Travel Journal: Greece

It's been rather quiet around these parts for two reasons. Reason number one is that I was traveling! My partner is working in Greece for the summer on an archeological dig and I had the opportunity to go visit him in the middle of his stay. (Reason number two is that since I've been home from this trip, I've been hard at work prepping Saltbox for its paper pattern release later this summer).

I had never been to Greece before. In fact, I'd never been anywhere in the Mediterranean (though I have done a bit of the pre-college backpacking in Europe thing). This was such an amazing opportunity to explore and I thought I would share some of my findings and reflections with you all!

I traveled with my dad and mother in law which made for lovely company. We were there for 11 days, joining up with J for 6 of them. We arrived in Athens after a red-eye to London, followed by a shorter morning plane ride. The travel was exhausting and I tried my darnedest to stay awake the rest of the afternoon to avoid jetlag. I managed to stay up until 7pm and slept straight through til 7 the next day. Success!

We stayed in a fantastic AirBNB in a very cool neighborhood called Psyrri which is adjacent to the Acropolis: a big hill upon which sits the Parthenon, among other amazing and super old things. Athens is in many ways a very metropolitan city. It reminds me of Manhattan set in the hills of deserty Southern California. Parts of it are very gritty, but aside from petty theft there isn't too much crime. There's graffiti everywhere. People are generally very warm and love to chat. There are stray cats all over the place.

I've been keeping up with the news about Greece and its economy, especially since J has been working there the last couple of years, not to mention its central role in the refugee crisis. Most folks I spoke to said that the economy was improving. I imagine that the economic state is more apparent when you get outside the city, even perhaps when you get outside the hustle and bustle of central Athens. Many of the areas we spent time in were full of tourists from all over and many of them from the US. I hope that, to some extent, this tourism is helping the economy.

Despite the economic climate, the shopping scene was quite fascinating. I can't help but be interested in commerce and manufacturing and how each country or area has its own culture surrounding it. One thing I noticed in particular about Athens, or at least the neighborhood we were staying in, was that aside from restaurants I saw very few chain stores. On each block, you'd find a collection of small shops, often open different hours. Some sold antiques (in fact, I believe we were in a sort of 'antique district' since there were many of these shops clustered around), others sold door & drawer hardware, metal items, cafe chairs, doormats, leather hides, sandals. There was even a sort of fabric district, which I was more that happy to peruse. While I wasn't able to find any fabric specifically made in Greece, I did come home with some lovely gems from some small, family run shops. Many of them were very busy, hopefully because folks in town were there to shop for their sewing projects!

If you're at all a shoe person - though I like shoes, I don't qualify as one since I tend to stick to one or two pair at a time - you'll loose it in Greece. There are shops everywhere selling a huge variety of gorgeous, handmade leather sandals. Though I can't be sure they're all produced ethically, it's very clear that many shops are concerned with the quality and how/where they are made. Often times, one family is at the helm. You'll find little shoe, belt, and bag shops all over Athens.

In fact, I encountered all sorts of craftspeople or purveyors of goods who cared about what they were making and were proud to make it in Greece. I found that both small boutiques and touristy shops alike had an emphasis on Greek made products and when speaking to folks in these shops, quality and craftsmanship was very important. Such a contrast to many other places I've traveled, where the 'tourist' areas are largely filled with items made elsewhere but emblazoned with the name of a country. I'm not much of a shopper, but I relished in the opportunity to support the local economy by picking up a few beautiful, well made pieces.

One of my favorite shops I visited was called Forget Me Not, which included a lovely selection of independent Greek design: clothes, books, housewares, and more. I also discovered a lot of awesome Greek indie fashion labels. One of my favorites was Heel.

Athens is a modern city that is absolutely packed with some of the most ancient man made stuff you can find. It's not surprising that their crafts are still appreciated...these are folks who know how to make things last. We of course ventured up to the Acropolis and I was most struck by how in-progress everything was. There were many people and machines actively restoring these ancient buildings. Throughout Athens, the juxtaposition between the ancient and the undeniably modern was astounding. There was even a tourism campaign touting this concept - A bearded hipster's profile artfully photoshopped over a picture of the Parthenon, subtitled with the word "Hipstorical" and its definition.

In the rather touristy Plaka neighborhood, one of the older neighborhoods adjacent to the acropolis, I discovered a narrow shop where a lady was selling woven tapestries. She had been weaving them for 35 years and they ranged in size and content, but mostly showed graphic scenes of Greece and the islands. She had yellowed newspaper clippings of her trips to Paris, Taiwan, and other places where she'd presented her craft. I purchased this lovely weaving of Santorini from Rita. I asked her, had she ever thought of teaching? Tapestry weaving is making such a comeback. She smirked and said she didn't like people very much.

Mid way through the trip, we traveled to Chania, a large city on the island of Crete (the largest of Greece's many islands) with a beautiful old Venetian harbor. Similar to Athens with its blend of modern amenities and 500 BC charm. It had many old, winding allies and small tavernas. We ate at an outdoor restaurant built into the ruins of an old building and watched couples browse the wares of a boutique across the street. And more stray cats, of course. You can even buy souvenir calendars featuring 'The Street Cats of Crete'.

One night, I stumbled into a shop because I saw what looked like cross stitch through the open doorway. The shop was packed with stacks of handwork: crochet, weavings, embroideries and more, lovingly organized into wooden shelves and cubbies or hanging from the walls and ceilings on department store pants hangers. Galatea, who ran the shop, specialized in traditional textiles made by craftspeople from around the island. I ended up purchasing a souvenir here too (can you blame me?) and settled on an embroidered piece created in a village called Meskla, near the island's famous gorge. Apparently, it was one of the few pieces left in this style and perhaps there might never be more. She seemed happy when I explained my keen interest in embroidery - continuing on handcrafts of past generations.

After Chania, we returned to Athens for a few more days amidst a rather intense heatwave, with temps nearing 105. We opted to spend the day in the archeological museum, which was air conditioned. The amount of objects collected and their age is unimaginable. (This is the case all over Greece. We even found washed up sherds of ancient pottery on the beach.)

One thing that was curiously absent on this trip was wool! I even asked around at local yarn shops and nearly everyone seemed surprised I would even be looking for wool from Greece. Though I know there are plenty of sheep, having eating quite a bit of their delicious cheese and yogurt. The shepherds mostly shear the sheep and dispose of the yarn, which I know is not unusual for sheep raised for dairy and meat. Perhaps the growing trend of 'multi use' sheep will spread to this part of Europe :) I wonder if the wool is being used for other things like insulation, felt, or rugs...

Here we are at a restaurant with a rooftop view of the Acropolis!

Here we are at a restaurant with a rooftop view of the Acropolis!

And since this is not a food blog, I will simply make one statement in regards to cuisine: The food in Greece is awesome. At one restaurant, the owner even showed us pictures of his farm in a nearby village on his cell phone, including the lamb we had the option of choosing from the menu.

And then, before I knew it, we were heading home. I'd love to have the chance to go back some day and explore further.

Have you ever been or wanted to go to Greece? What places are on your travel wishlist? Do you like to seek out local crafts when you travel?

Thoreau's Cabin

Though sewing has always been a part of my life, it's undeniable that I've spent a considerable amount of my time engaged in the art world, in professional and academic contexts. While this blog is mostly for sewing and fiber, I'm excited to also use this blog as a platform to discuss other fine and applied arts and delve a little deeper into the world of craftsmanship, aesthetics, and ideas.

Yesterday I was finally able to make to over it to the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, MA. If you've never been, the DeCordova is an excellent contemporary art museum outside Boston, famous for its expansive sculpture garden.

Currently, they have an exhibition on view called Walden, Revisited. The Walden referenced here is both the well known book by Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond, located in nearby Concord, from which it takes its name. I thought it would be fitting to discuss this show, as Walden's story prominently features a cabin!

The show is divided into two discernible sections, two different 'Re's, that each break down into their own series of connections to the author and his canonical book: re-interpreting and re-evaluating. While some of the work in this show seeks to re-evaluate the mythical solitarian, the majority of the work re-interprets Walden through the aesthetic, ideological, or intellectual qualities of Thoreau's original project.

Most of the work on display seemed to be inspired by Thoreau's core project at Walden Pond: observing his natural landscape and documenting its many facets in a variety of ways. What for Thoreau came to be as journals and logbooks has been translated into imagery and objects by many of the artists. In the photo at the opening of this post, artists compare colors observed at the pond to Monet paintings and take aestheticized measurements of the ponds depth.

As I thought about the show later on, an unexpected theme emerged: A great deal of the works included achieve this re-interpretation through collaboration. One of the big themes in Walden is of course solitude, which seems to contrast the idea of collaboration. Though as I worked through these connections in my mind, the strict definition of collaboration started to unravel.

Jane D. Marsching with Matthew Shanley,  Ice Out at Walden , 2010

Jane D. Marsching with Matthew Shanley, Ice Out at Walden, 2010

For example, Marsching's work above, a print made using both digital and traditional printing techniques to create a visual representation of wind patterns at Walden. Marsching also collaborated with a dancer to create choreography inspired by these wind patterns.

Gina Siepel,  Re-Surveying Walden , 2014

Gina Siepel, Re-Surveying Walden, 2014

Gina Siepel chose to re-survey Walden Pond in collaboration with a few others in the spirit of Thoreau in a self-built boat. Her museum-within-a-museum included discussions of flora and fauna, colors, gestures, and a cross examination of a lake in Germany with a transatlantic collaborator.

Another collaboration, one of my favorites in the show, was a sound piece developed by Ana María Gómez López and Pamela Jordan. You stand on a circle of carpet under a directional speaker, listening to a composition of ambient nature and city sounds while looking at a small a snapshot of Thoreau's cabin pasted on the far wall of the gallery. Something about the sonic experience paired with the distance of the cabin as a snapshot on a wall seemed very intentional and effective. Additionally, what I thought was field recordings of telegraph wires turned out to be the rattling of a vent in the room. Unintentional, but just as effective.

David Brooks,  Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods) , 2014

David Brooks, Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods), 2014

David Brooks,  Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods) , 2014

David Brooks, Myopic Wall Composition (w/ chainsaw- cut wood found in historic Walden Woods), 2014

I suppose however, that one could also view many of these works as being collaborative with Thoreau, in an indirect way. Perhaps, thematically, this (and Walden) mirror the success or failure of collaboration with nature as a society and as an individual. Brook's work - he creates a lot of installations that cross examine nature and the built world - seems to dig into that space between failure and collaboration with nature. His Myopic Wall Composition infuses the iconic gallery wall with chunks of wood salvaged at Walden, but also chooses to reveal 'behind the scenes' of this construction.

Deb Todd Wheeler,  Searching for Imposters , 2014

Deb Todd Wheeler, Searching for Imposters, 2014

Deb Todd Wheeler's video installation takes a keen look at a failure of that collaboration. Her porthole videos show what appear to be jellyfish - apparently one spring brought mysterious freshwater jellyfish to Walden Pond - but are in reality, plastic bags. This is perhaps where we transition into where this collaboration with nature falls apart. This disharmony between man and nature is what inspired Thoreau's Walden project and arguably, the reason for its partial undoing.

Oscar Palacio, photograph from  Walden ─ then and now , 2013-14

Oscar Palacio, photograph from Walden ─ then and now, 2013-14

Corralled in a separate section of the museum are more directly critical works, like Palacio's photographs above, showing a different kind of human 'collaboration' with nature.

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's  One-Week Walden , 2006

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's One-Week Walden, 2006

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's  One-Week Walden , 2006

Still from Jennifer Sullivan's One-Week Walden, 2006

Also included in this grouping is Jennifer Sullivan's video One-Week Walden, in which her character, inspired by reading Walden, ventures into the 'woods' of suburban upstate New York and attempts to commune with nature while living in her dad's pop up camper. The result is a lot of funny introspective monologues and dance sequences, wigs, and images of garbage.

Hilary Wilder,  Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times) , 2011-2014

Hilary Wilder, Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times), 2011-2014

Hilary Wilder,  Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times) , 2011-2014

Hilary Wilder, Greatest American Hero (Thoreau’s Desk Eight Times), 2011-2014

Hillary Wilder dismantled - literally - the iconic notion of Thoreau by reconstructing the famous desk upon which Walden was written in painted paper.

Corner of James Benning's  Two Cabins . The two channel video is just a part of a larger project by filmmaker Benning. In the only shot I took of this installation, I chose to be snarky and capture a misplaced mouse pointer in the projector view.

Corner of James Benning's Two Cabins. The two channel video is just a part of a larger project by filmmaker Benning. In the only shot I took of this installation, I chose to be snarky and capture a misplaced mouse pointer in the projector view.

One of the few works that actively engaged the cabin itself could be construed as most critical and perhaps the creepiest. The two channel video by James Benning featured the window view from replicas of the cabins of Henry David Thoreau and Ted Kaczynski. Bennings study of the two cabin dwellers is loose and investigational, not a direct comparison. After having built a replica of Thoreau's cabin on his property, he created Kaczynski's as a counterpoint. However, it begs a reconsideration of the recluse when a known antagonist's ideology can find ties - if only a minute few - with one of America's sweetheart literary naturalists.

Gina Siepel   After Winslow Homer: Untitled Study ,   2010

Gina Siepel After Winslow Homer: Untitled Study, 2010

Another work by Gina Siepel shows a more humorous critique of the 'solitary man in nature' trope. (FYI - The backdrop of this shot is a cluster of decorative fake birch trees in a high-end suburban mall outside Boston)

In this show, the connections are many to the world of craft and society, beyond the 'naturalist' perspective. Thoreau's cabin is the original 'Tiny House' (we missed the lecture on Tiny Houses, unfortunately) or summer artists residency. Many other works took opportunities to work with nature positively as inspired by Thoreau. But I'll save that for your visit to the museum, or at least the website.

In a sense, Thoreau's work in that cabin - writing, surveying, his very form of living - would, taken out of its obvious influential context, be right at home in this show.  As I think about it, the dialogue between the artists exhibited in the show and Thoreau himself becomes more and more interesting.

One quote from Thoreau that I felt best exemplified my experience of this show (and it was included in several places) is the following:

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

One chair: Thoreau, Two chairs: Thoreau and the artists in dialogue, and Three chairs: trans-generational conversation between the three - our role as artists in society.

The theme of the show appears to me more dynamic than that of pure inspiration. After shedding all aesthetic and critical framing, we find another contrarian 'artist,' observing the world around him and responding in a variety of media. And, like many of his young artist/writer non-contemporaries, he often did laundry at his mother's house and had dinner with his mentors.