Alison Scourti

Greece, mosaics and me

Helen Miles Mosaics
Me in the middle of my pre-move studio mess. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

Greece, Mosaics and Me, Part I: A personal story. 

Coming to Greece in 2001 stripped everything from me: language, family, friends, work, culture, points of reference and sense of self. I arrived five months pregnant with two small children after my husband took a job in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, with the expectation of finding a cosmopolitan city where we could settle and I could find work. We put the children into a local Greek school so that they could learn the language and integrate. After a while, I went to the university to learn Greek myself and we threw ourselves into exploring the country.

Helen Miles Mosaics
Fruit detail, 2-3rd C AD, Corinth. Photo: @Helen Miles Mosaics

I don’t know when or how the realisation dawned that our expectations of our new life in Greece were off kilter, but I do remember neighbours who wouldn’t acknowledge we existed years after moving in, struggling to entertain boisterous boys in a badly insulated house where it’s against the law to make any noise between 3 and 6pm, and feeling baffled by a school system which finishes at noon and depends on grandparents and paid help to fill in for working parents. I also remember one day curling myself into a ball in the corner of a downstairs room where I hoped no one would hear me and crying so desperately that it felt like retching. Continue reading

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The glass ‘mosaics’ of Kechries

Kechries glass mosaics - ship and squid

My friend Alison Scourti, who keeps cropping up because she is almost the only person I know who shares my passion for mosaics, and therefore shares a part of who I am, told me to go see the glass mosaics of Kechries at the Archaeological Museum of Isthmia not far from Corinth, Greece. Needless to say, I didn’t know what she was talking about. She told me they were Roman and were oddly wonderful. Roman glass mosaics? Who ever heard of such a thing? Bits of glass in Roman mosaics, fine. But whole mosaics made out of glass, just didn’t sound right. I have seen the opus sectile mosaics in the Palazzo Massimo Museum of Rome, but they were made, as one might expect, with different coloured sections of marble. Not glass.

Kechries glass mosaics - fisherman and port

But a mosaic is a mosaic and if Alison said I must see them, then I clearly must, so on a recent trip to the Venetian town of Naphlion in Greece’s Peloponnese region, we stopped at the one-room museum which houses findings from the adjacent archaeological site. The museum has all that one might expect of a museum from an important site dating from the seventh century BC with lots of additions and modifications over the following centuries. There are pots and jewellery and clay figures but there are also the glass mosaics that Alison had insisted I see. They are panels not floor mosaics and rather disconcerting in their unexpectedness. Seeing them was like seeing a middle aged lady in twinset and pearls on the 10:23 to Henley take out a copy of NME from under her Daily Telegraph. One’s preconceptions get all jumbled up. They are  strange; they open another up another window, a different vision of what you thought you knew and their strangeness makes them wonderful indeed.

Kechries mosaics - borderKechries glass mosaics - border detail

It seems that there were once as many as 126 panels which were probably brought over from Alexandria, carefully taken off the ship which carried them, and stacked in their original wooden cases against a wall. But before they were installed, an earthquake struck and the panels were covered by the sea and never recovered until the 1960s. According to the blurb at the museum they ‘belong to the mosaic decorative arts which originate in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Similar compositions in glass or marble were found at Ostia, the harbour of Rome. The style, belonging to Hellenistic, Roman and Egyptian tradition, is already reminiscent of the Byzantine style.’

I took tea (and delicious cake) the next day with Matthew Dickie and Elizabeth Gebhard, who was there when the panels were excavated and who has been director of the University of Chicago excavations at Isthmia since 1976.  She explained that the mosaics were stacked facing each other, and that when they were discovered they were fused together by time and water to such a degree that it was largely impossible to separate them. Therefore what we now see is the backs of the works.

Here, to help you out with the concept of the decorative arts originating from Mesopotamia and Egypt, are two examples of opus sectile from the Palazzo Massimo Museum in Rome:
Opus Sectile, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome. Opus sectile, Palazzo Massimo Museum, Rome.

For me, the beauty of the panels lies in their naïve execution and the appreciation they reveal of their makers’ delight in the natural world and pride in man’s achivements. The gigantic squid next to a ship in full sail with a gorgeously curved prow. The fisherman sitting staring into the sea depths in front of a harbour lined with impressive-looking public buildings. The colours, now muted, must have been fabulous. A bit like the colours of the socks my mother knits.

Mummy's socks

 

 

 

 

 

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Candili weekend: teaching mosaics. Before

candili

This weekend, Alison Scourti and I will be teaching mosaics for the first time at Candili  (shown above) on the island of Evvia, Greece.

Three families have signed up and two extra adults but I am not sure whether all of them are going to be mosaicing. Given that the house is set in acres of glorious grounds, that the pool (decorated by Martin Cheek, no less) is full, the beach not far away and the sun is always shining, I suspect that there might be a few deserters.

Still, preparations are underway. Boards have been bought, designs thought of, marble ordered and collected (from the most amazing marble supplier on earth) and numerous lists written, checked and counter checked to make sure we dont miss a thing. Something that seems so simple when you are sitting at home surrounded by jars of tesserae and drawers full of tools suddenly seems immensely complicated when you have to ship the whole operation to a temporary new space.

We have decided to give everyone the choice of either following a preprepared, relatively simple design ( for example: a crab, bird or snail) or do a bit of experimenting with abstract designs which is Alison’s forte:

Alison's WIP

This is her current work in progress. As you can see, she makes stunning pieces with natural stone and marble using the indirect method. She’s planning to rustle up a few extra designs too, just in case people prefer to follow her ideas rather than have to dream up something on the spur of the moment for themselves.

The plan is to have two, three-hour sessions and although we’ve done a dry run and timed how long it will take to cover the 20cm by 20cm boards, I am sure the timing might go a bit hay wire, and we’ll run over time. But just in case our students zoom along (especially the children) we’ll be bringing along plenty of extra boards and marble.

Whatever happens, Candili is one of the places where its just nice to be, so I am looking forward to it.

 

 

 

 

 

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