Saturday, June 27, 2009

People, Places and Puppets that Pull Me Back to Greece

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them)

I’ve been traveling to Greece for the past 40 years (and lived there between 1977 and 1982 when our children were small) and every year certain places and people keep turning up in my photos. When I get back home some of those people and places end up in my paintings. And then I know I’ll go back to find them again.

Two years ago Eleni and I were in Mykonos taking photos at the fish and produce market in the harbor and I painted a particularly animated vegetable seller who was overwhelming his elderly customer with the sales pitch for his tomatoes. I liked that painting so much I used it on my business cards.

This year, about a month ago, we were back in Mykonos for a wedding and found the same manavis (produce seller) in the same spot wearing the same hat. I showed him the card and he insisted that we take more photos of himself and his fellow produce seller Yiorgos. The two men told us sadly that the elderly customer in my painting, named Manoussis, had passed away. The next day Eleni gave those two the photos she took and I promised to mail Mr. Yiannis, the guy in the hat, copies of the painting. We learned that his friend, Yiorgos, has talents beside selling produce—he was one of the musicians playing the accordion at the wedding.

The man playing the lyra—a rare instrument native to Crete —is Yiannis Demarchoyiannis, well into his eighties, the unofficial mayor of his mountainous village of Axos in Crete. He came up to us in the village coffee shop two years ago, and asked if he could join us to practice his English. “You look so young,” he said to me, full of Cretan flattery and charm, “that I thought you were brothers.”

Yiannis insisted we come to his barber shop where he served us pears and his homemade raki (moonshine) and played and sang to us mantadas—the Cretan songs which the singer makes up on the spot in rhyming couplets to suit the occasion. “Take me to New York as your bar-bear,” he sang to Eleni, “and I will style your golden hair.”

This month I took a photograph (above) of the bell tower of the church of Aghias Paraskevis in my husband Nick’s village of Lia, next to the village Inn. The painting is one I did on the same spot many years ago when it was early spring and the Judas trees were in bloom all over the mountain.

Every time we go to Nick’s village, on the Albanian border in northern Greece, we start by flying from Athens to Ioannina, the provincial capital, which was under Turkish rule until 1913. Its most infamous ruler was Ali Pasha who entertained Lord Byron and made a habit of drowning women from his harem and anyone else who annoyed him in the deep lake.

Every time we’re in Ioannina we eat at one of the outdoor restaurants on the lake shore and I always take a photo from the restaurant toward a mosque in the walled Turkish city –now the demotic museum. I’ve painted this scene several times over the years. In the painting above you can see the snow that remains on the mountaintops well into spring. On our recent trip, the snow was gone and I shot the scene with a rose in the foreground.

Every time we’re in Athens we drop by the “Icon guy” as we call him in a tremendously crowded little shop near the Cathedral – at 20 Apollonos, in Plaka. His name is Stavros Tassis and he is a true folk artist who compulsively glues bright cardboard icons all over things—a bread board, a door, a priest’s hat, a chair, a wooden drawer from a bureau—and then distresses it to make it look old. His work always is religious in theme, although he includes small non-religious objects in his eclectic works of art. He is also the source of most of our collection of Greek shadow puppets, the karaghiozi—who are often painted on camel skin and still can be seen in the shadow puppet shows that delight the children in Greek towns and amuse the adults with their satire.

Thanks to the icon guy, who can find almost any puppet you want by rooting around in the bowels of his shop, we have decorated the walls in our house in the village and our porch in Massachusetts with shadow puppets—and it’s really hard to find the authentic hand-painted and signed originals outside of a museum any more.

This year I dropped in to see the icon guy on my last day in Athens. He was muttering about spilling paint on the floor of his shop. (How he can even see the floor is a mystery, the place is so crowded.)

I knew that the greatest of the Karaghiozi puppeteers Evgenios Spatharis, had died a month before at the age of 85. The icon guy showed me a painting he made as a tribute to the great man. He had written on it “Great teacher, the angels are waiting for the great performance”. Then he listed three late, great puppeteers: 1. Spatharis, 2. Kouzaros, and 3. Antonaros.

I hope it’s true that they’re all together with their puppets behind a lighted screen, delighting the child and adult angels in Heaven. That’s a performance I’d to see.

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