a sculptor. "sure," i said to myself. "sure he is." as we stood on line to have our passports stamped, he introduced himself. "hello, my name is henry moore and i'm mary's father."
dinners at their resort followed. moore's wife and gallery director were there and moore seemed open to answering any question i might throw at him. I had always wondered how he had managed to make his series of WWII drawings of the people of london huddled for shelter in the tube stations. he said he'd go down and study the figures carefully, then rush back to his studio while the memory was fresh and make the drawings. when he spoke about that moving moment he'd been waiting for throughout the war; entering the national gallery for the first time just after the museum had re-opened and the paintings had been retrieved from their hiding places and re-hung, he was visibly moved and teared up.
we spent time walking in the olive groves of corfu, where he made frequent stops to contemplate the gnarled trunks. i began to understand just how deeply his work was influenced by his careful observations of nature.
in the evenings i took mary to dinner and dancing in the capitol city of corfu on a rented motorcycle. one night we returned past midnight to find moore standing on the porch of their villa gazing at the mediterranean. when we approached, he said he'd just had a phone call informing him that the queen would be presenting him with the order of merit.
although i was tempted to stay on in corfu, i took a ferry to athens, where joe & i had agreed the first to arrive would leave a message at the american express office. joe's message was waiting and it said to take a ferry to mykonos and meet him there.
MY 15 UNBROKEN YEARS IN GREECE COMMENCES
i never found joe, but while searching through coffee shops by the port i was invited to sit down by a group of four; a guy & three girls. they were greek and in their 20's. three of them obviously found me a bit ragged around the edges from weeks of being on the go with nothing but a small backpack. one of them, named marina, gave me her number and said to call when i got back to athens. eleni kalliga, also at the table, eventually became my art dealer at skoufa gallery in athens, where i continue to show my work. andonis kiriakoulis became a well know cartoonist and was my room mate the following year in london. nano hadzidakis became a good friend. her dad, manolis hadzidakis, was curator of the byzantine museum in athens and became a collector of my work.
they invited me to accompany them that night to a monastery high up in the mountains of mykonos, where the festival of august 15th, celebrating the ascension of the virgin, was being held. there was a new moon, and as we ascended the winding path, the summer sky was filled with stars and i felt the wild, raw beauty that was pre-tourism mykonos and the primal, mysterious energy of the cycladic islands, which i would later learn to love deeply on the island of andros. i smelled the aromatic plants growing on the mountainside,baked in the intense summer sun, and began to hear the strains of the live local musicians and dancers in the courtyard of the tiny church. i was already intoxicated and in love, and it was only day one!
back in athens marina and i began dating. i discovered her mother was the painter niki karagatsi, and her father the beloved, best selling greek novelist m. karagatsis, known for breaking with tradition and using spoken greek, or dimotiki, in his novels in a raw style reminiscent of zola. he had died prematurely three years earlier. the first initial, m, stands for mitias, a russian nickname for dimitri, his actual first name. karagatsis is turkish for black oak, the tree he climbed as a boy, where he would write. his father did not approve of his use of "vulgar" spoken greek in his novels, thus the pen name. decades after his death, his novels are still high on the best seller list in greece.
before getting married, i spent a year studying in london: printmaking at the london school of arts and crafts and art history at the courtauld institute, all the while spending as much time as possible at the national gallery, british museum and the v&a.
TSAROUCHIS once i was back in athens, i was introduced to niki's dear friend since art school, yannis tsarouchis, who became my friend and mentor. i hung out in his studio, where i studied his methods and materials so carefully, he began jokingly referring to me as "the spy." tsarouchis was a great, world-class painter and designed sets and costumes for the opera diva maria callas. his declared goal and vision was to reflect the meeting of east and west that has always been the greek reality, geographically as well as artistically. he had met some of the greatest contemporary western artists, such as matisse and giacometti. early on in his career, and there was a clear influence from the trends moving towards abstraction, but that lasted only a short time before he dove into the richness of greek visual tradition. one the one hand, there was his teacher, kondoglou, who had brought the byzantine tradition into the 20th c. on the other was the great practitioner of shadow theatre sotiris spatharis, whose hand made figures and posters inspired tsarouchis to reconnect with the more "eastern" strands of the greek visual vocabulary. tsarouchis even experimented with the simple technique used by spatharis in his posters of glue and powdered pigment, with which he created some of his greatest works in the '40s and '50's.
one evening we were visiting an exhibition of yannis' drawings near kolonaki square. he asked, "would you like to exchange one of your watercolors for this drawing?" of course i accepted. the drawing now hangs in our bedroom in a fittingly beautiful gold leaf frame.
go to the tsaouchis foundation site by clicking the link below.
just a few years into my marriage to marina karagatsi, our son dimitri was born. dimitri showed a talent and great love for theatre from the time he was a young kid. he had a few really great teachers. one of them introduced him to shakespeare, and dimitri quickly began suggesting alterntive dialogue and plots for these plays. he was a natural. he was a big fan of karaghiozis, the greek shadow theatre which used to be the main form of live entertainment for kids, but was also loved by adults. at an early age, he created productions of karaghiozis in andros, where we spent our summers. these productions, with sets by his grandmother niki karagatsi, were always well attended and much loved by the kids in our neighborhood and beyond.
his career as a successful actor developed over the years; now he’s the owner of the well respected poreia theatre in athens, where he produces, directs, acts and translates. he has produced and translated a wide range of contemporary plays, from david mamet (try translating mamet into greek!) to sara kane and, currently, an adaptation of his grandfather m. karagatsis' best selling novel, the great chimera, which has had huge critical and box office success; it sells out within hours of tickets going on sale. he's an artist with great integrity, depth and passion, and a deep feel for contemporary greek culture. i'm very proud of him, what he's accomplished and his promise of future accomplishments
from the english version of his site:
"Dolichos" Theatre Company was founded in June 1998 by the director, actor and translator Dimitris Tarlow and is based in Poreia Theatre since 2000.
Offering an eclectic repertoire, the theatre has presented new and previously unproduced plays such as the historical "Beast on the Moon", "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "The Woods;" classic masterpieces such as "The Marriage" and plays that are based on neuropsychological disorders such as the "Man Who" by Peter Brook. Additionally, Poreia has staged plays based on Greek novels from the late classical period in Greek history, such as "Daphnis and Chloe", monologues such as "Oblivion" by D. Dimitriadis and contemporary Greek plays such as "The Blind Point" by the newcomer Giannis Mavritsakis.
Our goal is to always speak the vivid theatrical language of today's world.
Ennui is our enemy. We want our artists to communicate with each other in order to offer moving experiences to our audiences.
visit the english version of his site here: http://poreiatheatre.com/en/
through my mother-in-law niki, i met and became friends with the great greek surrealist poet and psychoanalyst andreas embirikos, also an andriot and dear friend of tsarouchis. sometimes, when we would visit andreas, his wife vivika and son leonidas at his kolonaki apartment, he would read to us from his latest work. some poets are just ok at reading their own work. not embirikos. he infused his readings, which can now be found in digital format, with unmatched passion and musicality. which was also the case when he spoke of every day topics, such as his passion for fountain pens, or his peugot sedan. it mattered not the topic, andreas embirikos was simply impassioned about life itself. once, after submitting a collection of poems for publication, he caught a mistake while proofing a poem titled "to cra-cra ton corakon" (the crow-crowing of the crows). instead it read "to cra-cra-ton croAkon" (the cra-cra of the croakon), which is mumbo-jumbo and means nothing. he got on the phone with the publisher and, ecstatic, shouted IPEROCHO!!! (SUPERB!!!) leave it just the way it is!!!
all this was mesmerizing to a young american artist who had never been exposed to anything outside his own culture and language. in addition, i had unwittingly dropped into the most lively and exciting period in the arts in modern greek history. theodorakis, hadzidakis, markos vamvakaris in music, karlos koon in theatre, nobel prize winner elytis in poetry, tsarouchis in art to mention just a few. experiencing markos vamvakaris, or just markos as he is known, was extraordinary. it was a very simple setting in "tzitzifies," a neighborhood off syngrou avenue near the sea, with large micky mouse figures on the walls. markos, accompanied by stratos, played and sang in his characteristic raspy voice, with a cigarette stuck next to his pinky finger. our friend, painter and set designer nikos stefanou was with us. he had grown up in piraeus at a time when many of the greatest rebetica musicians were there, fresh from asia minor, and could be heard at many small tavernas. when nikos got up to dance, i was awestruck. he embodied all the qualities of zeibekiko, which can be traced back to ancient greece: grace; humility; restrained abandon; faultless rhythm; and the improvisational genius of great jazz.
sotiria bellou was another great, THE great rebetissa, who we went to see often at various clubs. like markos, she was one of a kind, with unbelievable soul in her voice and a characteristic driving rhythm in her singing style which was filled with deep, deep authentic feeling. simply unforgettable.
i met many contemporary greek artists and was like a sponge, absorbing all that they had to teach me. the painter yiorgos manousakis, who became a close friend, introduced me to the ancient medium of egg tempera, which i used for years. niki karagatsi, my mother in law, showed me by example how to paint the beauty of everyday life in a way i had always dreamed, being a great fan of vuillard and bonnard. but her way was uniquely greek in approach. niki didn't drive, so together we went to paint at hat shops in piraeus, third rate eastern european circuses, shoe makers…..she was a great artist and a very sweet, generous woman and we soon became lifelong friends.
my studio for most of the 15 years i stayed in greece was overlooking the tower of the winds in the roman agora, in the plaka neighborhood. construction began during the dictatorship of a god-awful building, since torn down, also overlooking the tower of the winds. when i saw the construction workers with their newspaper hats and byzantine faces, i worked up the courage to ask one of them if they would pose for a painting. thus began a series of paintings of greek construction workers that became the core of my body of greek work.
by this time, i had become completely fluent in modern greek, with practically no accent whatsoever, which helped in my communication with the workers. i briefly taught english in a very poor neighborhood called aigalio, and learned to love those greek kids who were so eager to learn. they made fun of my long beard, something which at the time was only seen on priests.
one afternoon a cop car pulled up to the school, and i thought "shit, they've caught me without a work permit and are going to kick me out of the country." it was one of the kid's dads, who was a cop. "i want you, " he said pointing his finger at me, "to do whatever it takes, whatever is necessary, to teach my son english. i give my permission to smack him around if necessary, just make sure he learns!"
i met sotiris spatharis, the great practitioner of shadow theatre, through tsarouchis and niki. one of the first experiences i had had in athens was a spatharis performance in piraiki, on the sea outside athens. at the time, i couldn't understand a word, but i knew instantly that i was in the presence of a master. i laughed without knowing why, and i was moved beyond all expectations. he had a little studio in the plaka, not far from me, and i would go visit him and watch him making his figures. i shot a series of photographs with a little WWII vintage leica i had found in an antique shop. later, when our son dimitri was born, he would come and do performances at his birthday parties. he was quite old at that point, but wicked funny and totally together.
assadour bacharian and ora gallery
i began showing my work at ora. ora was not called a gallery, but "kallitechniko kai pnevmatiko kendro ora" or ora artistic and cultural center. it's founder and my dear friend and gallery director, was assadour bacharian. assadour was one of a kind. he cared about me and my work in a way i have rarely experienced before or since. he had been a rebel in the greek civil war and had a side to him that was, in those rare moments when it emerged, scary as hell. but most of the time, he was just the sweetest, most caring guy you could meet, and by the way a great cook in the armenian tradition. soutzoukakia to die for! it seems i am destined to have great chefs as gallery directors; ron gremillion, owner of gremillion & co. fine art, where i show in houston, is also an extraordinary chef.
asadour believed in his heart that art was for everyone, not just wealthy collectors. which is why the people who purchased my paintings during that period who made me feel proudest were ordinary people, some of them elementary school teachers, who assadour allowed to pay over long periods of time so that they could afford to buy a painting they had fallen in love with. it doesn't get a lot better than that for an artist.
during this period i exhibited often in salonica and athens, showing outside of greece only twice: at campbell & franks fine art in london and galerie d'endt in amsterdam.
my dear old friend gary schwartz wrote this enlightening, insightful and accurate article about my greek experience, originally published in 1998 in het financieele dagblad, amsterdam's largest newspaper:
in the mean time, my friend from provincetown henry geldzahler had become the first curator of 20th century art at the metropolitan museum in nyc. i felt he simply had to learn of tsarouchis. so i sent him a little book of his work that had just been published. henry responded immediately on met stationary, stating that tsarouchis was a "major 20th c. artist," and asking me to invite him to show at the newly established MoMA PS1 in queens. the next time i visited yiannis studio i relayed the invitation. silence. and then, in his inimitable accent with the rolling french "r," ….kai PIOS ine aftos o GELDZAHER? (and who is this geldzahler guy?) i explained, and let him know what a huge opportunity this would be for his work to become known by the american public, and who knows what else…"tha to skefto…" (i'll think about it.) a few days later he declined the offer. he was afraid of planes, and so considered the time and effort it would take to get to ny by boat (which he had already visited when he created the sets & costumes for a callas performance) was just too much at a time that he was particularly busy creating the funding for his dream studio to be built in maroussi, a suburb of athens. and that was the end of that.
MEETING SAMUEL BECKETT one morning, i received a call from our friend, actress christina tsingou. christina was smauel beckett's favorite actress for the part of winnie in his play happy days. after leaving alexandria, where she had grown up, she had lived mostly in paris, but returned to greece, where she translated and mounted a greek production of the play. she was close friends with tsarouchis and had been in touch with beckett who, curious to meet the painter she spoke so highly of, was planning a trip to athens to visit tsarouchis' studio. christina said beckett detested photographers and avoided being photographed as much as possible, considering his level of fame. would i consider picking him up at the airport and driving him to yannis' marousi studio, and just happen to have my camera with me? she felt this would put him at ease, and she was right.
driving for an hour with samuel beckett sitting right next to you was a challenge, to say the least. while i had been at an early production of waiting for godot in new york, and so was somewhat familiar with his work, there was no internet for me to do some night-before research, so it was awkward. once we arrived however, beckett seemed relaxed and unperturbed by my camera, and i got some excellent shots, one of which is featured in the definitive catalogue that accompanied the tsarouchis retrospective at the benaki museum.
our summers were spent on the island of niki's birth, andros, in the northern aegean, in the house on the sea belonging to her mother mina karystinaki. it was a large stone house and i was able to have one of the ground floor rooms as my studio, while niki painted in her bedroom also overlooking the sea. our son dimitri grew up in this house, when we weren't in athens, and eventually we moved to andros year round and he spent a few years at the local school. i learned to love the landscape and the people of andros. i consider the work i did there some of the best. it was kind of like being in birchwoods as a child; you could dream uninterrupted and everywhere you looked was beauty. andros at that time was the closest to paradise i've ever been. traditions such as the fall slaughter of the pigs, with it's accompanying tastings, dances, etc. were all intact. evenings during winter months we would have 'vengeras," or spontaneous gatherings at a local taverna, where one guest might bring a fish he had caught that day, another some wine he had made……as the evening progressed, singing and dancing took place between hilarious stories of life in andros.
i came to meet some of the greek shipowning families who were from andros and came to the island faithfully every summer. on andros, everyone is somehow related, and many of them were close or distant relatives of niki's. some became collectors of my work and one even flew to nyc for my first solo show at fischbach on 57th st. he purchased a painting from the show which now hangs in his london residence.
the athens school
as the years went by, i became a member of a group of greek realist painters who were given the name "athinaiki skoli," or the athens school by art reviewer eleni vakalo. the name stuck, and we had a landmark exhibition at ora in 1970. included in the group were myself, niki karagatsi, giorgos manousakis, andreas fokas, rallies kopsidis and of course yannis tsarouchis. so deeply was i embedded in the fabric of contemporary greek artistic life, that i am the only non greek national to be included in the encyclopedia of greek artists. i was referred to in one newspaper review of a solo show at ora, "to fenmeno" or the phenomenon, referring to the degree to which i had mastered the language and understood the greek soul, to the degree that is possible for an american born boy from brooklyn!
i made a series of portraits of greek painters who were friends of mine, which were published in an article in the foremost art magazine of the time, zygos. i learned a lot about the contemporary greek soul while painting the construction workers, as well as contemporary artists in my studio, as well as in my andros studio, where i made portraits of local characters like yannis, who whitewashed our house every summer. o kyrios yannis, as i called him (i was o kyrios filippos) was a man who personified the qualities that prompted outsiders to sometimes label andriots "koutoandriotes," or stupid andriots. in fact, they were beautiful attributes: honesty, softness, simplicity….a refreshing sweetness rarely found in our times.
my encounter with elder paisios on mt. athos
in 1978 my marriage with marina karagatsi was in serious trouble. a mutual friend, painter andreas fokas, suggested visiting stavronikita monastery on mt. athos, where he knew the abbott. he felt i might receive some helpful insights and have a chance to do some self examination.
as the little ferry approached mt. athos, i was awed by the physical beauty of the landscape and of the extraordinary monasteries visible from the sea, perched precariously on sheer cliffs high above the water.
the abbott at that time was the great theologian vasileios gondikakis. it was wonderful to have the opportunity to be in dialogue with this great man, from whom i gained many insights, however when he mentioned his spiritual teacher, the legendary elder paisios, i knew he was the one i needed to see.
it wasn't easy. elder paisios lived alone in a tiny retreat house half a days walk through the wild forests. vasileios said he'd have to send a messenger to ask paisios whether he would agree to see me.
the next day, when i arose at 3am to join the monks for their morning prayers and daily silent breakfast, i was informed that paisios had said "yes." i received detailed instructions on how to get to his little retreat house, which involved crossing streams, turning left at a particular tree, and so on.
i don't have a great sense of direction, and a few hours into my hike i was gripped with a fear that i had become disoriented and was hopelessly lost. i pressed on, and soon, there it was! in front of me was a small one story structure with a long piece of rope going from the fence to a bell beside the front door. i tugged at it three times and the bell rang loudly. nothing. i waited 10 minutes and tried again. still nothing.
i was about to give up and turn back when i spotted a little bearded head in a black cap through the window. i could tell he was checking me out. another 10 minutes went by and the door opened. a diminutive man who looked to be in his '50's waved for me to approach. as i did, i was struck by his eyes, which were very lively. one might even say mischievous. "i always check visitors out before letting them in, he said. sometimes, they're surrounded by little devils, and then i don't allow them in."
of course we spoke greek and, after inviting me into his tiny bedroom, he excused himself and said he'd be right back. i examined the room, which consisted of 2 wooden planks on opposite walls, about 3 feet apart. one was his bed, which had no bedding whatsoever; the other was for guests. they were so close that, when sitting and talking, you could reach out and touch the other.
he returned holding a silver tray with 2 glasses of water and a bowl of fresh figs. i later learned that these figs, which grew in his garden, were a big part of his diet. he dried them in the sun for the winter.
"what can i do for you, my son?" as i began to relate the trials and tribulations of my marriage, he responded by either looking at me with an inquisitive, somewhat startled expression, or by laughing heartily and slapping his thigh, saying "oh, that's a good one!" the more dramatic and ugly my tale became, the more he laughed. or, every so often, he would say "oh, the poor woman....she must be suffering terribly." i didn't know what to make of it, and felt offended and hurt that he was feeling so sorry for her, and said not a word of comfort or understanding to me! WHAT ABOUT ME? i wanted to shout, but didn't dare. his eyes sparkled and danced as i squirmed.
i felt angry, confused and frightened all at the same time. as our encounter ended, i felt more alone and misunderstood than ever. as i hiked back through the beautiful athos landscape, my head was swimming and my emotions were running high. it took me many months, even years, to process what had happened, and how paisios had given me the equivalent of a sharp knock on the head to awaken me from my self-centered, wounded child space and make me aware of the pain and suffering of the other. i will never forget his eyes. they were like burning coals, but with the playfulness, aliveness and innocence of a child.
recently i related this story to a greek friend in athens. his eyes widened and he asked in disbelief "you met paisios? do you know that since his passing in 1994 he has been declared a saint and is highly revered by the greek people?" I thought for a moment. "no, i wasn't aware. but i understand why."
back to the states
after our marriage disintegrated, i returned for the first time in fifteen years to the states. i felt like an immigrant, had a slight accent and was awed by such commonplace things as supermarkets with huge freezers full of bagels; something that didn't exist when i left for europe. in LA, i found a fantastic penthouse apartment on ocean avenue and settled in, continuing to paint, as i had in greece, using egg tempera.
meeting david hockney
my old friend henry geldzahler came to LA at least once a month to visit with david hockney, and one day he called to invite me to david's for dinner. i was thrilled to be meeting david hockney and loved seeing his house and studio in the hollywood hills. peter goulds, the founder/director of LA louver was there for dinner, and henry introduced us. all through dinner, henry kept kicking me under the table, giving me looks and nudging me to be more aggressive with peter. had i listened, i might have gotten in on the ground floor of what was to become one of LA's premier galleries. but i just wasn't ready, and i blew the opportunity.
when hockney asked me to house sit while he was away in england, i accepted. during that time, i made a series of egg tempera paintings of myself on his blue deck overlooking the now famous pool. he purchased one, which is now in his private collection.
our friendship has continued since then. we would always visit whenever we were in l.a., and he would excitedly walk us through his latest work. once, while visiting his malibu house, he took us for a ride through the hollywood hills in his convertible. he had put together a CD, which would go through a variety of musical selections coordinated with the changing landscape, starting with john philip sousa's stars & stripes forever at full volume as we drove up the pacific coast highway, before turning up and into the hills, where it shifted to italian opera...
when i first returned to the states from greece, i visited with the late joseph h. hirschhorn & his wife olga in their naples florida home. i had four of my greek paintings with me, which i showed him. "this kid can paint!!"he exclaimed to olga. he disappeared, returned with a fistful of crisp new hundred dollar bills and bought all four.
years later, when he founded the hirschhorn museum and sculpture garden in washington, d.c., he gifted one of them to the museum. click on the link below to view my painting of andros, tourlos, in the hirschhorn collection.
naturally, i was excited at this first significant u.s. sale following my return. shortly after that, i visited with my old friend henry geldzahler at his office in the metropolitan museum. i was looking for a nyc gallery and henry generously gave me four letters of introduction. one, fischbach gallery, then located on 57th st. and directed by aladar marburger, showed interest when i showed up with a little suitcase filled with small egg tempera paintings of greek landscapes and cityscapes. "take a walk and come back in an hour," said aladar, wanting time to confer with his partners.
when i returned, he said excitedly "we want you as a member of fischbach, and your first solo show will be scheduled for next fall!" "Oh great!" i responded, as if i was kind of expecting that result. I was used to laid back athens, where everybody knew everybody and had no clue how many artists were waiting in line to get into the gallery, which in the booming '80's, was selling paintings like crazy. he and his partners wondered out loud why i wasn't jumping up & down. fischbach at the time represented, amongst others, elaine deKooning and neil welliver, and being part of their stable of artists was a great move for any artist, let alone one who just got off the boat!
my 2 solo show at fischbach in the '80's, as well as my participation in group and traveling shows, were all well received. both solo show were positively reviewed in the ny times by john russell. i was working well in my apartment/studio on the 10th floor at 412 central park west. i had returned to nyc at the request of my dealer, aladar marburger, who felt i needed to be in the city to meet clients, be at various parties and events, etc.
MIKELA AND I HAVE INDEPENDENTLY HAD EXPERIENCES STRONGLY SUGGESTING WE'VE SPENT MANY LIFETIMES TOGETHER
during this period in the '80's, there were a few turning points. first, and by far the most significant, i met mikela, the love of my life on the island of mykonos. two years later i had left manhattan and fischbach gallery, we were married and moved to south florida, where she had grown up. we remained there for seven years. from the time we met, we began working together for an international seminar company. it was a safe environment where we were able to work through issues that come up in the early stages of any relationship. we ended up becoming trainers and traveled the world leading seminars on relationships. i had a spacious studio where i created new work, which i exhibited at helander gallery on worth avenue in palm beach. mikela studied anthropology at columbia in NYC. she has a deep sense of social justice rooted in her past, particularly her grandmother. currently, we are working together to bring our educational startup, actionlab, to fruition.
the second turning point has to do with a comment david hockney made one day during a visit to his hollywood hills studio. it had to do with abstraction. "it's all just marks on a surface, luv," he said in his thick bradford accent. that reminded very much of a comment tsarouchis once made as we were walking together in central athens. "all good or great painting is abstract," he said. i didn't get it at the time.
when i first returned from my fifteen years in greece and was living in l.a., my work looked very much like the paintings i had been making in greece: citiscapes of l.a. in egg tempera on board. once i moved to nyc, although the work was on a much larger scale, it continued to be quite realist; i made paintings of nyc architecture, sometimes in egg tempera on board, sometimes in oil on linen.
it became technically challenging to make large scale paintings in egg tempera, which is really designed for small surfaces. the largest was a commission for the nyc NYNEX headquarters (NYNEX merged and eventually became virgin media) on madison avenue. i proposed oil, but they had seen my egg tempera work at fischbach and insisted i use that medium. it was a painting of the iconic grand central station pediment. i had to find a boat maker to construct a frame strong enough to withstand the pull of the heavy-weight paper i was going to attach with archival glue, as an appropriate surface for the egg tempera. it took months and many dozens of eggs, and when the painting was completed, i realized it wouldn't fit through the door to my apartment. we removed the door frame, only to realize it wouldn't go through the elevator door of my 10th floor central park west apartment and had to be brought down with someone holding it and standing atop the elevator, holding on to the cables for dear life!! eventually it was very handsomely framed and hung as the centerpiece of the nynex collection, on their executive floor.
it became clear from this ordeal that egg tempera, as much as i loved it, was not viable for the large paintings fischbach was demanding. so i switched to oil on linen.
when mikela and i moved to florida, i left fischbach and joined helander gallery on worth avenue in palm beach, directed by bruce helander. i had a large studio in tamarac, where i began experimenting with some of the ideas i had gotten while spending time with david hockney. When i house-sat for him, i slept in a guest bedroom with his just completed large photo collage, pear blossom highway.
this work, along with many other paintings, drawings and prints and of course the bold blues and reds of his house exterior and the iconic pool, were my environment for about a month. during that time, the painter r.b. kitaj, one of david's oldest friends, was also a house guest. my conversations with him, as well as my exposure to david's work, was bound to have a profound effect on my sensibilities. it was in florida, far from the pressures and obligations of artistic life in nyc, that they began to manifest. the earth tones i had been using for the entire 15 year greek period began to take a back seat to the bright blues, greens and reds still fresh in my mind from my experience in the hollywood hills.
mikela and i have been living in colorado's high desert for over 20 years. crestone, i maintain, is not a place; rather it's an energetic.
soon after moving to crestone, we began consulting to fortune 500's such as coca-cola, best buy & boeing, traveling much of the year.
i continue to show regularly at gremillion & co. fine art in houston, texas and skoufa gallery in athens. my studio here is the manifestation of the vision i spoke of at the beginning of this story, when i first met jack tworkov and visited his stunning provincetown studio.
right now i am focused on a series of studio works emerging from my plein air paintings and on organizing the museum show in melbourne, australia i am both participating in and co-curating.
go to my media page for more about this. it contains an article written by helen velissaris in neos cosmos, published february 1, 2014 in melbourne, australia. the article discusses my relationship to my then teacher and mentor yannis tsarouchis as well as with other artists of the cultural blossoming that took place in athens during the '60's and '70's. this page includes the printed article as well as the full transcript of my interview with ms. velissaris.
concurrently, mikela and i are continuing work on our startup educational product, actionlab360, initially funded by national geographic as a platform for creating world-ready citizens and now a platform for bringing project based learning into all subject areas and allowing students to take a more active role in their learning. we will launch in 2017-18.