Lilly Says Farewell To Greece
(Reprinted from the December, 1991 issue of
“The Athenian”)

Feature by Willard Manus

In November, l99l, the Danish-born painter and collagist Lilly Kristensen celebrated her thirty-first year in Greece with a major exhibition in Athens. It was her twelfth such exhibition and probably her last, because she, like many other foreign artists who made Greece--and particularly the islands--their adopted home, is saying farewell to all that.

Kristensen has given up her house in Mykonos and her studio in Athens to return to Denmark and the farmhouse near the North Sea where she was born. It is not just sentiment and the pull of roots which are luring her back home, but the change in the quality of life in Greece.

"When I first arrived in Mykonos in l960, I was on my own, with very little money and only a scanty knowledge of Greek. Mykonos at the time had electricity only for a few hours at night and no running water at all, but within twenty-four hours I knew that the island was the place for me. I had never felt such peace before, such contentment born of love and ease. My life became for the first time the one I really wanted to live."

Much to her surprise, Kristensen discovered that she was not the only foreign artist on the island. There were five others, all painters, one of whom, Luiz Orozco, she eventually married and had two children by.

"We lived simply at first, on very little money," Kristensen recalled. "We rented a house for fifteen dollars a month, cooked on little kerosene stoves, endured many heatless winters, even washed diapers in cold water when the kids came."

Kristensen's psychic connection to Mykonos survived those obstacles. No matter how hard life was, it always seemed wonderful to her. "It's a cliche to say it now, but Mykonos was such a beautiful, unspoiled and inspiring place then. It affected me in so many indescribable ways. All my training and previous painting had been in cold countries--Denmark and England. The sun, light and colors of Cycladic Mykonos literally turned me inside out."

She learned much from her husband, but credits an extraordinary woman named Vienoula as being the main artistic influence on her. "Vienoula lived in England before the second world war and had studied weaving techniques. When she returned to Mykonos, it was with a mission--to make Mykonos the weaving center of Greece. With the help of Hal Goldman, an expatriate American artist, she taught the village women how to dye and weave the wool, which patterns to follow. The first things they did were true works of art."
Kristensen was fascinated by these woven goods. "I started buying them and hanging them in my house," she said. "Then I realized that the colors in the wools reflected the grays and browns of the landscape, the blues and sunset pinks of the sky, and the whiteness of the houses. I knew I had to try and make pictures with them."

She started out with simple landscapes at first, sewing individual pieces on to burlap backing, but she abandoned this slow and arduous process in favor of starching the fabric pieces to avoid unraveling, then layering and glueing them onto panels to give them texture and dimension.

"Once I learned to handle the material, I went on to more detailed work--village scenes and people, churches, tavernas, fishermen and their boats, and so on," Kristensen explained. "I worked from sketches, but found that the collages were taking over from painting for me. Anyway, with two small kids at home, it wasn't practical for me to paint. Every time I got started on something, a problem would come up and I'd have to deal with it.
Paints got dry in the pot and I'd have to start all over."

Kristensen began to sell her work to the tourists who came to Mykonos in the 60's, enabling her to buy a one-room house which was gradually expanded over the years. The money also subsidized trips to other parts of Greece, where she searched out hand-loomed materials for her collages.

"Most of the time I found what I was looking for on people's clotheslines rather than in shops," she recalled. "My favorite place to buy was the village of Metsovo, because I liked the weaving there. I also met a little woman who took me to her house and showed me her work.

"It was a fairy-tale house with tiny rooms and low doorways. In her weaving room was a wood-burning stove and a yellow cat snoozing. There were woven rugs, cushions, wall-hangings, and curtains on the windows to keep out the December chill. I was so excited I forgot to duck and kept banging my head as we went from room to room. Carved wooden trunks were opened, cupboards emptied. I bought quite a few things, including an old blanket full of holes. She couldn't understand why I wanted it, but it was gray woven on a red warp and was the perfect earth color for my pictures."

Kristensen's artistic gifts began to be recognized in the late sixties. She had exhibitions in Mykonos, Athens, Denmark and Sweden. Her work sold well and for good prices. "Life was idyllic, in a way," she said. "The foreign colony on Mykonos swelled in number, with numerous writers, artists and even theater people from around the world taking up residence. Tourism was manageable and the island began to enjoy some prosperity. At the center of everything was Vienoula. She really ran the show. If she didn't like you, forget it, you were in trouble."

Kristensen's children began to grow up, her house and garden
continued to expand, her work to deepen and become more complex. "I thought it would go on like that forever," she said with a rueful smile. "I thought I would live on Mykonos until I died."

What Kristensen and the other expatriate artists did not anticipate was the impact of mass tourism on the island. "We knew Mykonos had to change, but never thought it would happen in such a rapid and drastic way. It became so over-run with people, so crowded and noisy and glitzy, that many of the artists couldn't take it. They pulled up stakes and headed elsewhere."

Kristensen hung on, until her marriage fell apart. She kept her house, but lived for most of the year in Athens. "It was a difficult time," she admitted. "I was low emotionally and faced with many problems and challenges. Somehow, I managed to keep going. I found a new gallery-owner, Jill Yiakas, who liked my work and kept me afloat financially. My work also found its way into galleries in La Jolla, Washington D.C., and the Musikhuset in Jutland. Athens in those days was a pleasant city to live in; rents were reasonable, you could meet your friends at night in congenial, inexpensive tavernas, and of course there were decent schools for my two sons.”

Then Athens changed, became crowded, expensive and polluted. "It's no place for an artist," Kristensen said, "and neither is Mykonos, unfortunately. Almost everything I loved about the simple, truly Greek life are gone. Also, Vienoula died a few years ago, taking most of the weaving tradition with her. Today the Mykonian women would rather knit than weave; it's easier and more social.

"Mykonos isn't my Mykonos any longer, and neither is Athens," Kristensen said. "And so, painful and traumatic as it is for me to say it, it's time for me to leave Greece and return to my family farm in Denmark, where I can still experience the peace and contentment I used to feel on Mykonos."

Kristensen will continue to make her Greek collages, immortalizing the world she loved so much, but from now on, the work will be done from memory, not from life.

(Author’s note: Lilly Kristensen died in 2001 at the age of 67)