Like a Virgin - Chatting with Icon Painter Paraskevi Taloglou
by Cynthia Cotts
One morning in May, Paraskevi Taloglou sat inside her studio in Paroikia, simultaneously painting on a slate stone and chatting up visitors from Paros Life. The birdsong outside mixed with the chatter of conversation inside, and brilliant sunlight fell on the bougainvillaea in the alley.
Paraskevi was painting St. Helen, an empress who must be represented wearing jewels, according to the rules of iconography. The painter was aiming for an austere expression, she said, but the saint had come out looking young and pretty. Despite the rules, her paintings always have surprises.
“My favourite saints to paint are the Virgin Mary and the angels,” Paraskevi told us. “And every time I paint the Virgin Mary with the Christ child, it’s like I am doing it for the very first time!”
Paraskevi, 64, is a native Parian who has developed a unique style of hagiography. She grew up in Drios and now lives near the Paroikia post office with her husband and children. Her son, Seraphim, is an accomplished icon painter who studied in Athens. Paraskevi, on the other hand, is self-taught and has only been to Athens once. She learned from her sister, who is now a nun at the Monastery of Metamorphosis in the hills near Paroikia.
“As kids we always liked to draw and we studied the books of Kontoglou,” Paraskevi explained. “Hagiography is not an art, but a way of painting, and there are rules.”
Fotis Kontoglou was a prominent Greek painter of the twentieth-century who studied iconography at the monasteries of Mount Athos and taught art in the universities in Athens, according to a Wikipedia entry.
The primary rule of hagiography is that the saints must be recognisable, Paraskevi explained. For example, the Virgin Mary always wears a robe of deep purple or ultramarine blue.
“To make them recognisable, I need to know what the saint was,” she said. “Was he a monk, a venerable saint, an archbishop? I find it tiresome painting the venerable saints with their long beards.”
But she’s very curious and still learning about obscure saints. For example, when she found out that Elias of Arvillis is the saint of the hairdressers, she painted him and gave the icon to a local hair salon, she told us. She found out who the saints are for chefs (Aghios Efrosios), policemen (Aghios Artemis) and doctors (Aghioi Anargyroi). She even discovered that Aghios Loukas is the saint of the icon painters, because he was the first to paint the Virgin Mary.
While following the rules of recognition, Paraskevi deviates in her choice of medium. Instead of painting with egg tempera on wood, she applies a watered-down tempera to found objects: slate stones, roof tiles and beach pebbles. She considers the natural colours of rocks to be the best background for her images.
Rocks don’t require much prep work, she said. She cleans them and if she doesn’t like the shape, chips at them until they suit her. To test a rock’s durability, she holds it waist-high and drops it on the ground.
“If it doesn’t break, it’s a rock I can use,” she said, laughing.
When Paraskevi first began painting, she used wood and copied the masters.
“I tried to paint icons in the true Byzantine style, but I could not do it exactly,” she recalled. “Then one day I realised that I didn’t want to copy the old style.”
The turning point came about twenty years ago, when Paraskevi and her husband were working on some property they own in the mountains and she sprained her ankle. During the recovery period, she noticed many slate stones lying around. First she painted the Virgin Mary on stone, and then other saints. The work was well-received, which gave her the incentive to continue, she says.
Later she got the idea to paint on pebbles. She began collecting pebbles at a beach near Drios, and when other people saw her, they also began taking them home. Now the beach has no pebbles at all, according to Paraskevi.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I have enough to last me the rest of my life!”
Paraskevi says her greatest challenge is depicting Jesus’s emotions.
“I want to paint him with an expression that is sweet and calm, but also strong. I haven’t been able to capture that yet,” she said. “Sometimes I get him sweet, sometimes angry — but never just the way I imagine him.”
Paraskevi paints until noon or one, while the light is good in her studio and before it gets too hot, and then quits in the afternoon. She says she savours the simple lifestyle.
“I may not have much money, but I’m very happy with this work which I can do whenever I want,” she told us. “I have no one over my head and I consider this a luxury, because I know there are millions of people who are working under somebody — and working under somebody wears down your soul.”
Paraskevi’s customers are mostly Greeks, she says, who seek her out when they need a present for a wedding or name day. She keeps her prices low so the icons will be affordable.
“Let’s say I did the painting of the century,” she jokes, implying that such a masterpiece would carry a high price tag. “I would be waiting for it to be sold, and it would never be sold!”
With her original approach to icons, her sense of humour and her gracious hospitality, Paraskevi is one of the unforgettable characters of Paros. It’s worth stopping by to meet her.
Info: 22840-22705. The studio is a short walk from the post office in Paroikia.
— Yannis Pagounis interviewed Paraskevi in Greek for this story and assisted with the translation.