Art gallery

Nikos Katris

He is born on November 19th, in 1967 in Piraeus. His family is situated on Santorini for generations. The ancestors survived as farmers and fishermen. They were ordinary people. They did not belong to the island oligarchs partially dating back to the Venetian era.

Nikos Katris attended school in Piraeus. Until the age of 19 he spent the summer season on the island and the winter in Piraeus. After the army days, that is to say at the age of 21, Nikos is a constant resident on Santorini.

From 1986 till 1996 Nikos worked in his mother’s tavern in Akrotiri. Then he built up his own tavern, within which his old parents lend him a hand; it’s a real family business where one sits at the table in the evening in several shifts and goes over the chronicle of current island events and family stories with uncle, aunt, brothers and sisters in law, cousins and godfathers, enjoying wine and fish meanwhile. The regular from abroad who appears several times soon is no longer a customer but becomes a guest instead, a “Philos” integrated into the clan and no longer served but hosted. The old father cheers friendly towards the guests from “Fog Europe”, the grandmother is coming out of the kitchen, wishes a hearty appetite to everyone and asks if it had been delicious this time as well. Then follows the exchange of the usual basic information: Married? Since when? How many children? Any children at all? Even grandchildren already? Where from? Ah yes, in Wuppertal, in Stuttgart, in Frankfurt are living relatives. From Cologne, from Berlin or Dresden guests arrive on a regular basis who have caught the “Santorini Fever”, with whom one talks on the phone sometimes, to whom one looks forward year after year.

In 1994 Nikos’ first child is born, the apple of his eye, the daughter Melina, after whom the tavern is named. A good omen for Melina, grown up meanwhile, is picture-perfect. She comes after the Australian mother, has honey-coloured hair and is lovable like Nausikaa.

From Melina’s birth on the young father became a clan chief and took responsibility for his loved ones and for himself. He became home-builder and architect on his own account, transformed the “on the fly” beach bar into a perpetual construction site still not finished, a “work in progress”. Building season was the winter, when the guests from the North, wrapped up in thick furs, are dreaming of the light of the Aegean and of the sunsets on Santorini which one can enjoy extraordinary well from “Melina’s Tavern”. Although not until the submerging of the glowing globe into the sea because in the West behind the tavern the red mountain obstructs the view. Nevertheless the evening view is unforgettable, when the boats at the makeshift pier become silhouettes and the uninhabited group of the Chistiana Goat Islandssails over the golden horizon into the night shadow.

Nikos has returned to the roots of the family. The three siblings sought and found their luck, at least their occupational subsistence, on the mainland and on the sea, the usual emigration quota on the Aegean islands. Two of the siblings work in maritime professions, this is also typical for island Greeks. The brother is marine engineer and signs up on different ships. He is planning his and his families relocation to Dubai because there the freight ship and tanker routes intersect. One of the sisters is a logistics manager and is brokering ship freight. The other sister is artistical like the brother. She is a graphic artist. From her do the sea swallows and fish bearers origin who, following the example of the wall paintings of Akrotiri, are painted on big rough canvas decorating Nikos’ tavern and being even mentioned in one travel guide.

That much is to be told about the siblings of Nikos. To this hour, Nikos is not master in his own house. The estate does not belong him. The owners live in Megalochori. They belong to the island oligarchy. They are the benefactors of the great chapel of Agios Nikolaos on the other end of the beach, near the fork to the “Red Beach”. In addition to this, Nikos is confronted by another problem: in 2005, the roof of the Akrotiri excavation tumbled. Whether it was sloppy construction, wrongly calculated statics or even sabotage is not yet decided and is still examined by surveyors and insurance experts. Until a culprit –and with him a person liable insurance-wise- is found, the excavation is halted and is off limits for visitors for there were people dead and injured because of the construction disaster. Since then, the turnover in
Nikos’ tavern has declined remarkably because the busses stopping at the beach in Akrotiri have no longer the excavation –and with it a financially strong clientele- as a destination, but just the pier for boat transfer to the “Red Beach” instead. They are spilling mainly young backpackers – an economic disaster for the father of five.

How did Nikos get into his stone sculpturing? As a teen, at the age of 16, he discovered a black pumice stone of unusual shape while diving for fish and broke him loose and formed out of it his first “Diavolo”, some kind of devil’s mask with real ram horns and hare fur, most likely to imagine as a kind of monstrous “Wolpertinger”. The object was much admired by the guests. The mother, though, stated: “It brings bad luck!” for she is a pious woman. And Nikos complied because he didn’t want to harm business with “black magic”, and destroyed his firstling. But a beginning had been made.

Under Nikos’s apt hands, key pendants in form of feet, grotesque heads and chess peaces were created now. Most of it he gave away for free to guests, befriended tourists, buddies. He trained himself, made his interaction with the volcanic stone material perfect. Some four or five years ago, around 2005 – he doesn’t know for sure because he isn’t his own annalist- he was “ready” for his first monumental work, the “Light House”. The big piece came into being during the breaks between cooking and serving. Immediately, interested parties appeared. A car salesman from Athens, obviously artsy-fartsy, realized the talent of Nikos and offered him 25.000 euros for the “Light House”. But Nikos refused: “One does not sell one’s firstborn.”

Already during the work on the “Light House”, the idea for another, probably even more monumental sculpture, his “Sheperd”, matured in Nikos. This one exists solely in his head to these days and he starts fantasizing intensely about him after the second glass, grateful for every incitation of his focussed listeners. He seems a little bit like the legendary Alexis Sorbas then during the development of his mining project on Crete.

The first working title of the “Light House” was “Kalliste” – the “Most Beautiful”, as was the pre-classical name of the island prior to the massive eruption in the second millennium B.C. when the volcano was still perfect and looked like a Mount Fuji rising from the Aegean. From this first successful result in sculpturing g onwards, Nikos was taken serious and took himself serious. First playful attempts had become profession and passion.

Nikos sheds a light on the contents of his work: the lighthouse, erected decades ago by the Greek navy administration at a prominent spot where the open sea flows into the caldera, has always been one of the best places to fish on Santorini due to different currents, water temperatures and abundance of nutrients. Nikos knows the place since his youth; he dived here countless times during harpoon hunting big fish without wearing scuba equipment. It is his favourite spot on the island; the spot where his soul has dropped anchor the tightest in his island home.

The female figure tightly linked with the rock is symbolizing hope and safety of the fishermen and sailors. She is bearer of hope for good hauls and secure return from the sea – patron of the island and her seafaring children who make a living off the sea. Like a figurehead she is glued to the rock of Akrotiri and is a part of the island, linked with it inseparable, and is a personalisation of the stone “ship” named “Santorini”.

The motive design is following the outer form of the stone content-wise. The stone tapers at the top. From there, the picture idea of the lighthouse quite naturally developed. The plateau of the tower is being accessed from the sides and from the rear by steep stairways. The spectator “climbs” somehow the beautiful woman and reaches “enlightenment” at the peak, at the lighthouse fire of Cape Akrotiri, the old storm-struck cliff of the sailors and the travellers of Santorini.

The second major piece of work, a medium size, was a phallus embraced by closed hands, here again an archetypical and mythical theme whose erotic is just superficial. This is much the same way as it is with the lighthouse goddess of Santorini, which isn’t primarily to see as a naked woman, as a nude study, but instead as a goddess whose nakedness makes her one of the Olympians. Nikos explains the phallus as a symbol of life, of life energy, as a sign of life giving, which is all very obvious. It is the same naturalness of the Greeks when dealing with the male genital that led during the classical period to the image type of the Hermes pillars decorated with an erect male member. These were cultic statues, over whose middle section on certain Venus holidays the prostitutes of Rome or Athens hung beneficent garlands, and their protruding element was what Alkibiades cut off in a drunken night in Athens with his companions, the famous “Hermes Sacrilege” leading to him being exiled to Sicily.

The backside of this sculpture which one would thoroughly misunderstand if one were to see just an obscene object in it, is forming a temple antechamber, a “Naos”. The motivic conjunction of temple and “praying” hands is deciphering the meaning of this work: it is the plea and the incantation to the all-giving Mother Nature for receiving and passing on of life and the thanks for the gift of life itself. In so far, the female principle as counterpart and supplementation of the male principle is integrated into the image of the phallus. The folded and sheltering hands virtually embracing the phallus then were to be the abstracted image of the vulva. As a metaphor for the ancient central principles of fertility, creativity and productivity – this also a synonym for the artistic life – the sculpture might very well bear the title “Hymn to Life”.

As the third work in Nikos creative portfolio follows the “Spring” if one may say so, in direct succession to the phallic “Hymn”. The theme is in touching adulation of nature the cycle of seasons, the transformation of nature during the course of the year and her re-awakening after the winter break. Who has witnessed the explosion-like spring on the Greek islands which are arid in the summer and drunken from rain in the winter will understand this little “idyllic” creation of Nikos. It is quarried out of the lava stone driving flowers and many other plants out of itself, just like in March and April thousands of blossoms come out of the real stone ground of the island which then in summertime get eaten up by the hot wind from Africa, draining them into dry stalks. This is an occurrence we “Fog Europeans” do not know from our evergreen home.

The next theme Nikos ventured to was the “book”, an archetype as well. He designed that motive twice, first as an open and then as a closed book. We immediately associate sculptural designs of the same theme by north European artists about which Nikos certainly had not heard ever. First there are the works of the spouses Kubach-Willmsen, a long row of single books as well as some compiled to groups and libraries. They are made from the most different stone materials and in most different formats, too, being profoundly explained by historians of art and artsy types, among other interpretations as “Memento Mori” or as a symbol of the “Gutenberg Galaxy” and the collective memory of mankind safeguarded in books. We had experienced a very impressive collection of the stone books in the monastery gardens of Eberbach in the Rheingau; and on an island in the Rhine opposing the chateau Biebrich, a perpetual exhibition of these beautiful stone books can be seen in the garden of a private art gallery.

Then the next room of our “imaginary museum” came, containing Anselm Kiefer’s magnificent and monumental books of lead, to visit for example in Berlin. Kiefer’s metal library consists like with Nikos of open and closed books, and many pages were to be filled for explaining their metaphysical meaning.

When telling Nikos about these parallels –of course we had no pictures ready – he seemed a little irritated, disappointed as well, because thus the genuineness of his motive invention slipped off his hands. But we were consoling him. Because on the one hand no one, not even the most malicious, can accuse him of plagiarism; and on the other hand it is not slanderous if one had the same igniting image idea like a world famous artist of Anselm Kiefer’s rank. And for the third, the content motivation of Nikos had been entirely different from that in Kubach-Willmsen or Kiefer’s work for it had been an autobiographical motivation.

Our question was obvious whether the second book of Nikos, an “Open Book”, is maybe symbolizing a new beginning under better auspices, probably the hope for a new love. But Nikos wrapped himself in silence, and to our spontaneous interest in acquiring either of the book objects, be it the open one or the closed one, he reacted contrary to his usual accommodation with a harsh “No!” To imagine we already had been running through our bank accounts in Germany within our heads! For it wouldn’t have fitted to palm Nikos off with the travel purse. Alas, to us remains just the hope that on occasion he is going to chisel a book object as commissioned work for us, maybe something in between, half open and half closed with a direct biographical link to our persons and our life?

At the same time Nikos was trying his luck as a portrait artist. The model had been found obviously in his own family: his second daughter Veronica. The medium sized bust is an allegory of beauty; it is the young girl on the brink to womanhood, still shy and timid, yet no longer child but little Eve soon to become aware of her charms and to use them. The cautious smile with the mischievous depression of the mouth’s corners is what is succeeding the best in this image, a little bit of Mona Lisa, a little bit of “Unknown from the Seine”.

Into the same group of works belongs the sculpture of an old man, prototype of those old island Greeks who are the preferred models for the touristic illustrated Hellas-Books and who constantly confirm our Alexis Zorbas iconology anew. The face of the old man grows out of the stone standing rough in the bosse. His facial landscape seems to be part of the crude, arid, rock-gazing island landscape. That’s how one knows the grandfathers of Greece from a hundred kafenaions on the islands and on the mainland: the mariner’s cap, once dark blue or black and now bleached to colourlessness, is sitting with tilted shield in the often still thickly-curled salt-and-pepper hair; the knotted hands are on the chin or rest on the stick handle; the cigar butt is in the corner of the mouth; the glass of wine, ouzo or coffee is there just for sipping – Greece’s reliable patriarchs, it’s moral backbone, what would Hellas be without them? They re-grow with every new generation. Already in 1960 during our first explorations of Greece the were sitting at the pier in the little fishermen’s ports guarding the order of the islands, the tide of waves and winds – and in 2010 they are still sitting there on three of these tiny, skew wood chairs woven with straw; one is for sitting, one for resting the arms and the third one is serving as support for the feet. They are for sure not the same patriarchs as in 1960, because then they would have to be over a hundred years old, a biblical age rare in the Aegean as well. Nikos has captured this archetype very well. He always had a living example before his eyes: the own father, kind soul of the tavern besides the grandmother who is cheering to the guest from the North from the second visit onwards, signalizing to him he may feel at home at “Melina” on the beach of Akrotiri.

At the same time – during the years 2008/2009 – something like a commissioned work was created as testimony for a friendship renewed yearly during the sailing season, the friendship to an Italian count from the noble family of the Leopardi. The consort of Count Francesco is living in Porta Leone at the Adriatic, his family in Ancona. This way the idea developed to portrait the city symbol of Porta Leone since ancient times, that is to say: an elephant encompassed by an ancient city gate. The elephant has erected his trunk in belligerent manner. One can practically hear him trumpet, call to attack. Viewed from the front is seems as if the elephant would bear a wooden fort on his back; and one is instantly reminded of the war elephants who the great Hannibal had lead over the alps into Italy.

How exactly Porta Leone acquired its African city symbol, we could not yet determine. When Count Francesco appears for the next time before Santorini with his boat and then takes the finished sculpture aboard, we have to ask him. In any case his consort will happy about this homage to her home city, an homage which is more than stone bric-a-brac, which is a perfect heraldic image invention.

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Akrotiri Beach, Santorini, Greece

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