ATHENS – For centuries people have been coming to Greece for various reasons and unexpectedly fall in love with the country. It happens with villages and islands too. The story of painter Nikolaos A. Houtos’ love affair with the island of Siphnos was expressed in paintings at a recent exhibition «ωχρα+μπλε» at the Ersis Gallery in Kolonaki.
Despite setting his Alexandria Quartet novels – in Egypt, author Lawrence Durrell used his rich palette of words to describe experiences he had in Greece. Henry Miller’s Colossus of Marousi was another colorful but verbal expression of an artist’s Greek Passion. Houtos uses paint – for Siphnos, as the exhibition’s title suggests, his images glow with mainly two colors, ochre, signifying the soil, and the Aegean blue that christens sea and sky.
“In recent years many Americans, Greeks and non-Greeks, have visited Siphnos,” Houtos told The National Herald.
“My story is rather mythical,” he said of the decision to move much of his life to the Island in the middle of the Aegean whose light impacts souls, canvases and photographs alike.
“Five years ago some of my high school classmates made a surprise visit to an exhibition of mine in Italy. I had not seen some in 30 years. We decided to travel together to Delphi and the great Byzantine monument of Hosios Loukas.” Houtos, a Byzantinist, is currently the iconographer at the Church of Aghia Triada in Holargos.
During an evening at a waterside tavern near Delphi his friends pleaded, “what will you do with your life – you are always abroad.” When he told them he wants to establish an atelier on an island, they said in unison: “There is only one island for you Siphnos – εσει εισαι μονο για ενα νησι.”
His mind leapt to the famous Siphnian Treasury they just saw at Delphi, and soon he was on the island itself.
“I was very lucky to find available the very space captured by French humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in his famous photo of a little girl running through the town of Artemonas. It near the Παναγιά η Κόχη church and I rented it immediately. I go as often as I can.”
The little girl, Flora, is now the mother of five delightful children.
Houtos caught the Siphnos wave very early. “While there were but three tavernas in the town five years ago, a wonderful cultural life recently evolved,” seasoned by nature and some beautiful neoclassical houses. “There, I have developed a personal myth of my “arte monas” where I create my “arte” “monos mou” – alone,” he said, smiling at the wordplay.
The artist was embraced by the warmth of the people and the hospitality and culture that survived centuries of occupation- mainly Italian. The Turks collected taxes but never occupied the island.
At the time of his arrival there was a movement among European intellectuals into the Cyclades including the great architect a Le Corbusier, and Houtos believes those journeys further inspired his minimalist impulses.
Artist Panagiotis Tetsis of Hydra – who died last year – also loved Siphnos. He lived and painted in the village of Kato Petali.
Houtos began with water colors and general Cyclades themes – the paintings do not evoke particular places and he does not seek photorealism.
His talent and passion burst forth as a child, but there were no other artists in his family. Houtos’s parents directed him towards journalism because he was an excellent writer.
His art did not stagnate with military service in the Aegean. The island of Lemnos inspired him to produce theatrical presentations for his fellow soldiers.
After Lemnos he turned his attention and energy to painting. In 1987 he joined art groups in the Netherlands beginning with the Neo-Dada movement, and he created collages for Athenian magazines while also publishing articles.
Continuing his training, Houtos realized the European and modern tradition dominated his thought, so he turned to the Hellenic traditions, including Byzantine art.
Houtos has been working in Siphnos for three and a half years. The light of the Aegean, especially in the Cyclades, has a spiritual quality he said, which permeates people and buildings like the 365 churches on the island – one for every day of the year as the natives say.
That light and geometric lines of his houses and landscapes, evoking a soft mathematics and a deep appreciation of the essence of nature prompts he question whether he admired Plato. Houtos responded by expressing his love of all the great philosophers, the best of whom were also poets.
He does not write poetry, but he likes it when people see his paintings as poems, and his paintings invite visitors to experience their sources on Siphnos.