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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
(Authors note: Lilly Kristensen died in 2001 at the age of 67)