Today I celebrate my being surrounded by my favourite colour, Blue! Wherever I turn my eyes I see blue, blue sea, blue sky, a blue house, blue boats. Pure natural blue in all shades. I am lucky and thankful that I live here.
Blue is the colour of Greece, even our flag is blue. Politicians in other places may claim the name of the “blue country” but Greece is really the one. The whole country, especially the islands, is surrounded by the sea.
The colour of the sea is slightly different in each island. It has to do with the way the light is reflected, the light of Greece that artists talk about. We cannot easily live without it.
It will soon be exactly twenty years since Ioannis Stathatos moved to Chios island, to my village. About six months earlier he had decided to retire to an island. He loved the sea and wanted to be near the water for the rest of his life. So, he came to Chios, went around the island and found a place which could house his new life, including all his ‘toys’, as he called his tools. Tools were very important as he had always been a ‘maker’ and he would need them to fix up his new house. Back in Athens, he worked hard to fulfill the orders he had for looms, before leaving in April 2001.
Ioannis Stathatos was born in Athens, grew up in Plaka, the old part of the city, below the Acropolis rock which he could see from his bedroom. In the 1950s he went to England to study Textile Engineering. There was a reason for it as his father had a very successful business selling textiles.
When he returned to Greece he designed fabrics, blankets, etc. and had them produced. He then spent a few years abroad. Back in Athens, he set up a business importing coffee. All these years textiles were part of his life, in one way or another. He had also made a loom to weave on at home.
One day he received a visitor who happened to see that loom in a corner of the house. That man was working at EOMMEX (Greek handicraft organization). He immediately told Stathatos to start making looms for other weavers, too. The loom was a jack type one, the kind of compact handloom closer to the industrial machines in the way that the harnesses are raised, the beater is pivoted from the base, and very suitable for multi-harness weaving.
Before selling the coffee business and coming full circle to textiles again, by making looms, he did research. He went around visiting weavers to discuss their problems with the looms they were using. Then he designed the looms that made him well known in our weaving world. He wanted to make ‘machines’ that would help weavers make a living by working for several hours without hurting their bodies. The looms were strong, compact to fit in today’s spaces, easy to work on without needing extra strength. There were many small details that made all this possible and he kept developing these details. His textile engineering knowledge and his ability to solve problems helped him with this.
Until then (early-mid 1980s and later) all looms made in Greece were made by carpenters who did not know much about weaving. They were mostly copying existing looms, either our traditional village looms or looms from abroad (the ‘Armenian’, the ‘Norwegian’, table looms etc.). No-one had designed a loom from scratch.
Stathatos used to say that “A handloom is a machine in wood, primitive by today’s standards but still a machine”. He did not consider himself a carpenter (“I only know how to make looms”) and he did not use the traditional ways of working with wood (“Why do you make it in this way? We have always made it in this way”). Instead, he developed his own techniques which made his ‘machines’ stronger and his work easier on his body. He never followed an idea or a way of making something without analyzing it and then developing it to make it his own (“… and I can tell you why”). He had a sharp mind that helped him with this. He was also very hardworking, never afraid to try new ways, always working alone because no-one could easily catch up with the speed that his mind and body were working.
During the last 17 years of his professional life, as a loom maker, he designed many types: the basic loom (an excellent very strong all-purpose loom), the heavy type (heavy duty and the best and only loom to have for all types of weaving, fine to very heavy), the jack type, the dobby, tapestry, carpet, table looms and many weaving tools. Not long before retiring he designed a horizontal carpet loom, a loom that could accommodate the extreme tension needed on the cotton warp to weave wide pile carpets. Unfortunately, very few of this type of loom were made.
During those 17 years in Athens, I was a good client of Stathatos, had bought 7 of his looms. I needed many looms when I was teaching and had many by other makers, too. I could compare them then, and so did my students from many parts of the world.
And then I met him again here, on Chios. I remember him telling me that “The loom helps weavers to bring out the artist hidden within them”. I also remember him telling me that he had been the happiest business owner during his loom making years because he had to deal with very nice people, weavers. As far as I know, his clients liked him, too. Some of his clients were bigger state and privately owned weaving workshops. He was a very polite and generous person who used to pass on his weaving knowledge freely, spending a lot of time doing that. I still get his weaving tips passed on to me by other weavers. And people are still calling his family to have a loom made.
Stathatos spent his last twelve very happy years on Chios island. He made a lot of friends and left his mark here, too, not only on the weaving world. He continued to be the polite, helpful and generous person he had always been, gathering people around him, finding solutions to their problems, organizing parties. And he enjoyed the freedom of living on the island as much as he could, fishing, hunting, the sea, the countryside filled with the scent of mastiha and citrus trees.
It is already 8 years since he left this world but people still remember him. What pushed me to write this blog post was that a few days ago a girl at the super market was talking about him. Also that my lady butcher gave me a Stathatos recipe that she often passes on to her clients. Weaving and life become one.
P.S. Most of the photos were given to me by the Stathatos family, the photographers are unknown to me.
Somewhere, in a book, I once read “The sun rises in obedience to a universal law”. A sunrise means much more to me. A new day, a new beginning, being thankful that I am there watching it, beauty, change.
There is change from second to second, especially when the sun starts rising. And variety, every day is different, even when it seems to be the same. Just like everything in life.
Once, not so long ago, there was a man who loved the sea and wanted to live the rest of his life on the island. Then came a woman, she met the man and she also moved to the island. They got married in a tiny church in the countryside, bought a small boat and decided they wanted a little house near the port where their boat was moored.
So they built a wooden house, a place to bring together all their friends to eat, drink ouzo and souma (the local drink), talk and have fun. After the man “left” this world, the woman planted a cypress tree and started using the house as a retreat to read, make jewellery, weave her tapestries, be close to nature and walk near the sea. This is the story of the Blue House.
The plot, on which the house is built, is half filled with mastic trees. The place is perfect for independent minds who want to work creatively in a natural environment surrounded by light, have a pleasant place to return to after exploring the island, or spend quiet days near the sea and among mastic trees (the basic elements of Chios).
I miss my village. Because of the Covid-19 I am stuck in the big city. Spring makes it more difficult, but I shouldn’t complain. The streets in my neighbourhood are lined with trees and the smell of the citrus flowers is intoxicating. And I have the Acropolis to rest my eyes on. It is rather quiet and as there are not so many cars driving around I can hear the birds singing. But my “plan” was to spend Easter in my village. Plans proved to be just plans.
My real “village” is Athens, but my Chios one adopted me almost twenty years ago. It first adopted my husband, who found himself there by chance, and then I followed.
I am dreaming of walking around in the village, breathing the fragrant air (Chios is famous for it), talking to people, exchanging news, exploring the old and often abandoned houses. These houses have many interesting stories to tell me. But, to be honest, I often prefer to wonder about these stories, or make up my own. The truth can sometimes be disappointing.
All the houses in this castle-village are made of stone and each stone is interesting, unique, there are no two exactly the same. I can see the marks of the human hands that shaped them and I think of the people who carried these heavy stones on their backs or on the backs of their donkeys or mules. When I first went to the village there were only two donkeys left, now there is none. Progress!…
But the village is not just stones. It is surrounded by beautiful nature with mastic trees, wild flowers and bushes, gardens with flowers and vegetables, vineyards and, a little further away, the blue sea.
People are the most important “ingredient” in a small community, the friendships made and the way they help each other, especially in bad times. And I miss them.
Twenty four years ago Nikos Balatsos decided to make a new beginning in his life, in a place where he had never been before. So, he came to Chios from Karditsa (mainland Greece). All he knew about the island was that mastiha (mastic) was cultivated in the southern part of it, the only place in the world. Maybe that’s what brought him here, he says.
After school he started looking for something to study that would allow him to do creative work and be his own boss. Then he discovered ceramics. He went to Italy to a school for ceramics where, as a very young man, he also learned a lot about life. He is happy about his choice, now.
When he arrived to Chios he met good people who supported his decision to stay and find the right place for him. One day, by chance, he found an old half ruined olive press mill in Mesta. That is where he housed his ceramics workshop and set up a new life. Now he has a beautiful shop-workshop, at the entrance of the mediaeval village, with a sunny little courtyard where his clients sit and talk with him.
All his work is based on shapes. He forms the clay on the potter’s wheel and then shapes it again by hand, trying to extend it beyond its limits. Then comes the colouring. That is what makes his work even more personal. He works mostly in blues and greens mixing mineral salts and silver nitrate, using his own recipes. By changing even slightly the proportions of the materials, colours keep changing. Even the humidity in the air, he says, makes a difference. He feels humbled by all this, realizing that he knows very little although he has worked on it for so long. After all these years he keeps experimenting, making new discoveries, and learning. Every batch of ceramics is fired three times. Whenever a round of work has finished, he starts a new one.
Nikos’ work expresses, consciously or unconsciously, his experiences in life, his feelings, everything that’s inside him, even the weather, the environment, the light… That is why there are variations, so much depth, so many layers of colour. It is a pity that most of this is lost in the photos.
For the future, he wants to keep experimenting, making new discoveries and doing what he loves, for as long as he can. Life is good here. He ended up in one of the mastic producing villages, after all, in the southern part of Chios island!
As I am thinking more and more about spending winters in the big city, Chios is getting more and more beautiful. Spring has come. Wherever I go I see colours, yellows, greens, purples. And every day these colours are changing, soon they will become stronger.
The colours in the photos are just a few of what I saw this morning. It is so exciting to be surrounded by all this beauty that making a photo, placing the camera between my eyes and the colours, is sacrilege.
The time of the year has arrived when the many mastiha (mastic) producers of southern Chios have already collected and washed the resin drops from the mastic trees and are now cleaning them one drop (tear) by one drop (tear) at a time. This will take a few months.
When I made the blog post about mastiha and the museum, last October (https://toultouline.com/2017/10/20/the-mastic-gum-of-chios-greece/) the video I just discovered did not exist. It is about the Mastic Museum and it shows the whole setup beautifully. You can see the rows of cultivated mastic trees around the museum. So here it is:
But not all mastic trees are cultivated. There are still many left in their natural state.
It must have been in 2002 when Gerti Preyer told me, a newcomer, that they, her husband and herself, had already been in our small village for about 18 years, the last 10 living full time there. Her husband was Robert Preyer, a German painter. He was born in 1930 in Brussels, Belgium, and moved to Germany in 1944 where, later on, he studied art. During his life, he taught painting and had many exhibitions of his work. In the years 1968-88, he was a professor at the Fachhochschule Wiesbaden.
He started with lithography, then he developed his painting. The landscape, the light and the colours of Greece were decisive for his work. Robert Preyer: “In this illuminated country, my painting could quickly take root. Rather as the result of colours, the liquid and solid matter of the Greek landscape resembles my idea of materializing the colouristic appearance on the canvas. But the natural effect of the images arises from the energy of the colours when they form and grow together.”
During the time he lived full time on Chios and then when he spent the winters in Germany and the rest of the year in Greece, Robert kept his ties with the art world in Germany where he often had exhibitions of his work.
Gerti was spending more time than Robert socializing with the people in the village and also feeding the stray cats. Robert, a very kind and quiet man, when not visiting different places on the island and enjoying the sea, was working in his studio, completely absorbed by his art making. He kept painting until the end.
In the early autumn of 2014, he spent some time in the hospital on Chios, then in Germany, where in December he passed away in Rettert im Taunus. Gerti continued returning to Chios every spring and leaving in the autumn until her death in February 2017.
Both Robert and Gerti Preyer were very much liked by everyone in the village. Their house, at the edge of the village with a nice open view, was renovated with love by them. Today, the people who live there have no connection with the Preyer family. They also have no idea of the artist’s struggle to find inspiration, to express it through his medium, to be creative. I’m not even sure they care…
The weather is still very good in my part of the world, southern Chios island, Greece. It is sunny and quite warm, perfect for spending time outside. And that’s exactly what I did this morning, I spent some time walking around in my village and looking at the ruins.
By studying the half demolished old houses I can see the work of the old craftsmen who built them by cutting each stone by hand, carrying it to the building site, assembling the stones to form a wall, then doors, windows, steps, floors, ceilings, etc. I can see the building techniques used so that the walls could support at least one extra floor. I can also see that different stones were used for the doors and windows, big slabs of stone for the floors and steps. The hand of the craftsman is present on every stone. Often, we can see some additions and repairs done on the original building at a later time.
Older people in my village have told me that everyone was working in the building of a new house. After all, just to give the right shape to every stone used and to carry all the very heavy building material to the building site, a lot of people and animals were needed.
Many of the ruins belong to people who do not live in Greece anymore or have moved to Athens. Their parents and grandparents left the village many years ago. Often, a house is owned by many people who do not even know each other, they are just coming from the same family a few generations back. In one case, the space of the ruin has been taken over by the neighbours to create a green spot in the middle of our stone village.
After studying the “raw” stone walls of the ruins, my walls have another meaning. I can picture the craftsmen around 1740 trying to cut by hand and fit the stones together to build my house. How many were they? Where did the stone come from? How long did it take to build the house? Who was the owner? Did he have a big family? Did they live happily in this house?