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  Nr. 39 - July 2001
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Insistence on Beauty

by Vicki Preston, July 2001
"To marvel is the beginning of knowledge and when we cease to marvel we are in danger of ceasing to know."

This ancient Greek quotation will be familiar to anyone who has ever received an email from John Pack, Director of the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Paroikia. Somehow these words perfectly capture the spirit of a man who, at fifty-two, has succeeded in retaining an astonishingly youthful capacity for wonder as well as an “insistence on beauty”, as it is so aptly phrased by one student in the Center’s website guestbook.

One morning last month, I met John for coffee at the Nostos Cafe behind the National Bank in Paroikia (“The best coffee on the island”, he confided in me, "you see, Ilias really cares about the way his espresso is made and tastes...between you and me, most people let too much water pass through the coffee grounds and their beans are ground wrong to begin with...). And what I had expected to be a short interview about the purchase of the Center’s new building (shown in the picture above) in Paroikia, became a rich and fascinating story of the school’s history, its place and influence in our community, and the as yet unrealized dreams John nurtures for its future and for our island.

Interrupted every now and then by the labourers who were busy working on soundproofing the rooms in the new building, I sat enchanted as a beautiful and inspiring tale began to be revealed.

Originally housed in the old building above the Dionysos restaurant and called the Aegean School for Fine Arts (the name was changed in order to comply with Greek legal requirements), the Center was founded in 1966 by Brett Taylor who came to Paros from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. Brett, a painter and musician, had been inspired by one of his teachers to start a school in Greece. He wrote how he intended the programme “...to get away from mass production and to meet a need for individualized instruction in an unfamiliar and very different setting which fosters a fresh perspective and independence”.

Set up as a non-profit institution, the Center was designed from the very beginning to remain small - and thereby retain a sense of intimacy and community. It is also not accredited, so as to maintain complete freedom of operation, though most universities in the U.S. will give credits towards a degree course for the work done here by students. Courses available include painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpture, photography, creative writing, art history and literature.

After Brett’s death in 1983, the school was kept operating by the immediate action of Wynn Parkes who stepped in briefly and assumed responsibility until another director could be found. His successor, Andy Whipple, hired John on a two-year contract to teach advanced photography. John came from the University of New Mexico, where, after having spent the previous seven years living among the people of the Ganado Reservation in Navajoland, he was finding mainstream academia to be constrictive and inflexible and the politics of the art departments stultifying. Paros and the Aegean Center were to prove the perfect environment for John to spread his wings and exercise his considerable inventive and imaginative talents. The following year, he was asked to take over as Director.

“Wire, John, we need some wire”, one of the workers called across to us. “Well, how about you just take one of the extension cables and cut it up”, John improvised instantly.

Not missing a breath, he returned to the story ... “Then, in 1986, I hired Jane to teach painting, drawing and printmaking. She had been a student at the school when I first arrived. And in 1989 I realized another dream - the establishment of a facility in Tuscany which could yoke together the Classical and Renaissance periods in a single session.”

He proposed to Jane that same year and they were later married in Paroikia with an “out of town” honeymoon in Aghia Irini! Gabriel, their 9-year-old son, was born at the Elena Maternity Hospital in Athens and has been raised on Paros, attending local Greek school.

The considerable achievement of setting up the Italian programme was accomplished during one of the most difficult times in the school’s history, and with only $1200 and a lot of scepticism from his Board of Directors. Yet John discovered the ideal location in the 16th Century Villa Rospigliosi, in the Tuscan hills above Pistoia. Not only was it the perfect setting for the atmosphere he wanted to cultivate, but he cannot say enough good things about the local authorities who welcomed him with open arms. Honoured that their city had been chosen, and recognizing the benefits to their community from a long-term relationship with the Center, over the years they have shown their continued commitment in assisting John in many ways. A future project, when funds become available, is to create a permanent Center in Pistoia, to link the Italian and Greek Centers together and to add music and language to the curriculum.

Another period of struggle was encountered during the late 90’s as advertising became more and more expensive and it proved difficult to fill all the places. The dedicated faculty of John and Jane, Jeffrey and Liz Carson, however, were not about to give up on their ideals and dreams. A website was created and, with the proliferation of the internet, a much-wider audience could be easily and cost-effectively reached. For the latest session, John received 312 applications to fill 24 places!

The school is really sort of self-editing’, he continued. “The curriculum is founded on classical ideals and we teach basic skills. We encourage the students to discard contemporary and popular notions and definitions of art and immerse themselves in the beauty surrounding them. Then we provide them with the essential foundation of traditional disciplines on which they can build their own style. In my opinion, far too many art programs are obsessed with convincing students that what is most important is finding their own voice and individual (now-- shocking) style. If there is one thing that a student does not need, it is to obsess on finding "their" voice and their own style when they don't even have the technical vocabulary to form an idea. As I tell every student, if you are serious and you learn the craft of your medium, and you work, and work and work, your individual voice and style has no choice but to emerge. The mistake is to be pigeonholed into a limiting contemporary "style" without expert ability in your chosen craft - (call it art). But they are under a lot of pressure not only from their schools, but from the cultural dictates in general. One does not have to look very far or very hard to see how the jackhammer of contemporary-media-culture (which is also the ultimate curator of art-thought) is bashing away at everyone, especially in the arts. I also believe that the concept of beauty is not relative, as many contemporary art critics would like us to believe. It is also interesting (and delightful) that so many of our most severe critics find it so distressing that we just simply do not care about much of the contemporary notion that drives the majority of programmes, individual artists and their grandest scheme, the contemporary art market. We feel our mission to be far more rarefied and essential to give to forming artists of all ages. Shock value in art? All one has to do for new ideas is read the papers and watch a little T.V.”

He illustrates this point by describing a question he asks the students at the end of their first week. “Tell me how you are feeling right now”, he asks, “but tell me in Greek.” As they start to explain that it’s really not possible, John interrupts them “Alright then, tell me in English, because in English you can. Do you see how you can’t imbue subtlety into a language without the basic building blocks of vocabulary? So, painting and the visual arts are just the same. You need the basic skill set before you can depart from it.”

“So, why here?”, I asked John. “Why can’t you teach the same things anywhere?”

"Let's face it”, he replied, “a student of the arts certainly does not have to travel from the U.S. or India to study art on Paros or in Pistoia. What we help to facilitate here and in Italy is something way beyond what could easily be studied in their home countries."

Aside from the natural beauty of Greece, it seems that the three-month semester at the school often becomes far more than the mere acquisition of skills. As the students absorb the local Greek culture and observe a way of life totally different from anything they have known before, a whole readjustment in their world view takes place. For many students, simply making the journey and arriving can be a tremendous and life-changing experience if they are leaving their own culture and travelling alone for the first time.

“We don’t highly organize getting here”, John explains, “so that we leave the students with a sense of adventure. It means too that we attract a particular type of student from the start - those who are ready for a bit of an adventure.”

Through such experiences, a great number of these students develop an intense connection to the island. Paros comes to represent for them the outer geography of a fundamental inner change. Many come back to attend another session or return repeatedly to visit. And not a few of the members of our foreign community had their destinies forever altered when they came years ago for what they thought would be a three-month stay at the Aegean Center.

If you have access to the internet, visit the Center’s website and read the guestbook - the “life-changing” experiences are there alright - to the extent that amidst the outpouring of superlatives, the sense of gratitude and awe are palpable. But, be warned, it is likely to instantly fill you with the desire to enroll and feel it for yourself!

Whilst most students initially came from the U.S., today the diversity of nationalities is rapidly increasing - mainly due to the internet. This last semester included students from America, Canada, the Dominican Republic, India and Zimbabwe. And whilst many are transitional (between high school and college), John aims for a broad range in ages. “The different levels of life experience and proficiency”, he says, “infuse the programme with incredible magic”.

Two academic sessions are held each year with an exhibition of the students’ work-in-progress at the end of each semester. The Spring Session is held entirely on Paros and runs from early March through mid-June. The Fall Session (early September through mid-December) begins with one month at the school’s facility in Italy and concludes on Paros. Student accommodation on Paros is provided at the Aegean Village in Paroikia.

Only about 10% of the students pay full tuition - the remainder pay reduced fees - either through financial aid generated by John or through the awarding of scholarships. There are a number of these available, including one offered for the last eleven years by the Italian Olivetti Foundation. This award is intended to foster a cross-cultural understanding between Italy and America through the Center's programmes in the arts. Also available are scholarships to Greek nationals, a partial scholarship offered by an anonymous donor in the name of Yannis Kaparos who inspired it, as well as the Jean Polyzoides and the Joann Stephenson Scholarships. One of John’s dreams is to turn it into a fully-funded programme with all 24 students sponsored. Perhaps to have each embassy in Greece sponsor one student from their country, creating a truly international and multicultural student body.
There are, however, a number of bureaucratic obstacles to overcome - not least of which is the visa situation in Greece. Unlike Italy and many other EU countries, it is still not possible to obtain a student visa, so students are limited to the standard 3-month tourist visa if they come from countries outside the EU.

And John’s vision does not stop there...
“As the island’s population has become more sophisticated, people are more interested in culture”, he explains. “The Center too has evolved with the island and the changing culture.” He goes on to describe a scenario that could contribute significantly to decreasing the almost schizophrenic seasonal nature of life on the island.

“You know, we could have a thousand students here every winter participating in a multitude of academic programmes. Paros could become an island known for classical studies, alive with the passionate energy of learning. A whole vital academic ‘industry’ could exist, encompassing marble studies in Marathi, history, culture, language. Paros could have an incredible visiting artists programme.”

With John’s experience in organizing, structuring and promoting such programmes, the cooperation of the local authorities and the participation of a few other like-minded individuals, just imagine what might be achieved! Many of the facilities that are usually closed out of season could be kept open year-round to provide student accommodation and ease the frantic struggle to fill rooms just for the short summer season.

Oh - and the building - well, we nearly forgot all about that, but the story of the building acquisition is actually testimony to John’s commitment to the school, to the island, and to faith in some law of serendipity that somehow operates flawlessly just when you need it.

After 32 years in the building behind the old Town Hall, the Center had to look for new premises as the owners planned to restore it and use it as a family residence.

“Just two days before leaving for Italy last year someone told me, ‘Yanni, something came up - you’ve got to see it.’ Well I told him I’d look at it when I got back but he said it wouldn’t be there when I did. So I went to see it. It was exactly what we had been looking for all these years.”

The building is a Neo-Classical house dating from 1850. The front balconies carry the date of 1885, corresponding to one of the older restorations. So John asked how much the rent was and was told it was only for sale. He’d never planned to buy and didn’t have anything like the 70 million drachmas purchase price. But he gave the seller all his savings (just ten million drachmas), signed the contract anyway and went to Italy with no idea at the time how, by 1st January, he would find the remaining funds as well as the several million that would be needed for renovations.

However, he started a fund-raising drive, managed to secure a couple of loans and between October and January received donations from many former students to a total value of 24 million drachmas. One ex-student in particular who loves the island and shares John’s vision - and just happened to be on hand to help once before in the school’s history at a critical moment - was able to make up the final difference just in time. Without the help of so many, he would never have made the deadline.

Having opened this piece with a quotation from John, I would like to close with one for John - this time from modern rather than ancient wisdom, and specifically from that of Eleanor Roosevelt who once said that “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams”. I think she was probably onto something there.

You can contact John Pack at The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts on tel: 23287, fax: 28120 email: studyart@aegeancenter.org, or see the website - www.aegeancenter.org.
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