Day-to-day life on the Greek isle of Karpathos is unrushed. You can get a glimpse of it from the bus as it maneuvers the sharp turns of the narrow roadways. You’ll see cats napping as they wait at the harbor for the fishing boats to offer up the day’s catch. Olive groves give way to patches of orange and lemon trees, and the scents of wild sage and thyme fill the air.
Tourists visiting the island studio of Yannis Chapsis, 88, sometimes are surprised by the oft-used, hand-scrawled price tags tacked above his paintings. Even some locals feel it’s time to modernize his studio, up his prices and get computerized labels.
But they’re missing the point. Chapsis strives to preserve his Greek island’s traditions and to present “the good old days” in his collection. Studying his works makes you realize he is an autodidact, not because of his naive style, but because of the rough edges. Chapsis’ work is done with oil or watercolor. He paints on a variety of materials — ceramic tile, glass and wood — yet all his works depict the customs and traditions of his native island in the Aegean Sea.
Chapsis at the folklore museum on the island of Karpathos
Serious painting came late to Chapsis. He began to focus on his love of painting only after his doctor advised him on his 64th birthday that he should quit working so hard and enjoy the few years his weak heart would allow. Those “few years” have turned into decades.
In his youth, Chapsis learned the trade of shoemaker in the rugged northern part of the island. After the big earthquake of 1926, Chapsis’ family relocated south to the village of Othos, and he became the village barber. In his spare time, Chapsis played the Karpathian lyre, a three-stringed instrument similar to a violin, which tradition requires be built by the musician. He became an expert musician, and is the teacher of most of the island’s younger lyre players. Music is a theme often depicted in many of his paintings.
Chapsis does not view his art as a means to becoming wealthy. For commissions, he charges the going wages of a manual laborer on the island — currently about Euro 40 per day or Euro 5 an hour (US$ 52 per day or US$ 13 an hour). This same attitude is reflected in the prices he charges in his studio; works start at Euro 10.
Tourists flock to the 302-square-kilometer (188-square-mile) island in July and August, when there is an average of 12.5 hours of sunshine each day. Most visitors are adventurers, interested in hiking, cycling, swimming or windsurfing in the islands. The majority fly in from Austria, Germany, Holland, Italy, Poland, Slovenia and the Scandinavian countries, although there are also visitors from Canada and the United States.
Yannis Chapsis’ Lute and Lyre
Visitors find Chapsis via word of mouth or from write ups in various guidebooks. He does not bother to advertise his art.
In October, charter flights to Karpathos end, marking the unofficial closure of tourist season. Shops lock their doors and restaurants close their shutters. Many hotels won’t get any business again until Easter. It’s not that the 6,000 inhabitants wouldn’t welcome more outsiders to the island. After all, the Greek word xenos means both “foreigner” and “guest.” It’s just that tourists to Greece seem to prefer to follow the crowds to larger, more established islands to play in the sun. Crete, Rhodes and Corfu offer year-round excitement. Karpathos, located some 250 sea miles from Athens, is barely on most maps.
Chapsis’ dedication to preserving the island’s customs isn’t limited to his artwork. It extends to his volunteer work at the local folklore museum, which would not exist without him. When charter flights stop and the island of Karpathos goes into its long winter sleep, the octogenarian locks up the museum and uses the off-season months to fill up his studio walls anew.
Never forgetting his cardiologist’s advice, Chapsis allows himself plenty of leisure time to spend with his buddies at the local coffeehouse down the road from his studio. Weather permitting, he wanders around in search of any changes on the little island he is so keen on preserving.