Is that tempera or oils? A Different Path for the Art History Student

13, May 2014 § 6 Comments

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by Stephanie Dissette

The decision I made to study with the Aegean Center five years ago, as a gap-year student (only planning on one semester, then staying two years), has completely defined and outlined my adult life. Now, I have a bachelor’s degree in art history and a fine arts minor from the American University of Paris. I will begin a postgraduate degree this fall with Warwick University’s History of Art (Venice stream) postgraduate program. Eventually, I hope this will lead to a career as an art history professor.

When I started with the Aegean Center, I had no intention of becoming an artist or art historian – I just wanted to see the world. At the time, I thought even simply visiting Italy and Greece would satisfy: the art was a perk.

Please understand, contrary to popular belief, not all gap-year students travel in order to party and relax before getting serious about school. I can still hear my high-school guidance counselor warning, “the longer you wait to go, the less likely you’ll actually make it through college.” What an idiot. To be fair, I grew up in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where at least three-quarters of students who continue on to higher education chose a state school, or at least stay within about 3-4 hours of home at another Midwest college or university. Students who don’t feel certain about their goals for college (what 18-year old is ever certain anyway…?) usually go to the nearby junior college, saving money the first couple years, and then finish their degree elsewhere. I bet most students my old counselor deals with (who don’t choose one of those obvious, typical paths) have no intention of continuing their education at all. I bet, just like the parents of some of my friends, that counselor was thinking, “what parent in her right mind would spend that kind of money and let her kid go that far away, just to see it all wasted on partying abroad?”

Well, my mom couldn’t spend that kind of money, for one. I had some help from my grandparents, but otherwise managed a lot of help through scholarships and work-study. And as far as sending me so far away… well, she knows there is a lot more to learn in life than what any school can offer, and looked forward to my travels. The best part of my counselor’s lack of faith in my future education: I was an honor’s student, who participated in many extra-curricular activities, and, of the 997 students that graduated from my high school that spring, I ranked in the top 10% academically. Even if none of that were true, even if I was the kind of student that chose school abroad to party as an under-21 (where it is legal), there was no way to avoid the kind of education I received with the Aegean Center.

In one word, the Aegean Center is an education in perception. Whether through the literal or philosophical reading of the word, there is perhaps no better place in the world to challenge one’s perception than with the Aegean Center. If you read this blog often, you know about the Friday hikes – the communion with nature that refreshes the spirit, but perhaps more importantly teaches purity in light, color, planes, even materials – and how they open up the world in a way many of us have forgotten or possibly never experienced. The courses follow a classical approach to fine art, based on masterworks, providing a basis many well-respected art schools have stopped offering their students. The blog also features articles the teachers have written about exhibits they’ve visited or projects they are working on. Perhaps its time to re-read those articles and recognize the freshness of their perspectives and techniques compared to the typical, contemporary take on art: a true Renaissance, if you’ll excuse the pun, in classical approach. My personal favorite: stories about the month touring Italy.

Chicago doesn’t have a very impressive collection of Renaissance art – the city is better known for its world-class impressionist collection and modern-contemporary art. The only connection I had to Italian Renaissance art in my first experiences abroad was an appreciation for public outdoor art – Chicago is packed full of that! And while I’m a big fan of the Chagall wall, Calder’s Flamingo, and the Picasso in Daley Plaza; for me, they hardly compare to Ghiberti’s Baptistery doors, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women, or the Michelangelo David. That perception, of course, is all about personal preference. I just never had the context before to understand where that preference came from. Now, I do.

And it is easier for me to make these comparisons now, after finishing my degree in art history, but getting there is its own story too. For the record, I am the wrong kind of art history student – at least traditionally speaking. Most art history students are excellent at remembering detailed information, especially names and dates; my memory does not hold those kinds of details very well. I’m lucky to get the century right with most works, and even if I can talk you through exactly where a painting hangs in the remarkable chasm of the Louvre, or break down the full story of nearly any biblical subject in an artwork and tell you why you should care about it, I will always double check my notes for names and dates. Definitely did that writing the previous paragraph here (at least now we have the internet!). And all the ways I am different or wrong compared to the typical, traditional art history student, I credit to the Aegean Center. First off, in my experience, very few art history students have a background in fine art. Many come from families that exposed them to every museum imaginable, or took a liking to art early on and chased it themselves; however, very few have picked up a pencil, crayon, paintbrush, or camera for anything artistic since they were in grade school. In fact, most would probably tell you that they are terrible at anything creative. Can anyone please explain to me how someone who does not consider him or herself creative ends up studying art history?

The truth is, as far as I’m concerned, uncreative people (or those without interest in being creative) do not study art history. The people who choose to study art history definitely have a creative side, whether they’ve acknowledged it or not. The Aegean Center embraces students with all levels of experience because they know the secret: art isn’t just talent, it’s work! Yes, anyone CAN draw. Anyone CAN paint. Anyone CAN take a beautiful photograph, then edit and print it like a real artist does. The trick is hard work, studying the great masters, and committing to practice. I may never display any artworks of my own in galleries or magazines, but I can paint properly with oil paints if I so desire, and my drawing does still improve, even when I stop practicing for a couple months now and again. The American University of Paris (AUP) does offer fine arts courses, and in fact, just recently launched a fine arts major (in addition to the minor). While most of my fine arts experience comes from the Aegean Center, AUP caught my attention by valuing the education the Aegean Center offered, and gave me full university credits for all the work I accomplished through the Aegean Center’s rigorous courses. There is currently one fine arts course AUP students must complete in order to graduate with an art history degree called “Materials and Techniques of the Masters.” I remember explaining the course to teachers at the Aegean Center, hardly containing my excitement, and then expressing honest disbelief when I realized how few students in the course had any background in the fine arts, as well as how many of them were seniors, graduating that same semester. Those students hadn’t ever specifically studied the materials and techniques used in all the works they had spent up to four years analyzing until their final semesters. Enter me: a number’s dummy, yes, but also the only one in the room who cared whether a work was made in tempera or oils… better yet, I’m the only one who could usually guess the material before asking.

Consider this: does a painting receive the same reaction, and hold the same majesty, projected in a classroom as it does when viewed in the flesh?  While I’d like to think I understood the difference as a kid wandering through the Art Institute of Chicago, it probably wasn’t until my time with the Aegean Center that I really became aware of the difference. I have shown so many of my favorite artworks to friends and family through photos I’ve taken, or pictures I find online, and they never really compare to the awe acquired in being inches away from that full-scale work. Before I even committed to studying art history, the Aegean Center was preparing me to better understand and appreciate art, architecture, and history.

That also explains why, researching masters programs in art history, I had to somehow still experience the art in person; and I couldn’t do that with Renaissance works in Chicago. Starting this September, I’ll have come full circle – back to Italy, the same way the Aegean Center begins its fall semesters. Attending a British school as an American, I’m already preparing to stand out in more ways than one. I’ll probably be the wrong kind of student, again – I wish it all started tomorrow.

Thank you, Parian family, for helping me see fully and understand deeply. I couldn’t be more pleased for what I see coming next.

Student Post: Jordann Wine

30, October 2013 § 1 Comment

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I graduated three years ago from a well-known private university in New York City. Due to my interdisciplinary studies, I took a variety of classes in fine arts, business, economics, writing, Swahili and a slew of liberal arts courses. With each class I learned a great deal of knowledge about the topic and myself, but I was never inspired to act upon my education. In fact my life in New York City became rigid and stagnant; I no longer went with the flow of life, but tried to control each and every bit of life that I could.

Art had been a large part of my life growing up. In high school I even took two art classes a year, but in university, art began to slip away from me. After my second year of university, I no longer thought of myself as an artist, and I stopped creating art for four years. At that point, I lost a huge part of myself.

Late last February I woke up on a cold Sunday morning with the guidance to come to the Aegean Center. I had recently started drawing again and had a few brief stints painting and began to realize that creating art energized me. The program started in one week, but I knew as last minute as this decision was, that I was meant to be in Greece in the spring and to be a part of the program.

And I was meant to be here. It was here that I found painting and drawing classes with Jun and Jane that sparked my imagination and inspired me to learn in ways that I had not done since I was a child. As someone who has also worked abstractly, the classical foundation classes were challenging, but kept me motivated and interested. Jane Pack’s figure drawing course particularly inspired me. Jane’s innovative and straightforward teaching technique introduced me to the human form, the way it moves, the way it has density and even those obscure names for bones, like the iliac crest, or muscles, like abductors. I was a sponge, able to absorb information easily and often. I never got tired of my education, and in fact wished there was more time in the day to learn more.

I am grateful for my years at a traditional university; I have a strong business background and great memories. Had I come to the Aegean Center at the age of 18, I may not have been able to take from it what I am now taking from it at the age of 26. I know that I am at a point in my life where I am receptive to an art education and I am now able to accept my path as an artist and a creative because of the nourishing and exceptional two semesters that I have had at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts.

Student Post: Steven Kosovac

16, October 2013 § 1 Comment

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As another Italy session continues on Paros, I am still surprised to find myself a part of it. After a year away from the Aegean Center, I am back in the darkroom and digital darkroom with John Pack, putting together a final portfolio and helping out in the digital lab. A new semester means a new group of eager classmates and more time to focus on the technical aspects of fine art photography.

When the opportunity to return this semester came about during a difficult moment of transition for me, I felt my return to the Center was a necessary step before moving on with my education. It is not only the wisdom and passion of the teachers here that make this school so unique, but their desire to share it and to inspire their students in all aspects of art and life. My decision to return to Paros was not based on my love of the gentle Parian hillsides, the striking Greek light, or the Aegean Sea that shimmers and transforms itself endlessly, but instead on the Aegean Center community and the possibility of once again benefiting from the insight of the teachers and students here. Paros is an inspiring place but it is John, Jane, and the school that create a profound experience that the environment only enriches.

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Student Post: Julia Robinson

8, April 2013 § 1 Comment

Study Abroad Greece

John Pack says “Create yourself a limit and it’s yours”. Pushing through, opening the door to a new place is difficult regardless of the task at hand. But, what I see around me in the Aegean Center are brave creative souls pushing through, limit after limit…for what is on the other side?

Art to me seems to be a path into ourselves, into greater consciousness.  But what does that mean? One analogy is the ability of our heart to hear. As we step along the path our hearts open up to more and more subtle sounds, discovering worlds that were previously deaf to our ears. The singers experience this directly in the ensemble with Orfeas. I remember a conversation with my mother after the first class “It’s really fun Mum, you can pretend you are an opera singer and in public! You HAVE to pretend, it’s like a serious game.  I love it!”…and that was it. As I began to sing out operatically, I felt like I had pushed past the barrier of feeling like a prize idiot, warbling out notes, to be able to sing seriously in a choir. End of hard work, bring on the pleasure! I was pleased I was in tune and singing more or less at the same point as everyone else.  Quite successful I deemed myself.  But then, the ear jumps on a little bit, and suddenly I hear breathiness in that warble, that indeed there is a warble and that the vowels are coming out warped by my broad northern accent. I hit the despondency key, a minor third, and worry if I am simply not in the right place, or the right class. But I keep going and slowly pick up confidence again to sing out. Oh how glorious to be weaving sounds! But almost as soon I am back into imagining big audiences, that little bugger of an ear jumps on ahead putting into painful display that I don’t have resonance, that my throat doesn’t know what open at the back means, nor how to push air into my nose cavity or sinuses.  Head voice, what? Too bedazzled to even tackle the idea of vibrato, I still somehow forget to remember to breathe. And so it goes on, through perilous peaks and fertile valleys.

The safe conclusion would seem that, being on a path, any path, and especially the artistic path, one is never in their comfort zone for very long. It takes discipline just to keep going and to concentrate, instead of collapsing on the floor in your favourite type of fit, blaming the world for being unfair.

Sometimes in the choir it feels scary, and more so when you have to sing alone. Sometimes it is just downright frog throat embarrassing. I often have attacks of feeling simply ridiculous. But somehow I get the musical backpack on again, and again, and again, each time starting anew. And curiously through this process I am learning to sing! I am finding my own voice.  I come out, having sang with others, feeling loved and loving, feeling high. As I deconstruct my ego fear of the unknown, I have another thin veil lifted, so I can see myself a little clearer, it is a mini re-velation (re-veil-ation).  Consciousness is not only the heart hearing, but also the mind seeing.

What I really admire of the people around me here in the Aegean Center is that they are prepared to go through these unveiling limits into the new unknown.  I see it in their eyes when Jane or Jun hold up their work as an example for others to see: it is exposure, it is uncomfortable and it is scary.  In each piece, each person is expressing their real selves to the world, and it feels as if the light of attention would burn us alive naked without our blanket fears to protect us – and yet on the other side of that woolly limit we keep discovering that nothing happens at all: we are not rejected, but instead feel closer to the others, nor do people snigger at our lob-sided proportions, but are supportive…They know too well how we feel and that underlying a botched up expression are shifts and changes within helping us along the path to Beauty. Each class we discover that our drawings parallel how we are learning to see more consciously, when marvellously, magically, we are taught to allow our inner figures, once dull and flat, to dance into new dimensions onto the pages of life.

The same fear knocks about in the writing class. Unusual it is for someone to read without a slight quiver to their voice, a shaky hand, or having to repeat bumbled lines.  It is really scary, especially the first couple of times, where one feels like throwing down the paper and collapsing into the rapidly forming pool of sweat beneath one’s chair, or screaming out “Fire! Fire!” and jumping out through the window.  But thankfully, one does not.  One continues through the torture, only to realise that the discipline of getting to the other side brings a deep sense of satisfaction.

On one public reading there was a girl who didn’t want to read, but Jeffery announced her to the public, unbeknownst to her, no prior warning. As she dazed to a stand her work was shoved into her hand. Crikey! I can imagine how she felt, the energy for holding her legs up disappearing into thin air, eyes unable to grasp that simple idea of focus, hands suddenly forgetting how to hold onto paper thin dimensions and the mind simply collapsing into autopilot, blindly flying through a war zone as all on board have fainted under the pressure. But did she scream and shout at Jeffery afterwards, accusing him of being a psychological criminal?  No, she did not. She thanked him.  He had pushed her through to greater self confidence, because she experienced in her body (she in-corporated) the fact that her fears were not real, that actually nothing had happened at all: she didn’t die, or faint, or collapse, she read her work, people liked it, and everyone moved on.

I think everyone can relate to feeling uncomfortable expressing their true selves. I was brought up in a family where farty is the adjective for arty, and where collage is something kiddies do in primary school to fill in time before they are able to do proper studies like maths.  It has been difficult to fully believe my own belief that art is useful, but harder is the idea that I will not be shot down by some World War II fighter plane for enjoying myself. Somehow it feels like a crime to allow myself to become more who I really am. I struggle through this limit, wondering about bills, my waist line and raining bullets, and yet, nothing dire happens at all. Quite the contrary in fact: it is me firing up, exploding with excitement, and I find that instead of bullets raining down, work comes in.

My right brain is so thankful that after years of being tied up in the dark, damp dungeon of my mind, it is being given fresh air, it is allowed to go out to play…class after class, singing, writing, drawing. This intuitive, random, holistic hemisphere is being asked to take over, something that she has been ready to do for years, waiting for the day she can shine. As I continue through the exhaustion of dealing with the constant new, class after wonderful class, each little step is adding up. I can feel a shift in my brain, I am seeing a little more of this wonderful world that we live in, as new ideas greet me changing my inner landscape. I feel something in the world within me that I have never met before and yet feels like an age-old friend: I am contacting with my own creativity. It breathes a sigh of relief as I breathe a sigh of deep gratitude to the Aegean Center. I am sure I cannot be an exception to the rule. Feeling the others as they walk along their paths beside mine fills me with confidence that after exposing my inner world not only to them, but to (fear of fears!) to myself, I will not burn in the flames of chaos, but instead will come closer to a deeper understanding of who, and more importantly what, we are. Each class, each step takes us a little closer. Stepping through limits into a new open space, we begin to feel more confident expressing ourselves, motivated onwards by the joy of creating…until of course our ears open a little more, our eyes see wider horizons or our pens dig to previously un-delved depths, throwing us back into that un-comfort zone, into that red rawness that gradually, our brave creative souls, get more and more used to rising through.

Drawing at the Aegean Center: Part 1

21, February 2013 § 2 Comments

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When I first came to the Aegean Center in the fall of 2007 to work as John’s assistant, I had always been under the impression that artists were born with talent,  with a special way of seeing the world and the rare ability to easily render it on paper. Drawing had never been easy for me. My love for art would often inspire me to try my own hand at it, but the results were always discouraging. I thus resigned myself to being  an admirer of art, to visiting museums and taking art history at university (where studio art was closed to non-majors, giving the artist this special status and reinforcing the idea that art cannot be taught to the uninitiated).

This was something that on one level upset me, as I had always had the urge to draw and to express myself visually but never the ability. On the other hand however the forces at work had conspired to convince me that this would always be out of my reach, and so I, with not a small degree of regret, accepted my place in the world, or my place outside of art.

Then I came to the Aegean Center and for semester after semester I watched students with no prior training– armed only with that creative urge– enroll in one or both of the drawing classes and emerge three months later able to draw, to do competently all those wonderful things that artists had always impressed me with — lively gesture drawings, still lives with dramatic tonalities. The students were happy and their work seemed painless.

So in the spring of 2010, at Jun’s urging, I finally took the dive and enrolled in Basic Drawing. This class met once a week every Thursday morning from 9 to 11. That particular semester we had a handful of returning students from the Italian session and I remember that first day in class feeling particularly uneasy being with others who already seemed to know what they were doing, for whom drawing, to some degree at least, came relatively easy (for a classic overachiever like myself this was a very intimidating position to be in).

The first thing Jun had us do that morning was to draw a series of lines and circles, in an effort to loosen up our arms. We then explored the range of our pencils, making marks with varying degrees of pressure. It wasn’t until the end of class that Jun placed various still life objects on the tables in front of us giving us five minutes to draw them. This was mine, my very first drawing. As you can see I couldn’t even fit it on the page:

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We were then instructed to draw the same object but instead of focusing on its outline, we were told to draw its mass, with the pencil beginning at the center of the form and pushing out towards its boundaries. Already there is a marked improvement; the vase is more upright, more symmetrical and better conveys a sense of volume. Nevertheless, I remember leaving that class a thousand times humbled, but I was determined to learn, and I trusted Jun one hundred percent.

I was not disappointed. In the following two weeks alone, with very basic instruction on perspective, I was already able to competently render the illusion of three dimensions on paper. What was particularly amazing was that I was already in possession of the skills I needed to do this– 1) I could tell time and 2) I could draw an ellipse.

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For the remainder of the course we built on the techniques that add movement and emotion to a work, completing various exercises on line quality and tonality. We also received further instruction on how to see the way an artist sees (yes, it can be taught!), appreciating negative space and identifying composite shapes. This new way of seeing immediately changed the way I saw the world both in and out of class. It added something to my routine walks around town and helped me to better analyse why I found something beautiful, what it was about a certain tree or building that appealed to me. Otherwise boring minutes in a waiting room or in line at the bank became instructive, as I would catch myself thinking, “Now how would I  draw that?” all while isolating shapes and imagining line quality.

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I quickly discovered the value of being in a class with more experienced draughtsmen than myself, for I learned as much from them as I did from Jun, who took great care to foster an encouraging, constructive and non-competitive environment. Whenever we looked at each others work it was never with the intention of a critique but always with the intention of learning how to achieve certain effects, what improvements can be made and how — always how. To see how my classmates rendered the same objects in a still life, to gain insights into their decision making and problem solving, was an invaluable experience. (I should add that my insecurities about my own progress vanished once I realized a mixed level classroom is beneficial to everyone; you can learn just as much from a poorly conceived drawing as you can from a good one).

At the end of the semester Jun assigned a final drawing entirely of our own choosing. As I am particularly attracted to the melancholy in art, I wanted to try constructing a vanitas scene, a la 17th century Dutch still lives. I imagined something dark and moody, a bittersweet reflection on the ephermeral nature of existence. I imagined my viewer and the quiet terror that would seize him as he contemplated his own mortality! With these thoughts I deviously  went about collecting all the necessary items — the drapery, the skulls, the roses that would inevitably wilt! I set up my still life late at night within the darkened walls of my living room and was certain (oh so certain!) that my intention would be fulfilled because I had willed it and because I had the skull, a real skull (no questions, please)– but no! Hours later, looking down at my paper, was the chair, covered by my bed sheet, and there the skull, looking ever so goofy and benign. The roses too refused to look menacing. And only then did I realize where the real difficulty lies in making art: to perfectly illustrate your intention, to convey mood and alter the emotional state of the viewer, to conjure feelings and stimulate his senses. This takes more than three months– it can take an entire lifetime– but I emerged from Basic Drawing confident that I had a better idea of what I had to do to get there, and this involves working towards a masterful command of perspective, line, composition and tone.

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While I feel that I did not capture the mood I intended, or achieve much by way of composition, I am always so impressed whenever I compare my first drawing of the vase to my final drawing. At the same time, however, I am saddened. My original ideas about art and art making were wrong. But why? How did I come to believe them in the first place? That art making was reserved for a talented elite? I cannot pretend to understand just how these ideas came to permeate society, but they are dangerous, to say the least, and have far reaching consequences. Looking back I realize that had art been taught differently in school when I was a kid, with equal focus on crafts and traditional drawing techniques, my life could have been vastly different. I believe that children can afford to make one less snowman out of cotton balls if it means acquiring more sophisticated means of exploring the world and expressing themselves.  Children are curious and capable and a crafts based curriculum seriously underestimates them.

It is these thoughts that lend my final drawing its elusive somber mood. But the good news remains, that art can be taught, and I delight in this as I draw and examine this beautiful, mysterious world of which I never, ever tire.

– SS

Alumna Shanoor Servai on Returning to Paros and Visiting the Aegean Center

9, October 2012 § 1 Comment

  (Administrator’s Note: The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts blog is back! Sorry if you couldn’t find us for a while — we were having some technical issues! Visit us again for more news and notes from the Aegean Center!)

Sitting on the top deck of the 5:30 p.m. Blue Star ferry, I pulled my black moleskin journal out of my backpack. “Why I am going to Paros,” I wrote at the top of the page.  I stared at the blank sheet.

I had dreamed of returning to visit Paros and the Aegean Center since the day I left almost three years ago, but now that the moment had arrived, I was more nervous than excited.  None of my friends from my semester were returning with me—What would I do on my own for an entire week?  Did my teachers want to see me as much as I wanted to see them, or was my visit an imposition?  Had I built Paros into an unrealistic fantasy in my memory, and was the bubble about to burst?  Did I really expect being there to answer all the huge, existential questions about my precarious future that were running through my mind?

I chewed on the back of my pen.  “Because I love the beach,” I wrote, drawing a line through the words immediately after.  “Because the baklava at the bakery is the best in the world,” I wanted to make myself laugh.  “Because I need John’s advice,” I tried again.  “Because the last time I was lost and confused, I went to Paros and swam in the Aegean Sea and calmed down, and I’m counting on the magic still being there.”  Not entirely satisfied with this list, I snapped my journal shut.  The sun was turning a rich orange as it sank into the water and the wind was thick with salt and anticipation, reminding me of the sunsets I had watched and painted from the church by the Paroikia shore.

When the ferry finally pulled in at 10:00 p.m., the port could not have been a more different place than the cold, deserted town I had left behind three Decembers ago.  Tourists flocked up and down the waterfront.  Hotel staff and car rental services accosted disembarking passengers before they could make it past the windmill.  Every bar and restaurant was packed beyond capacity.  I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, feeling more anxious than ever.  But my feet did not falter once as they walked through the Plaka, turning onto Market Street towards the school building.  Behind me, the noisy evening erupted into a flurry of fireworks to celebrate the assumption of Mary.  “What am I doing here?” I muttered to myself.

I first met Jun when he was busy at his exhibition “Sacred/Wild,” but he still took the time to welcome me back and help me settle into my apartment.  My initial apprehensions retreated and I fell asleep to the sound of the wind in the olive groves.  When I arrived at the school the next morning and saw John and Jane, any remaining uneasiness disappeared entirely.  “We’re so happy to have you,” they welcomed me.  Within moments, I felt no different than I had as a student, stopping by the Uffizi during one of my breaks between classes.  Before I could ask, John handed me a key to the school and encouraged me to use it as much as I needed to.  Soon, Jane was making travel suggestions for my upcoming trip to Turkey and we were pouring over books about Istanbul.  Our conversation meandered, from the potential to study the similarities between Indian and Greek philosophy to journalism in the digital age and, most importantly, the texture of the week’s myzithra.  I was finally home.

Hours later, at a table at the Albatross laden with my favorite Parian foods, I remembered one of the most valuable lessons I learned at the school: to appreciate good food.  From our elaborate dinners at Villa Rospigliosi to the simple meals I used to cook with other students at the Aegean Village, food is a central part of the Aegean Center.  I began to see food as much more than the basis for sustenance: it is an experience to be revered and cherished.  At my first Monday morning meeting as a student, John opened with the words, “I want you all to promise me that tomorrow morning, you will buy a pomegranate and break it over Greek yogurt and honey for breakfast.”  I didn’t really like pomegranate, but the one I ate to fulfill this promise changed my palette forever.

That was October, and this was August— it was too early for pomegranate.  Now was the time to eat honeydew and water melon, and I was not about to argue with the land.  On Paros, eating seasonal food acquired new significance.  I became more attuned to weekly weather transitions than my own desire for a specific food.  I realized that fresh, local ingredients and spontaneity are critical to a good meal, but even more essential is good company.  As students, we had carried our small stoves to one apartment, pooled together the produce we had bought earlier that day and cooked dinner with each other.

Three years later, over plates piled with fresh gavros and calamari, luscious beets perfectly complemented with skordalia and horta, and tomatoes with creamy myzithra that instantly put all other cheese to shame, I remembered how much I loved to eat the Aegean Center way.  As we passed the plates around, each of us was careful to serve ourselves so that everyone else would have enough.  Sharing was far more important than self-indulgence.  How we learn to eat is symbolic of how we learn to take care of each other and develop a heightened sensitivity to our surroundings.

The Paros I had returned to in the summer was remarkably different from the winter Paros I remembered, but its beauty still left me breathless.  My friends (the ones who have never been to Greece) often tease me that my relentless praise for Greece’s natural beauty makes me a perfect candidate to work for the Greek Tourism Organization.  Ever since I left, I have dreamed of the narrow, cobbled streets of Paroikia, weaving my way through white washed walls, blue domes and pink bougainvillea creepers.  I have insisted that the sunlight on Paros is more luminous than anywhere else in the world and that the deep purple and turquoise water of the Aegean has mysterious healing properties.

Returning to Paros reaffirmed that its landscape instantly calms me.  I spent my days visiting old haunts and discovering new ones.  I realized that Krios was no longer the far beach I used to hike to in the winter; it was one of the busiest beaches on the island, and a ten-minute ferry ride from the port.  Lefkes, however, was still deserted once I walked out of the town square and into the mountains.  Hiking past abandoned windmills, through the terraced landscape studded with ancient olive trees, I returned to my solitary Paros.  The sirocco was particularly violent that day, but with no one but the wind to listen to, I found the same inner quiet that I had come looking for.  Suddenly the questions that had been on my mind since I left New York three weeks ago no longer seemed insurmountable.

I rediscovered my old running route to the Valley of the Butterflies and went swimming at the Cave of the Nymphs, each time feeling immensely grateful to connect so intimately with the earth.  I have grown up and lived in large cities for most of my life, and the ability to appreciate nature is one that I have gradually learned.  Learning to love Paros, and by extension Greece, was easy, because I was introduced to the place through John’s love for the island.  Friday hikes are as much a part of the curriculum as figure drawing or art history.  As students, we learned that although we spent most of our time in Paroikia, there were worlds beyond for us to explore.  Three years later, my interest in wandering around the island was still fresh.  Where would a familiar path lead me if I turned left instead of right?  Where would the land lead me if I left the path all together?

Paros reminded me that it is possible to live slower and more deliberately, and that the benefits to watching the sun set and moon rise every evening are immeasurable.  I felt the same unencumbered joy each morning when I woke up simply by choosing to listen to the waves.  I realized that I could call more than one place in the world “home,” because even after I left Paros, I continued to carry its wisdom with me.

Being at home on Paros was possible because I was also coming home to family.  The Aegean Center is not a semester- or year-long program: it is an opportunity to belong to a close-knit community for life.  From seeing familiar faces around Paroikia to meeting students from different semesters who were also there, every day was an affirmation of the school’s inclusive and supportive community.

When I met Jeff and Liz in the school courtyard, they asked me not five but twenty-five questions about how I was, what I had done in the past three years and what I planned to do in the future.  Our conversation picked up exactly where it left off when I used to sit in the dark room with Liz, pouring over my test strips and telling her what was on my mind.  At the school, we develop relationships with our teachers that go far beyond typical student teacher interactions.  Our teachers make the effort to get to know us, take care of us and remain genuinely interested in who we become after we leave.  Reconnecting with John, Jane, Jun, Jeff and Liz reminded me that I had learned much more than fine arts skills at the school.  Their experience and insight has taught me a way of life that I constantly seek to recreate when I am physically not on Paros.

One week later, on my way to Athens, I was back on the top deck of the ferry with my journal.  “I could write pages and pages about this past week.  But all I need to say about it is that it was perfect,” I wrote.  Visiting Paros brought back beautiful memories and allowed me to create new ones.  It reminded me that the bliss I had experienced as a student was still there, and will always be there, waiting patiently for me to return.

Easter: The Transcendence of Kefi

9, May 2012 § Leave a comment

My expectations for the Easter weekend at Ekatontapyliani were set pretty high. And it delivered the goods. The promised rose petals fell from the dome at midnight on Good Friday, the lights of the church were extinguished at midnight on Easter Eve and then hand-held candles, carrying a flame from Jerusalem apparently, relit the church and sanctuary outside. Then sure enough there was a firework display in the square (followed by an unofficial one conducted by unruly teenagers that was menacingly close to the hoards of church-goers!).

But I wouldn’t dare purport to have experienced Greek Easter without having at least sampled ‘Mayiritsa’ — yes, that’s right, gut soup, eaten to reintroduce meat to the diet after lent. So we promptly drifted over to a nearby taverna at midnight after church and I gave it a go. I also ate a couple of ‘kokoretsi’ rings for my dad’s sake (England’s number one Kokoretsi fan, kokoretsi being chopped innards wrapped in intestines).

Although all these experiences were memorable, what really defined Easter 2012 for me was the impromptu dancing in that taverna after the Mayiritsa had gone down. I’m talking old men in the middle of the restaurant dancing ‘Zeimbekiko’ on smashed glass, with paper napkins snowing down on them, sweat and passion till 5am on Easter morning. The rhythm and the melody got me and I just had to dance. Just days before, Eleni had led a Greek dancing lesson on Zeimbekiko so a group of us headed for the clearing between the tables and joined in.

Although I had been taught Zeimbekiko before, Eleni was the first to teach me about the spirit behind the dance; its origin being an ancient war dance that soldiers performed to simultaneously express their pride, pain and passion. That ethos is still alive and literally kicking.

At one point a man jumped from being upright straight down to being horizontal on the ground in a press up position, picked up a wine glass with his teeth from the floor, downed the wine and then with a nod, released it sending crystals of glass in every direction much to the delight of the crowd.

But what never fails to astound me is the agility of the older men who, to be honest aren’t always at the peak of physical fitness. They manage to draw strength for their hops, leaps, twists and slow backwards bends from somewhere beyond their bodies, it must be from their spirits.

Let me introduce the Greek word ‘kefi’. ‘Kefi’ doesn’t succinctly translate into English but refers to an overflow of exuberance from your spirit which can manifest itself in dancing, singing or general high spirits. Sometimes it carries connotations of being so happy you’re a bit mad. What else could possess you to dance till 5 in the morning and not feel tired? In an instant it didn’t really matter who or what you were, we were one group moved by the moment and nothing else mattered. It can’t be planned or expected but sometimes Kefi strikes and when I look back on that night I’m reminded of exactly why I got a one-way ticket to Greece.

– Nicola Pasterfield

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