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Sep 07, 2018
Magical Greek Odyssey – the Real Story
In 1993, I went to Greece to paint and it changed my life. So why return 25 years later and what happened this time? Here’s the inside story…
Part 1- Everything is new and wonderful- or is it?
After months of planning and preparation, at last I head for Greece for a painting workshop. Artists of all levels continue to study with mentors to ever improve technique, share critiques of their work, and enjoy the camaraderie of painting with others.
The discussion at our house for the last several weeks has been suitcase weight. On the little plane from Athens to Kalymnos where we will paint first, you are allowed 33 pounds plus a 6 pound carry on. That has to include clothes, sundries, shoes, hat, bathing suit, jacket, camera, sketchbook, outlet converter, computer, etc., plus an easel, water jar, collapsible chair, paper and paint, palette, tape, and other art supplies. My beauty products alone weigh 33 pounds!😊
My husband Miro buys me a substantial backpack, we each have a large suitcase, and, at the end, add a small roller bag. He will stay with me for only 4 days, then head to Poland to visit family. Despite buying travel-sized everything, and taking a very limited wardrobe, together we weigh in at 140 pounds—60 pounds over the weight limit.
We are the last to arrive at the Plaka Hotel in Athens and join the group of artists already there at the rooftop bar for happy hour. Our room faces the Acropolis which is backlit at night and is spectacular, still guarding the ancient city like a centaur 2500 years after it was built.
Acropolis at night
Our weary group shuffles to an outdoor restaurant in the Plaka, and I order the souvlaki on a skewer. The chicken is the most tender and flavorful I’ve ever eaten. We go to bed at 11 pm, and despite exhaustion, sleep only a few hours. The next morning at dawn, we hike up the hill to the Acropolis and later head to the airport en route to the first small island called Kalymnos.
Miro makes friends with the counter agent, and somehow we get onto the small plane without penalty. I am concerned about the end of the trip-- returning alone with 2 suitcases and a big backpack. It will also be an interesting feat to maneuver my load when we travel by ferry to the two other islands where we will stay.
Our group of 16 painters is housed in different villas around town. Ours is a spacious room with a kitchenette, a generous balcony, and view to die for. The quaint harbor and hills lay before us. The room has been closed up all day and is at least 90 degrees. We search for the thermostat, but wait, there is none. No air conditioning! A lone fan will have to get us through the heat wave Greece is experiencing. We open the French doors onto the patio and the one window in the room, but wait- there are no screens--yet there are mosquitoes! The perils of paradise are plentiful.
View from our balcony in Kalymnos
We walk down the rocky beach a half-mile to Babi’s Bar- the central meeting place for our group. Three are Australian and the rest Americans. The woman who organized the trip gives us an orientation and we eat a Greek dinner together. When we get back to the room, we are exhausted and longing for sleep, but the room is like an oven. We throw open the doors and window and direct the fan onto the bed. But wait—there’s a loud band playing at a wedding in the cove, and the drone of Greek music reverberates across the water as if it is next door. Then at 2 am, there are fireworks over the bay for half an hour. The music finally stops at 5 am, and by breakfast on the first painting day, I am frazzled.
Miro helps me set up my painting station under the thatched roof at Babi’s bar and hotel, then heads out to explore and take photos. Kalymnos is about 25 miles long with 12,000 inhabitants—the largest island we will visit. Today, we all paint a scene overlooking the harbor after our instructor, Australian artist Herman Pekel, does a demo.
I am not used to plein air painting (outdoors) nor do I paint this type of subject, so the exercise is a stretch. Herman paints quite differently than I, and following his lead will also be an adjustment. And every once in a while, he spits on his painting to add spray texture to the drying watercolor paint. I won’t be spitting on my painting today, nor any time in the foreseeable future!
Herman spits on his painting to add texture
And so, the routine begins. Alarm goes off at 6:30 am but I wake at 3 am every morning and stand in front of the fan to dry off and can’t go back to sleep. I glance over at Miro in the single bed next to me and he sleeps like the dead. I pack my bag for the day (I’ve made a checklist of 16 items), strap on the 20-pound backpack and walk along the rocky beach to breakfast at Babi’s. They serve OJ, scrambled or fried eggs on toast, bacon and baked beans, which is substantial enough to hold me until 2 pm each day when we break for lunch. We then travel to a location to paint by ferry, bus or taxi. Herman scopes out a site for his demo, then we watch as he makes magic. We then paint the same scene or choose one of our own, and Herman walks from student to student offering advice and help.
Painting set up
Hard at work
I feel so fortunate to experience these beautiful settings and am so happy to paint every day, but painting outside on location is a challenge. You have to draw the scene quickly, paint relatively fast as the shadows change, and then the wind blows dirt or leaves in your palette. Sometimes Greek men, boys, or cats stand around and watch. Its 90 degrees with 65% humidity, which is darn hot. Di, the trip organizer, brings us coffee and bickies (Australian for cookies) every day at 11 when we take a 10-minute break. After we finish on location at 3 pm, we pack up and head back for another 3 or 4 hours of painting at our own villas. Some nights there is a critique followed by a group dinner, but most nights we are on our own. On Saturday night, we go to Greek night, and Miro steals the show with his dancing. The locals are so intimidated, none of them get up to dance until after we leave.
Cat wants to see what Chuck is doing, and Andy looks on
Little boy watches Brenda paint
Always an audience
Bougainvillea in the palette
The second day we travel by bus to an olive grove. Sounds charming and romantic, right? Ha. We hike up a dirt road and are situated between a handful of old olive trees with very little shade, but lots of spiky thistle. Every few minutes, you hear one of the painters say “ouch” as they get stabbed in the leg or foot. Herman is not happy with the site, but plows through his demo like a trooper and we bake in the hot sun throughout the morning.
Thistle in the olive grove
.Setting up in the olive grove
After lunch by the nearby beach, we do a quick second painting, pack up, and the bus drops us off at Babi’s. I have to wear long sleeves, long pants and a big hat because I need protection from the sun, and by the time we hike up the hill back to the room, my blood is boiling. The room is suffocating, so the only thing to do is jump in the cold shower. Our new painter friend Andy who lives next door says he has decided to stop bitching and will “man up.” OK, Diana, “time to man up!” Our stunning view and spacious balcony, and OMG I am painting in Greece, somewhat make up for the lack of creature comforts.
Street scene near our villa
Kalymnos Room- hot, hot, hot
Herman’s girlfriend Deb tries to cool off in a refrigerated case.
By Day 5, I have had only 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night, and now I have a cold. I am not happy with my paintings, and begin to wonder why I came on the trip. I am having difficulty incorporating Herman’s style with mine. It’s not that I want to change my style, but I do want to ever evolve, and that process can be quite frustrating. He has many valuable lessons to impart, but I am struggling. He paints with almost no color! And I love color. So why am I here?
Then I remember that it is the anniversary of the painting trip I took to Greece with Professor Chuck Albanese and his wife, Claire, 25 years ago. That trip changed my life and set me on the path to becoming a professional artist. I experienced euphoria when I painted in Greece on that trip. My black and white world became color and the desire to paint was so strong, it almost wasn’t a choice to change careers.
Every year since, Chuck returns to Greece to paint, and begs me to come along, but I’ve said no. So why this time? I do not yet know. I await that revelation.
Diana and Claire 25 years ago.... and today.
Each morning on Kalymnos, Chuck gives Diana a photo from 25 years ago. In this one, they were painting in a café, drinking Greek coffee. Chuck’s paintings also hang at Madaras Gallery.
The main town on Kalymnos
We took a small ferry across the bay to Telendos and watched Herman paint this scene
Jump ahead to Day 8 on Kalymnos. I am immersed in the Greek culture and excited every day for a new adventure. During the past week, we travel everywhere to paint--across the bay to visit a charming, small island, ferry to a little fishing village, and venture to a monastery high on the hill where people come to heal.
Two years ago, one of the gals on our trip came to this monastery with another painting group. When she was praying to be healed, she met a Greek woman who took her to a small room where a glass case entombed the healing saint who had performed many miracles here. The Greek woman blessed the student with special oil, touched her abdomen, and told her in broken English, “no hospital, now. No hospital.” The student had cancer and was due for surgery to remove multiple tumors. When she returned to the United States and had the surgery, the doctors were stupefied. All the tumors had vanished. Two years later, now her cancer has returned in a different part of her body, and she once again needs help from the healing saint.
Mysteriously, now no one at the monastery remembers the Greek woman who helped the student despite the fact that everyone seemed to know her two years ago. And when the student tries to show a photo of the woman, eerily it has vanished from her phone, even though she’d viewed it on the bus ride earlier in the morning. When she asks the lady in the gift shop if she knows the Greek woman, the lady clutches her arm and says: “You no longer need the Greek woman’s help. Your own faith was responsible for healing the first time, and will be again. You can do this yourself.” The student was very moved and felt emotional all day. We all hope for a miracle for her as this is her third bout with cancer, and, as she says, “I am running out of options.”
“Monastery” painting (where the healing occurred)
After 8 days, I have settled into the routine and now sleep better, and my cold has subsided. I now eat fish served on the plate with the head attached without cringing, and give the scraps to hungry Greek cats waiting by my feet.
I have painted relentlessly and am getting the hang of what Herman is trying to teach us. I even like a couple of my paintings and on those days I am euphoric. Several beginning painters on the trip are experiencing extreme frustration, so after the group returns from the daily painting outing each afternoon, Chuck holds court at a table at Babi’s and helps the novices with basic techniques. All have now experienced some success and everyone smiles again.
As I pack my heavy load and we head for the ferry to travel to Lipsi, the second island, I miss Miro who is now in Poland with his family. When he was in Kalymnos with me for four days, he took hundreds of photos for painting reference and helped me with everything from carrying my backpack, to setting up and tearing down my painting station, to buying soap for the shower (you have to furnish it yourself), and hauling water to the room. He made friends with everyone in the group, as well as everyone on the island, and I miss his fun spirit and sharing this amazing trip with him.
Miro leaves the island for Poland
I will miss the spectacular balcony where I watched the light change from light gray to fiery red to pale pink throughout the course of a day. I will not miss the toilet seat that slides to the side every time you sit down, nor waking in the night to stand in front of the fan. Air conditioning, here we come!
One more look from my balcony
Part 2- Revelations on Patmos
The ferry to Lipsi is a huge catamaran with seats like an airplane, and I just sit back and relax during the hour and a half ride and look forward to the next island adventure.
My room on Lipsi has air conditioning. Woo hoo! In the middle of unpacking, I am so tired, I lie down for a few minutes and sleep so hard, I don’t know where I am when I awake. The accommodations are much more civilized. We are all housed together, so no half-mile hike with the backpack two or three times a day. Plus there is internet right in my room. The shower stall is amusing, though—a tiny triangle in the bathroom with a hand-held shower head but no shower curtain-- so water sprays all over the bathroom, especially when you wash your hair. And I learn that you have to insert your key card into a slot to get the electricity to work in your room.
View from my room in Lipsi
With fewer tourists on this eight-mile island, there is not a constant parade of motor bikes whizzing through the streets. The humidity and temperature are much more comfortable, and there is a cool breeze from the bay right across the street. The harbor and tavernas are one block down the hill, with one restaurant better than the next. The emerald green bay feels tropical even though the land is arid, and it looks like Lipsi is everything one might hope for in a Greek island.
After we settle in, the group gathers at 6 pm and we head for an ouzeri- a place that serves the traditional Greek drink ouzo, and small plates of food like tapas. We sit right next to the water and the waiter brings plate after plate of great food-- Greek salad, tuna salad, sausage with chili, beets, black-eyed peas, red marinated peppers, fried tomato balls, fried zucchini balls, potato salad and octopus bites. When I see the little suction cups on the octopus skin, I pass. Plus I just saw octopus hanging out to dry in the street!
Octopus drying in the street
The group drinks ouzo at the port
After dinner, we get miniature ice cream bars on a stick, and the church bells ring. It’s Saturday night--oh no-- another Greek wedding! The band sets up in the square and begins to play at 11 pm as the guests filter down the hill from the church. We hope we won’t hear the band all night again!
With just a few conveniences, life on Lipsi feels easy. We walk down two flights of steps to breakfast, load into taxis for the day trips, and visit beautiful calm turquoise bays with bougainvillea everywhere. Because Di buys us Greek coffees every day, and we eat lunch at the tavernas, the restaurants let us take over their tables and paint all day under the shade of their canopies.
I am feeling a painting rhythm develop and can’t get enough. With a few suggestions from Herman, I am thrilled with the painting of bougainvillea hanging over the walkway at the little taverna where we spend the day. Herman stresses the importance of light and dark and the focal point of the painting- the point where the eye focuses first. These are things I already incorporate, but Herman encourages me to push them even further.
“Bougainvillea at the Bay” painting
Painting all day at a cafe
On our free day, which happens occasionally, Brenda and I decide to stay at our hotel (Aphrodite) and paint on the balconies outside our adjacent rooms. I know Brenda Semanick from Tucson--she is a guest artist in our Gallery-- and since Miro left, she and I have spent a lot of time together. She is a wonderful painter and we give each other feedback and encouragement as we paint throughout the day. At lunchtime, we walk down the hill to a fish restaurant along the sea and share pasta, delicious fresh sea bass and a beer.
The next day, we visit a secluded beach and I paint a small boat on the water. The painting is disastrous. Half my paintings from the trip are trash-worthy which I find extremely frustrating. At home, almost none of my paintings are “rejects.” In a workshop environment, the student is there simply to learn and experiment, but I am used to getting better results. I have set a goal to bring home 10 paintings that I am happy with.
I try to balance the knowledge and technique I learn from Herman with my own style. I like his use of wet into wet (dropping fresh paint into a wet passage), and a technique called dry brush. I start to redo paintings I don’t like once we get home from the daily outing, and many nights I paint until midnight or 1 am. I am more than determined. Some nights, I go to bed with a knot in my stomach and don’t sleep as my mind tries to sort out what I can do differently to make the painting a success. That, combined with all the mental stimulation from the day, and the Greek coffee at the break, have me sleep-deprived.
Painting in the room
“Boat in Gray Light” – a painting finished at 1:30 am
One particularly hard day, Brenda shows me the work of an artist she admires and I fall in love with one of his florals. I start a painting inspired by his work, and enjoy painting in a different way. I am halfway through the painting and I’m having fun again!
The next day, the group takes a ferry across the sea for a day trip to Patmos which is filled with narrow, winding, medieval alleys. On this island, St. John the Evangelist lived in a cave where he wrote the Book of Revelations. Supposedly, he was 99 years old at the time! Chuck and Claire and I spend the afternoon painting at a small café where we hug the shade and drink frappes. I finish my floral and am ecstatic. I realize then I need to let go of this self-imposed pressure to bring home 10 good paintings and just have some fun. It is my Patmos revelation.
Once I let go, everything changes. The paintings start to flow and I look forward to the new adventure of every day… good painting or not. After all, I am on an amazing Greek island! I have more clarity about how to incorporate some of the new techniques with my own style. I stop watching Herman’s daily demos and also choose my own subjects to paint rather than emulating his. When the class paints boats in the harbor, I paint colorful florals. When the class paints a street scene, I paint a boat.
I make a point to appreciate the experience of the trip more and the incredible beauty of the scenery. Brenda and I have great fun hanging out together, and I enjoy spending time with Chuck and Claire and getting to know the other painters. I still paint until midnight, however, in search of the next good painting. 😊
Chuck’s painting on Patmos
Chuck and Claire on Patmos
Part 3- How did it Happen?
As we pack up and head for Leros, the last island on the tour, I realize we only have 4 painting days left. How did that happen? And Leros is the “Island of Diana!” How did that happen when there are thousands of Greek islands we could have visited? When we travel to the fortress on the hill during a day trip, a Greek historian shows me a picture of the goddess Diana. Her skin is dark which signifies the fertility of the soil.
Artemis, also called Diana, is the goddess on Leros
Steps up to the Fortress where I see “Diana”
Our rooms at the Alinda Hotel are tiny, but have air conditioning and occasional internet, and they are right on the bay. The restaurant is excellent so we eat many meals right there. A Greek band plays in the garden below my balcony until midnight, but it doesn’t matter. I’m up painting, anyway (or dancing in the garden).
Greek dancing in the garden- Me, Diana (the trip organizer), Brenda, Deb
This bathroom has a shower curtain (yea!), but I don’t understand why there is a cover on the drain in the middle of the floor. When I take the cover off, I understand! There is a gas smell that could choke a horse. As long as the cover is left on, the smell is contained. And the sink is so narrow that water splashes everywhere when you wash your hands or face. I am sure there are many luxurious hotels in Greece, but our spartan (yet always charming) accommodations are “C” class to keep the costs of the trip reasonable.
I forget any quirks at the hotel when I throw open the shutters in the morning and see the most beautiful sunrise as a red ball of fire rises from the sea. What a magnificent way to begin the day.
Drinking tea in the morning on my balcony on Leros
Leros is a busy island, smaller then Kalymnos, larger than Lipsi, with lots of tourists and motor bikes. Di arranges for us to paint at a café at the seaport of Pandeli and during the demo, a huge gust of wind blows Herman’s finished masterpiece into the water. Chuck and Herman scurry down the rocks to rescue the painting and, miraculously, it survives total submersion in the sea!
Chuck and Herman rescue the painting. Andy supervises.
Brenda and I head off on our own adventure to photograph the street scenes in Pandeli, and on the way to the beach she pokes her head into a little kitchen where women make cheese pies for the restaurant. They graciously give us each one to taste. Then we talk with fishermen mending their nets as they sit on the beach and sew them while holding the net in place with their toes.
The days race by and I try to savor every fleeting minute. I realize how fortunate I am to have had this magical experience. The painting is going well and I finally get some sleep after eliminating Greek coffee from the daily routine.
At dinner, five of us walk down the road to try a new restaurant, and the owner sits at the table with us. “May I order for you?” he offers. We agree and once again the feast begins: Calypso shrimp, eggplant and cheese, salad, beef and pork in mole, cheese in a bird’s nest with feta and honey (that’s what it looked like!), calamari bites, stuffed mushrooms, stuffed whole calamari, saffron rice, bread, and the food just keeps coming. I’ve named this trip “My Big Fat Greek Vacation” because we have eaten so much—all incredible. At the end of the meal, the bill was $17 a person including the wine, and the owner was our new best friend.
The last day of class has arrived and we return to the secluded bay below the fortress because it is protected from the gusty winds. At lunch, Brenda and I splurge on fresh lobster and pasta, and are having such a great time we almost miss the bus back to the hotel.
“Church on Leros” painted on one of the last days on Lipsi
Herman gathers the painters on the porch of our hotel and gives a final critique. The first-time painters have all made great progress and the professionals leave with nuggets of knowledge we can use in the future. It will be sad to see our little painting family disburse.
Earlier in the week, Brenda and I discover the bartender at our hotel makes great margaritas, and we make it a nightly ritual to visit Maria. We toast “yamas” to a wonderful trip and a terrific new friendship. At the end of the evening, Maria pours herself and the two of us a shot of mastiha, and we enjoy this new and wonderful special Greek drink. Maria will be sad to see us go!
Farewell margarita with Brenda
Shots of mastiha for all
We take a taxi to the airport in the morning and now comes the moment I dread--one big suitcase, one little one, and a huge backpack. Will Olympic Air give me a hard time? I don’t mind paying for the extra weight. I just want to make sure my precious cargo (especially the paintings) come home with me.
At the counter, they don’t question my second bag or backpack, and don’t even weigh the suitcases. There is no overcharge and they readily accept all my luggage. All that angst for nothing!
But wait--when we arrive in Athens, my big suitcase is missing. How can luggage be missing when we flew non-stop from Leros to Athens???
After searching for half an hour, the airline agent tells us the bad news. Our luggage (mine was not the only one) was left in Leros because the cargo hold was full. Since there is only one flight a day, my suitcase will arrive in Athens tomorrow, 3 hours after I depart. I am forced to leave the fate of my big suitcase in the hands of Olympic Air and hope they figure out a way to get it back to Tucson. The suitcase contains my clothes from the trip, 20 tubes of paint, expensive watercolor paper, my easel and whole set up for plein air painting, 22 pair of underwear, and paintings!
When last I looked, I had actually produced 26 paintings, maybe 12 that I want to include in my October annual show. Wouldn’t it be ironic if they now vanished in suitcase hell on an obscure Greek island, and were excavated a few centuries from now?
I would have had a total meltdown except for the fact that at the last minute on Leros, I decided to pack the “good paintings” (or most of them) in my backpack and keep them safe with me at all times. OMG, I am thankful for that little voice in my head!
Coincidentally, without planning it, Brenda and I are seated next to each other on the little plane, and we are booked at the same airport hotel for our overnight in Athens. Once there, we share a great meal, and then I put some final touches on a few of the paintings and sign them.
As I write this last entry on the plane, I am flying from London to Dallas, and Brenda is flying from Frankfurt to Dallas. We will be reunited in Dallas and fly home on the same flight. Looks like this new friendship is fate. :)
I still love to paint as much today as when I traveled to Greece with Chuck 25 years ago. Nothing is quite as exciting as a blank canvas—the possibilities endless.
And 25 years later, for better or worse, I am still as driven. I did appreciate the trip more this time—the food, the culture, the rich experiences, the other painters. I love all that I learned, and I understand that the soul-searching and “bad painting misery” help me continue to evolve. I LOVED three weeks of immersion in the process, focusing only on painting. When painting plein air, sometimes an unexpected freshness and spontaneity occur. Some days I wanted to stay in Greece and paint for another three weeks. Other days, I missed home and was ready for the trip to be over.
It took me three years after I returned from the first trip to fully comprehend its impact. It truly changed my life. I sold my marketing company to become a full-time artist, and then opened the Gallery.
So what impact will this trip have? I know how fortunate I am to have spent three weeks painting in Greece, and I will savor every moment for a lifetime. As for the long term ramifications? Ask me in three years. :)
Dining on the water in Lipsi
Monastery in Kaylmnos
Hiding from the sun
Ana’s taverna on Klaymnos
Boats in Lipsi
More paintings... see all of them in the October Annual Show on 10/21
“Table in the Courtyard”
“Flowers at Babi’s Bar”
“Shadow on the Steps”
“Blue Door in the Garden”
"Street of Bougainvillea"
“Pot in the Window”
All managed to find their way home after 4 days. Good suitcases! Good suitcases! 😊
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