biography

Ejo #93 – My Wallet

In 1995, my boyfriend gave me a beautiful men’s wallet for my 24th birthday. I fucking loved it. It was unique, functional, I’m pretty sure it was expensive, and it was a giant middle finger to the kind of birthday present girls were “supposed” to like. I still love that wallet, and now, because I’ve had it for over 22 years, I am also sentimentally attached to it. I love it because after all these years together we’ve become so close we finish each other’s sentences.  I love it because it’s always been there. It’s travelled with me to dozens of countries and endured four crappy jobs before finally settling in to the right one. It’s witnessed four other boyfriends come and go, and one amazing husband stick around. I love it because it’s seen me broke and it’s seen me flush. It’s held deposit cheques for my first car and my first house. Money that my Dad left me when he died. Money to buy food for handouts here in Dubai. Maxed out credit cards that have kept me awake at night and banknotes in eleven different currencies. You know, as mementos

Someone recently asked me what all the crap in my wallet was, referring to my large collection of car wash vouchers. Eight vouchers used to score you a free car wash – in 2001 – but I never actually got around to using them and over the years my poor wallet has stretched out to accommodate their bulk. When I finally decided to get rid of them, about ten years ago, I realised that my wallet had ballooned so much that my cash had no chance of staying put and just kept slipping out. So the vouchers resumed their position, filling the cavernous space they had created. We’ve all accepted that this will be their final resting place.  My wallet can no longer function without them, and thus neither can I.

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Need somewhere to write a list?

My wallet has contained love notes and phone numbers from fascinating strangers. It’s held receipts, IOUs, shopping lists and lists of things to do. It safeguards passport photos and photos of dead people, photos of people I love. It keeps my Australian sim securely hidden away when I’m in Dubai, and my UAE sim safe when I’m travelling. And, because I’m a hoarder, it still hangs onto every single driver’s license I’ve ever had. It holds my organ donor card, my Blood Bank donor card, and my most recent acquisition, my first aid license. My life is essentially contained within the smooth, dark brown, leather pockets of this wallet.

 

But let’s be real. The thing is over 22 years old. I don’t know how old that is in wallet years. Ancient. The stitches are falling apart at the seams and the Oroton label has all but completely worn away. The zipper on the coin pocket broke about fifteen years ago, and the whole goddamn thing is so distended by filler crap that I can’t even actually button it closed anymore. Let’s face it, this wallet is an old, ugly, worthless piece of shit. And I really, really should just throw it away and get a new one.

But I think we all know, I never will.

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‘Til death do us part.

 

 

 

Ejo #92 – My Name Is Chrysoula Stathopoulos

My name is Chrysoula Stathopoulos. Since 1933, I’ve lived in Lechaion, a small seaside town in Greece. But I was born in a tiny village in the Peloponnese mountains in 1916. I am 101 years old.

My name is Chrysoula Stathopoulos. I’ve lived in Dubai since 2008. But I was born in Adelaide, Australia in 1971 and raised in Melbourne. I am 46 years old.

As the firstborn, I was named after my Dad’s mother, which is how the Greeks do. I hated my name growing up because nobody could ever pronounce it, and a lot of kids gave me shit for it. On the first day of Grade 2, my teacher actually accused me of making it up. I casually dropped the “oula” part of my name when I was 12, and made it official when I was 14. Over the years I’ve grown to love my full name again. It’s unique, and it’s who I am. It’s also something that connects me to my grandmother, my yiayia, whom I love dearly.

My twin sister Fotoula and I were the apples of our father’s eye. We had two older brothers, but we were the favourites and everyone knew it, including Mum. She scolded us once for making too much noise while we were playing and Dad looked at her very seriously and said, “Whatever you do, don’t ever talk to my girls like that again”. And she never did. Times were tough growing up because of the war, and we didn’t have a lot, but our house was filled with love and I always tried my best to make my Dad proud of me when he was home. He was gone for most of my childhood, working in America so that he could send money home for us. Every time he came home was a big deal and my favourite memory was of being bounced on his knees – me on one leg, and Fotoula on the other, the three of us laughing and laughing.

Even though Greek families usually covet a son, my parents had three daughters and I think that, secretly, my father loved being surrounded by women. My Dad drove trucks for a living in the early seventies, and he was gone for long stretches at a time. My earliest memory is of our flat in Elwood. I was wearing a nappy and crawling to the front door because Mum had told me that Dad was coming home. I remember bursting with joy when he appeared at the flyscreen door.

In 1924 my family moved down from the mountains so that we could attend school near Korinth. Some of the teachers were very strict, which I didn’t like very much. I certainly wasn’t used to being smacked, but the teachers had no problem hitting us if they got mad. I always studied hard, and tried to be the best student so that they would never have any reason to hit me. On 22nd April 1928 a big earthquake shook Korinth. Twenty people died, and nearly 15,000 people were left homeless. Even though our home was damaged, we were lucky that it wasn’t one of the 3000 that were destroyed, and that we still had somewhere to live. Our school had turned to rubble and, while it was being rebuilt, classes were held outside, on the football field.

Fotoula hated school. She would say, “Chrysoula, I’ve been to school for a week, now it’s your turn”. School wasn’t compulsory back then, so she could get away with it but it’s a shame that she never learned to read or write. I wanted to be a teacher or a mid-wife when I grew up because they earned 500 drachmas (about €2) a month, which was a lot of money for a woman back then. But I was forced to drop out of school in 1929, at age 13.

When we were young,my parents forced me and my sisters to go to Greek school on Saturday mornings. I hated it and faced each weekend with sickening dread. But my parents wanted us to learn how to speak Greek, and to appreciate Greek history and customs. Fair enough, but the teachers at the school we attended were sadistic fucks and what I remember most about those classes was the constant fear. It ended when a teacher pinched my cheek so hard he left a large purple bruise across my face. My crime? Not completing my homework. My parents, horrified that the tales of assault and battery were actually true, allowed me to drop out of Greek school at age 12.

In 1930 my beloved father got sick with double pneumonia. The closest doctor was in Didima, a village 100km away, and every time he came to the house it cost us 500 drachmas. When Dad died, we owed the doctor a small fortune and since we didn’t have the money, it was negotiated that I would go with him back to Didima and work as his housekeeper until the bill was paid. I didn’t want to go, but my older brother got very angry and slapped me across the face and told me I was going and that was the end of it. After that I was happy to leave, just to get away from him. My Dad would never have allowed anyone to strike me like that. But now he was gone, and I had no choice but to enter into servitude for nearly three years in a village where I didn’t know anyone and where they didn’t even speak Greek. During my time in Didima, I slowly learned some Albanian so that I could communicate with people, but I was happy when the debt was finally paid off, and I could return to my family, who had moved to Lechaion.

In late 2002 my beloved father was diagnosed with lung cancer. My parents tried to be upbeat and hopeful about the prognosis but as you can imagine, it was a total shock for all of us. My father was the healthiest and most robust man I’d ever known. He was invincible to me, a rock. In denial, I didn’t even believe that he was actually sick until he started showing symptoms a couple of months later. And after that, the decline in his health was rapid. Lung cancer is a truly horrible disease and over a ten month period I watched my father deteriorate from a tower of strength into an emaciated skeleton coughing up tar-black mucus onto my birthday cake, a month before he died. Shit like that stays with you, man. When we told yiayia that her firstborn had passed away, she cried. But because of the Alzheimer’s she sometimes forgets. Sometimes she doesn’t even remember who he was.

In 1933 I started working in the fields with my sister, picking fruit to support our family. We earned just 25 drachmas a day, which wasn’t much, but our lack of education didn’t leave us many options. A lot of people were in the same boat and there was a great deal of competition for these field jobs, so we weren’t always gainfully employed. In 1936 I met a man at work called Panagiotis, who was a real go-getter. He would schmooze around the taverns at night, networking for jobs, and his circle of friends always had paid work, thanks to him. He seemed like a nice guy, and he must have taken a liking to me because he started getting regular work for me too. Working side by side we started developing feelings for each other, and after a year we were engaged. We couldn’t afford to get married right away but I did move in with him which was illegal back then, so we pretended that I was his housekeeper and everyone fell for it! Haha! Suckers! We lived in sin for two years before we got married on New Year’s Eve, 1939. Ten months later we had our first child, Konstantinos, and then after that I gave birth every two years, with Roula, Chris, Toula, Sofia and our baby Stavros.

 

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In the fields.  Kon, Chris, Toula, Sofia, Stavros, Roula, Panagiotis and Chrysoula.  And a small kid.

 

I met my husband David at work in 2005. It was love at first sight, for me anyway. We worked together for a year, exchanging flirty glances across the tower console before we actually started going out. Two days later I moved in, and four months after that we were married. Most people at work thought it wouldn’t last but, after eleven years together, we’re still nuts about each other. We decided not to have children, which we sometimes lament, but usually not.

Over the years all my children except Stavros emigrated to Australia. Roula went first because she hated working in the fields and wanted a chance to start a new life. Kon joined her a year later, and then the others followed. I wanted them to be happy and to have a better life than I did so I didn’t mind them leaving, but my god I missed them so much. My children are my life and they have always made me so happy and so proud, even now. In 1976 I went to Australia for a visit and I had such a wonderful time, mostly because I got to see all my children and grandchildren. Little Chrysoula was, of course, my favourite*. She was such a delightful child, and she taught me how to count to ten in English, and even though my memory isn’t what it used to be, I’ve never forgotten: onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten! See!! I do have trouble remembering some things, but those old days are crystal clear. I loved Australia so much I went back for another visit in 1988 and I wish I could go again, but, even though I’m as fit as a fiddle, let’s face it, at my age it’s probably not going to happen. There is always someone here, one of my kids, looking after me, and I appreciate that. But I wish my grandchildren would visit more often.

I met my yiayia for the first time when I was five years old. She came to visit us from Greece and stayed with us for a few months. It was nice having her around because she was always smiling and laughing and hugging us and telling stories and crocheting beautiful things. Her skin was wrinkly, but soft, like well-worn leather. And you could tell that my Dad just LOVED having her around. They glowed around each other, overflowing with mutual adoration and respect. My grandmother was such a loving person and she taught my Dad to be honest and hard-working and to be proud of his achievements. In turn, he taught me the same.

I’ve been thinking about my yiayia a lot lately. I am writing this ejo to celebrate her, while she’s still alive. I don’t know if I will ever see her again. But I want to. The last time was five years ago. She recognised me, which was wonderful, but she is very locked up in her mind most of the time. Locked in the past. And the people around her, even loved ones, are very much in the periphery of her consciousness. But every time we are together, even though my Greek is shit and she can’t speak English, there is always a deep and loving connection between us. A circle of life and love that cannot be broken by distance or years apart.

We are Chrysoula Stathopoulos.

 

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* Some creative license MAY have been used in the writing of this ejo.

 

Ejo #60 – The Extraordinary People I Know: Karien Mulder

What is art?

Well, do you have all day? And several bottles of wine? I bet we still wouldn’t come to a consensus. How do you define something so personal, so illusory? I’ve been to galleries where the exhibits have not only left me cold, but actually perplexed. How is this considered art, I’ve thought to myself? And yet there are people fawning over the work. Gushing over it! By the same token I have stepped in front of a painting and been totally mesmerised, unable to look away. Unable to walk away. Lost in another world, another time. Transfixed.

Leo Tolstoy defined art thus:

“Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward the well-being of individuals and of humanity.”

And that’s about as good a definition as I’ve ever heard. I wonder how many bottles of wine he had to drink to come up with that one!

Now let’s get into some deep and meaningful stuff. Is Chryss Stathopoulos an artist? What is an artist? Someone who creates art, right? So, by definition, yes, I am an artist. But honestly, to call myself that feels like a lie. I create art, sure. I write regularly. I paint once in a while. I take photos when something catches my eye. But in my own opinion, that doesn’t make me an artist. A true artist is following a calling. Maybe I have a calling, but I sure as hell don’t follow it. I’m too married to my salary (right now) to give up being an air traffic controller (shackled by what I like to call the “golden handcuffs”). If I was a true artist I would say to hell with the money, to hell with the travel, to hell with the lifestyle and I would sit down and do everything I could to make a living from my “art”. But I don’t. So when I meet people who have done just that, I look at them with great awe and admiration.

One such person is the subject of this month’s ejo. Karien Mulder is a visual artist and designer in Dubai. I know her because our husbands work together. There are a lot of things about Karien that intrigue and inspire me. And most of them have to do with how different we are.

For instance, I didn’t grow up in a war zone. I spent my formative years in the leafy, Melbourne seaside suburb of Elwood, where the most exciting thing that ever happened to me was winning a spelling competition. Karien, on the other hand, grew up in Rundu, a town on the border of Namibia and Angola, during the South African Border War. Her parents were both in the military and her father was sometimes absent for months at a time. I imagine that as a young child she saw and experienced some pretty awful things. And as children do, she would escape the real world by playing. Her favourite memory of that time is spending hours chasing “sand lions”. She would patiently trick them out of the ground using a blade of grass to tickle the side of the sand funnel until they popped up. Only to put them back again. Another pastime she loved was drawing (particularly faces), something her mother taught her to do and something that would become a lifelong passion.

Catching sand lions

Catching sand lions

After they moved to South Africa (once the war was over), Karien’s mother allowed her to use the spare room of their house as a studio – and in a way it was this act of encouragement and support that really gave Karien a chance to flourish and grow and figure out that being an artist was what she really wanted to do. School was never a highlight for her, but the high school she transferred to in South Africa did have a fantastic art department – and so a confluence of opportunity presented itself to her. Art as a life choice.  She took hold of it and still hasn’t let go.

A young Karien hard at work in her studio.

A young Karien hard at work in her studio.

Having a mentor, I believe, is an important part of walking the artist’s path, and Karien has had a few along the way. People that she’s learned from, people who have guided her and inspired her. From the high school teacher with the shaved head and flowing skirts who taught her that actually creating work is more important than talking about it, to her best friend from whom she learned that every decision an artist makes should be towards creating better work. Karien’s most influential mentor though is the man who taught film at The Open Window School for Visual Communications, Pluto Panoussis. He opened her eyes to a whole other, moving, world, a world that she has confidently inhabited since.

But Karien had made a commitment to being an artist long before taking Pluto’s film class. At the tender age of 21 she packed up her car and drove to the South African coastal town of Langebaan with her cousin. She left because her father had just died. She left because she wasn’t enjoying the graphic design course she was three quarters of the way through. She left because it was the right move to make. It was a major step for her and I can’t imagine that she did it with no fear whatsoever. But she did it anyway. And while she was there, not only did she take part in some art exhibitions and work on her painting, developing her technique and skill. It was in Langebaan that Karien met the other love of her life, her husband Nic.

Nic and Karien are one of the most in love couples I’ve ever met. Their relationship is a beautiful thing and I admire them all the more for knowing just how different air traffic controllers are from artists (trust me, I really know). But they make it work – just like any relationship, you get what you put in. And to that effect Karien made a striking comment about it. When I asked her if there was a time when she knew she was going to be an artist she said, “Art is a soul commitment. Being an artist takes way more than being married. You commit to art more than you commit to another person”.

So while Karien keeps her art close to her, closer even than her husband, I keep mine as a mistress. Not even that. More like a booty call. Something I paw at when the urge takes me. Which is not what being an artist is about (though like all relationships, some nurturing and attention could improve things). Karien and I do share a creative spirit.  But I have squirrelled mine away, encasing it in a beautiful crystal box to protect it, only imagining what it must be like to create art as a life venture.  Karien, on the other hand, has taken her spirit, exposed it to the world, turned it over and thrown it up in the air (and probably up against a few walls too).  She made the difficult choice to be an artist.  She didn’t just dream about it.

I remember once taking part in a life drawing class. At the end of the session the instructor walked around checking everyone’s work. When she came to mine she stepped back and tilted her head. “Whose is this?” she asked and my heart skipped a beat. I put my hand up and she nodded. “This is really, really good,” she said. What I did with that compliment was allow it to fluff up my ego a little bit and then I stored it away in that nice little glass box where I could look at it from time to time, and admire it. That’s the difference between me and Karien. And that is why she is extraordinary.

Karien at work!

Karien at work!

You can check out Karien’s work at her WEBSITE.

You can also read an interview she recently did with Gulf Photo Plus HERE.

And here are a few of my favourite of Karien’s works. I hope to one day start a collection.

Karien 7 ‘To Pin a Ghost’ – Digital Image Composite on Paper

 Inspired by a fictional ghost story

Model & Make-up: Yowyn Du Plooy

Styling, Compositing and Photography: Karien Mulder

Wardrobe: Corsets SA http://www.corsetsa.co.za

Assistant: Louise Malan

You can check out the project here:

http://karienmulder.com/2014/07/20/ghosts-and-girls/

 

 

Karien 8 ‘Rouge Pony Logo Design’ – Digital Image Composite on Paper

Inspired by tattoos, headpieces and vintage tattoo design.

Illustration and Model: Karien Mulder

 

 

Karien 6‘Drawing a Day Image 5’ – Pencil on paper, photographed in Instagram.

Inspired by making a drawing every day for 50 days.

Part of a work in progress.

Model: Yowyn Du Plooy

 

Karien 5‘Folk Self-Portrait’ – Mixed media on a found object (book)

A personal visual diary made as part of a project while at The Open Window School.  The idea was to develop your own personal illustration style through the medium of your choice.  Karien chose to work with random objects and explore concepts of South African folk art.

You can view the project here:

https://www.behance.net/gallery/17520957/Drawing-from-Life-A-personal-Visual-Diary

 

 

Karien 4‘Digital Self-Portrait’ – Vector illustration.

“A vector self-portrait based on a portrait I saw of Frida Kahlo some time ago.  I am (like most) a massive fan of her work and I particularly like the placement of her portraits – it sometimes reminds me of a mug shot.

Mug shots also interest me, and I have made a series these self-portraits in different environments. I like the idea of a universal self and how the decorative space is the voice of the personality.  In this way the individual ironically disappears.”

 

Karien 3“Self Portrait with handmade headpiece” – Digital Image Composite

“I made a couple of headpieces and I wanted to take some photos and didn’t have an available model.”

You can check out the project here:

https://www.behance.net/gallery/16888345/THE-MAGIC-OF-THE-INANIMATE

 

Karien 2“Pen Doodle” – Pen on Paper

 

 

Karien 1“Doodle of a Concept for a video” – Watercolour on Paper