On Olive Trees

This island, Lesvos, of all islands, must be defined by the olive tree–an island so rich in so many things, but the olive tree is central here. Ubiquitous. Everyone I’ve met has land with olive trees that they harvest in the winter.  Everywhere, clinging to the sides of steep slopes, terraced to grow on even the steepest slopes.

But the color? Leftheris, a stone-layer living in Sikaminia quoted to me the village’s most famous son; the writer Myrivillis, who wrote that Lesvos is like a grey green leaf floating on the Aegean. Grey green. That is the typical, the received idea of the color of the trees. Olive green from the tube–a grey green. But I can’t be happy with this color–this non-color in a way. It lacks life, it lacks vitality–to me it doesn’t speak of this tree–this tree so central to Greece–to all things Greek. What would Greece be without the olive tree, which has it’s mythical roots in Athena. Athena, in a contest with Poseidon for the city of Athens, produced the olive tree by striking the earth with her  staff. Her offering gave the Athenians fruit, oil, shelter from the sun, and wood. A tree bearing her name still grows near the Erichtheon in Athens. From ancient times to now, the olive tree tree thrives.

Soon after arriving in Greece, I realized that the color of the olive tree was difficult to see. Some weeks after I was settled on Lesvos, while driving back to Ayios Isidoros from Molyvos, my two home bases on the island, while passing the olive groves at Mistegna in the midday sun, I understood.

On Olive Trees

This island, Lesvos, of all islands, must be defined by the olive tree–an island so rich in so many things, but the olive tree is central here. Ubiquitous. Everyone I’ve met has land with olive trees that they harvest in the winter.  Everwhere, clinging to the sides of steep slopes, terraced to grow on even the steepest slopes.

But the color? A stone-layer living in Sikiminia quoted to me the village’s most famous son; the writer Myrivillis, who wrote that Lesvos is like a grey green leaf floating on the Aegean. Grey green. That is the typical, the received idea of the color of the trees. Olive green from the tube–a grey green. But I can’t be happy with this color–this non-color in a way. It lacks life, it lacks vitality–to me it doesn’t speak of this tree–this tree so central to Greece–to all things Greek. What would Greece be without the olive tree, which has it’s mythical roots in Athena. Athena, in a contest with Poseidon for the city of Athens, produced the olive tree by striking the earth with her  staff. Her offering gave the Athenians fruit, oil, shelter from the sun, and wood. A tree bearing her name still grows near the Erichtheon in Athens.

Some weeks after I arrived in Greece, while driving back to Ayios Isidoros from Molyvos, my two home bases on the island, while passing the olive groves at Mistegna in the midday sun, I understood.

Under the blue gold sky, the almond slivered leaves dance a sparkling, bright, silvery blue with a kiss of gold. And below, in gathered canopy, swaying towards the sun-hardened, rocky ground, a green-ochre, warmed by the hot earth. Reflecting the sky above and earth below–mediating heaven and earth–the slender, hard leaves,mirror-like, graceful yet tough, the twisted trunks–silvery grey in the sun–ageless, producing fruit hard and small, that properly brined yield an exquisite taste renowned world-wide, and an oil redolent of the sun.This was the beginning of understanding the color, which changes to many other colors.

These trees, to me at least, symbolize the Greek people–a people surviving the centuries under poverty, wars and overlords, yet yielding so much to the culture of the world and personally, so much warmth and caring under their outer toughness. Greeks, so resilient and independent–as an olive tree clinging to the side of a mountain, yet thriving–unlike the redwoods, which used to grow on Lesvos, which need each other and a steady, cool, dampness to create a dense canopy to ward off the sun’s drying rays–only then can they grow. The remnant’s of Lesvos’s redwood like petrified near Sigri in a large stone forest. The redwoods are in our distant past, yet remain in a different form. Now, we have the olive tree, sparkling in the wind and sun, mediating heaven and earth. And as my friend Gregory remarked, when the wind blows, sky and earth  become mixed together. This is the tree I want to paint–not a drab green, but the color of the beauty of this tree of fantastic shapes, reflecting the changing light of ground and sky. I feel that I could paint this tree for many years more to express all of this and to capture its changing color and light. This summer I made my start.

xOlive Trees Muxaniona Web

Olive Trees Nees Kidonees Web

 

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Paintings

Kalathiki, Amodeli web

Molyvos II Web

Viewing Molyvos Web

Xalas, Molyvos web

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Teaching Art in Molyvos

art class Molyvos

Every Monday afternoon I hold a free art class for children in Molyvos in the studio of the Athens School of Fine Arts’ residence in Molyvos. The studio has all kinds of interesting objects in it, such as skulls of sheep and other animals, old farm machinery, sculptures, and various art supplies, easels, and so on. I don’t have a lot to work with, but am able to find what I need to teach the children basic drawing skills.

My students range the ages of 8 to 12 and either live in Molyvos full time or have homes here and spend the summer on the island. In the photo are Smaragda (which means ‘Emerald’), Mariella, and Harris. They’re good students and with each class are getting better at seeing light and shade. They’re eager to learn and are excited about the class. In my last class, Harris, the youngest, told me that the sound of his pencil moving over the paper as he drew was like making music. It’s a real joy to teach these children.

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Painting in Argenos

Me Ptg Argenos 3

Me Ptg Argenos 2

Me Ptg Argenos

This is me, painting in a small stand of pine trees next to the school playground of the mountain village of Argenos, Lesvos. The view was spectacular and best of all, under the umbrella and pine trees, it was comfortable. There was a nice breeze blowing, and I quite enjoyed this morning painting.

The light is what I paint, but the sun is also my enemy, as it rises in the sky and heats the air to a very uncomfortable degree. As you can see from the photos, I’m dressed to protect myself from the sun, as much as possible. I won’t make it into Vogue :), but at least I’m protecting my skin as much as possible.  Even so, by now, I’m quite tanned.

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The Fig Tree

When I first arrived in Greece and was running around Athens to stage my project/expedition/odyssey, I often took the bus to get around. One day, while riding the bus near Melissia where I was staying with the Cosmopoulos family (Melissia is a very pretty, relatively green neighborhood on the outskirts of Athens), I was surprised to see a neatly dressed, late-middle-aged woman riding the bus with a fig tree at her feet. It was a spindly tree, but had a lot of young fruit.

A lady who passed by the lady with the fig tree asked her which kind of fig tree it was, as if riding the bus with a fig tree were a perfectly natural thing to do. As I stood by the tree waiting for my bus to stop, I commented to the lady about how laden the young tree was with fruit. She gave me a wide smile and told me that she has many fig trees, but none of them are bearing fruit this year, so she bought this one to have some figs this summer.

This encounter was redolent with so much symbolism, I’ve wanted to write about it since it happened. The bible stories–the cursed fig tree–Greece losing its way?–and the desire for a new start, Genesis, etc.. I think of the Greeks and their troubles, yet their resilience and–despite much grumbling, their joy in their country and life. Living the ancient way and looking to the new, facing both east and west– despite the really bleak time the country is going through–Greece holds within it so much richness, beauty, and meaning.

August is around the corner and this is the month of the fig. The fig and the olive are the two fruit that speak most to me of Greece. How many songs and poems have been written about these two trees and their fruit? I, for one, am really looking forward to eating figs off the tree in August. My friend Mercini, of Batos fame, told me that she has an American cousin who flies to Lesvos to stay in Batos for week every August to eat figs.

This makes me think that I’d like to paint a fig tree–while sitting in its shade eating figs :).

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Sunset at Ayios Isidoros

Sunset, Plomari web

Lesvos is known for its sunsets. Almost every evening, there’s a spectacular sunset as the sun turns red near the horizon and the sky fills with hot colors of red, orange, pink and then finally, mauve. In Molyvos, the sun sets over the ocean. In Ayios Isidoros, it sets behind a mountain behind Plomari. After painting sunsets on the other side of the Atlantic and in a different ocean, I was curious to see what it would be like to paint them here. Other than the visceral difference of being further east, the main difference is that the sky stays bright for a much longer time here after the sun sets, so the land is lit for a longer time.

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Blackie

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

I came across Blackie and his mom while walking to Plomari; I found out later that he was a newborn. I’ve never seen a newborn colt before and was impressed by how long his legs are. I may have been the first person to take his picture–he was quite camera shy and a little startled to be photographed.

Soon after I returned from Molyvos to Ayios Isodoros a week ago Monday, Mare and colt were moved to a pasture next to my apartment. I can often hear them, especially at night when it’s pretty quiet. I’d like to feed them some treats–can anyone tell me what would make a good treat for them? I remember from the horse books I read as a child that the kids in the book would feed horses apples :).

Lesvos is known for its horse breeding and you see horses almost everywhere you go.  I was amused to see a sign at the gate of a famous monastery, Moni Taxiarches, that said that no horses are allowed on the premises. There are quite a few festivals on the island involving horses. There’s one in Plomari in August, which has a special song associated with it. The men of Palaio Xori (meaning old village), a mountain village particularly known for its horses, bring their horses down to Plomari, the largest town near the village, and dance on the horses!

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Fire Festival

It seems that every day there’s at least one festival on the island–both with ancient, pagan roots and Orthodox Christian significance. Two days ago was the fire festival, which is both ancient and Christian. After dark, villagers build a bonfire for people to jump over. There’s also music, poetry, and dancing. The heart of the festival revolves around young men and women finding their future husband or wife. In addition to the fire, there’s a bowl of water covered with red cloth. Inside the water, girls place various everyday objects. Over the course of the evening, objects are pulled out and the name of the girl is announced. Then the emcee reads a poem written by the girl; the poems were usually short, rhyming, slightly dirty, and funny. I sat next to an older woman who told me some of the other rituals surrounding this festival. She spoke in the local dialect, so I didn’t catch all of it, but they were all versions of how a girl will figure out who her husband should be. The Christian side of the festival celebrates St. John the Forerunner. The people of Molyvos all know each other and there’s a lot of laughter and teasing as kids jump over the bonfire and the poems are read.

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Molyvos

I’m posting from Molyvos–a medieval hill town in the north of the island. The houses are made of stone, leading up to a castle on the top of the hill. There’s a small harbor and a unique agora–it’s on a cobblestone street wide enough for a small car and is covered by wisteria vines–some over a hundred years old. The people here are friendly, welcoming, and helpful, as they are everywhere I’ve been in Greece (including big city Athens).

Aside from the capitol of the island, Mytiline, it’s the most cosmopolitan and cultured of the Lesvian towns.

This morning I made a start on an oil painting of a large earthenware jug in a field (it looks like an archaeological dig was started in the field), a large pine tree, houses, the sea, and mountains in the distance. Three children, Fotine (which means ‘light’ in Greek), Anita, and Raphael (named after a saint of the island) who live across the street from the field came to watch. After watching for a while, one of the girl shyly asked me how much my paintings cost, for she and her sister would like to buy one each. Very sweet.

Tomorrow, back to the same spot to continue working on the painting.

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Meltemi

I’ve heard about the famous Meltemi wind, an annual wind that blows from the north–known in ancient times as the Etesian winds, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it. It’s a wonderful, cooling wind, but this year, it’s been blowing like crazy for the last five days–it must be blowing at least 25 nauts, gusting to 30 or more. There are several sailing yachts stranded in Plomari harbor, for it’s too dangerous to be at sea. The fisherman are not going out either. The wind has brought the temperature down and drives away the mosquitos, and since we’re in the south, the beaches are calm, so most people are happy about it!

Today, I finally found some odorless mineral spirits! I had  looked in several stores in Athens and found only small bottles that would have lasted me just a few days and they were expensive. I tried to explain to one of the shop owners what I was looking for and he sold me a yellowish fluid in an unmarked bottle that smelled like fish. I was pretty desperate at that point, so I bought it, but it hasn’t been any good.

While swimming this afternoon, a Greek man and I started chatting and I discovered that he’s an artist. It’s a hobby for him,  but he’s had some exhibits. I asked him if he knew of any art stores in the capital of the island, Mytiline, and told him what I’m looking for. He said he’s bought some OMS in Plomari, a hill town on the water, very close to where I’m staying. He told me what to ask for in Greek–nefti–and I was very happy to find it. It was sold in a one liter bottle for less than three euros.

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