I started this blog entry almost immediately upon my return from this journey. And then the unthinkable happened. My computer crashed taking more than 100GB of images with it. All of the images that I had shot in Greece, along with everything else important to me vanished in a moment. Only just recently, I have finally recovered my images (barely enough of them) to illustrate this blog post. I couldn’t imagine it without photos of John and Jane Pack. I had taken so many of the center and the Island and they are all gone – though my memories of Paros are etched in the marble of my mind!  And more importantly, I found and recovered the following text file that I wrote so many months ago about my experience.

Cathy Cone and I were invited by John Pack to come to The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts on the island of Paros, Greece for a ten day visit last May. He asked me to spend a day or two helping him sort out and perfect their Piezography environment and workflow. The rest of our time was to spent getting an impression of heaven on Earth. I had an opportunity to make a presentation to the center on my own life’s work as a printmaker. My favorite experience however, even outside of enjoying island life, was working with the students in the digital lab. This was an extraordinary group of students. And really they are a reflection of attending what can only be described as the modern day equivalent of the School of Athens.

John is the Director of the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts and has been a Piezography user for many years. I first became aware of his work when he asked if Piezography would sponsor The Greater Journey Exhibition which opened September of 2008 at the Sidney Cooper Gallery in Canterbury, England. The Greater Journey is a collaboration between the poet Peter Abbs and the photography of John Pack…and it has now evolved into the production of a limited edition book.

John Pack and Jon Cone in the digital lab at The Aegean Center for The Fine Arts

 

In May, I finally had a first-hand look at John’s Piezography prints for his half of this two volume collaboration. It was immediately evident that he is a Master Printer extraordinaire. The printing is absolutely fantastic, and this is going to be an amazing Piezography printed livres de luxe. And I can’t wait to receive mine. I am an instant fan of John Pack’s photography – his eye – his sensibilities.

John is an educator extraordinaire. The Agean Center for The Fine Arts is not just an art school located in an extraordinary place. It is an extraordinary art school located in an extraordinary place directed by an extraordinary artist/teacher/guide. And this center would be extraordinary no matter where it was located. It offers an opportunity for study in the arts unlike any other. To the degree of learning if offers in the fine arts, it is very appropriate that the center be located above Parian marble (which gave us the “Parthenon Marbles” pillaged by Lord Elgin) and that students should be able to walk on ancient roads in a culture that produced the Fayum portraits unearthed in Egypt.

And with all of the attention Greece gets in the news, we visited Athens during one of the worst times of the recent crisis and never felt anything but safe. Greece is truly timeless. And even while the World restlessly awaits its progress, Greece remains in many ways its own universe.

Ancient amphoras from the collection of ceramicist Monique Mailloux, Paros.

John has been director of the center since the early 1980s. It is a life’s work; the result of one man’s commitment to the foundation of teaching art in a classical manner far outside of the politics and restrictions of large university art departments. And far away from the commercial concerns and the various strategies of the “art world”.John was very much outraged by these restrictions when he taught at university in the USA in the early 1980s. He designed a series of trips with USA students to visit Europe so that they could have an immersive experience with art and artists, far away from the commercial exploitation of the 1980s art world. This eventually led him to Paros and the Center, first as student, then as a teacher, and that eventually evolved into his becoming Director.

In the digital lab

To call this the School of Athens  reincarnate is not an exaggeration. The environment, and learning process are very similar to the ancient principles of Plato who founded the first institution of higher learning. The Aegean Center for the Fine Arts takes less than 40 students from an application of more than 250 each year. The process of selection includes a lengthy correspondence between Pack and the applicants. These developing “conversations” allow Pack to pick the students which will most benefit from the experience. Those who continue past a semester do so because they are invited back. We met four students who had been there for five terms. There is a cross section of paid and financial assistance. Each and every student we met was incredibly articulate even as they were shy or outgoing. The confidence brought on by knowledge in the arts was inspiring.

Photography is taught of course…but so are painting, drawing, printmaking and music. The staff is a special group of people. Each has picked up from some established life elsewhere and moved to the middle of the Aegean Sea to teach young minds and even older minds, as there is no age limit for students. Cathy sat in on Jane Pack’s Life Drawing class to an experience she told me was unlike any other in her experience. Jane is also an extraordinary teacher.

Learning is a life-long process. The center absolutely (and I believe exclusively) celebrates this pursuit in the arts. You can find this perhaps a week at a time when you join something such as a workshop hosted by a photographer or an artist. But, that type of “workshop” energy here is a daily routine. It absolutely boggled my mind that it is available as a course of study. And how John keeps that energy alive week after week is a testament to the man.

The Center’s etching press.

The butcher and his friend, Paros.

John and I are similar in age. I certainly know what that energy feels like – and I have channeled mine into many sorts of different directions – while John keeps his true to one purpose. He gives fully of himself to his students. He administrates a program and faculty that mirrors that energy and commitment. And above all, it is given with open hands and with love. The environment is as nourishing as the island and its people are. Greece is known for being friendly – but the people of Paros are known even in Greece as being friendly. Cathy and I certainly felt that no matter where we traveled, or what time of day that we traveled. We were always met with open hands and usually gifted with some food or an incredible greek coffee.

Jane and John Pack reading my fortune in the grounds left behind in my coffee.

The Center is birthing artists. It made me long to be back in Art College. It made me long to be here as a student. And there were adult students studying at the Center! Now nearly a year later as I edit this, I still long to be there.

Many of the students we met, were between high school and college. Many had already been through college fine art programs. A few were even far into their adult careers as artists. Each had a gift of articulation and confidence – and I believe it comes from knowledge. And I believe it is knowledge and the pursuit of it that differentiates the Center from other art schools. That this exploration of knowledge should be applied to The Arts (Painting, Drawing, Photography, Music) seems so appropriate to me. Deep knowledge. Esoteric knowledge. Ancient knowledge. Practical knowledge. Necessary knowledge.

For many of us in our fields, we are past the time that we can study in such an immersive manner. But, had I known of the the Center when my own child wanted to attend art school – I would have had him apply. I would encourage anyone with children interested in the arts, or with children who have gone through art schools, to apply. This is an absolute life changer. I feel in some way, that my own life has been redirected again by my ten days on the island.

The time I spent with John was truly inspiring. I reflected on my own commitments to learning. I took a workshop this past Summer at the Maine Media Workshops. I just taught a workshop this Fall in Santa Fe. I will start up the Cone Editions workshops again in the Spring. Knowledge is everything. Sharing knowledge is the basis of humanity. If you have bread, you share it. And if you are like John, you dedicate your life to sharing the process of learning. He is someone I aspire to be. A new hero for me.

I spent years doing amazing things with my body. I am a little beat up now from 15 years of kung fu, followed by 5 seasons of motorcycle roadracing. John leads a Friday “hike” which Cathy and I tagged along on. John has the energy of someone twenty years younger. I do not think it would be possible to actually keep up with him. Yet he never makes you feel like you are lagging or lumbering. Paros is steep and he leads hikes often on ancient paths that connect one village to another. The reward of course is lunching on amazing food in some unexpected taverna (more about food later!) On this particular “Friday Hike”, John took the students to see the Paros marble mine. It’s ancient. At one time, the tiny island supported between 45,000 and 60,000 slaves who mined this marble by hand.

It is the marble, unarguably the finest in the world, which makes this little island in the Aegean Sea known around the world. All of the greatest Greek scultptures were carved from Parian marble. The Medici Venus. The Elgin Marbles. The roof tiles of the Parthenon. Parian marble is unique because light can penetrate it deeper than any other marble in the world. Substantially deeper. The quarry has been closed for many years now. It is deep into the bowels of the Earth. You can only see the outside of it through a fence and visit a small museum. But, we would steal down the original ancient path (along side an abandoned 20th century improvement) that led into the heart of the quarry. We would journey deep underground to see one of the original veins. John found this passage years ago; long before the fence.

It is down here that John once lead the sculptor Naguchi to a piece of marble unlike any other in the world. John is often surprised by spelunkers. I should say spelunkers are often surprised by John. And on a nationally supervised descent into the mine, Naguchi was being given the opportunity to find a block of marble. But, the entire team of “experts” could not find a vein worthy of being quarried. John knows these ancient tunnels and paths unlike anyone else alive today. He has journeyed through them for decades. He knows the ancient tunnels that leads to the original veins. And on that particular day as the experts became lost, John could hear voices as they carry as they do through tunnels and he stepped out of the darkness  to lead a nearly blind Naguchi to that final marble which he sought. The marble was found, but never realized before his death.

And in the pitch blackness of our trip with John, he touches the face of a flashlight to a protruding vein of this soft white marble and he can suddenly and magically illuminate a cavern. There just is no experience in the world witnessing absolute darkness becoming absolute light. Most marble allows light to penetrate only a few mm or perhaps a cm. This marble, unlike any other, allows light to penetrate so deeply that stone appears like flesh.

As John brought us all deeper and deeper into the mines, we stopped to listen to him. I learned so much. I was in school again listening to marvels of how the ancient sea creatures became marble, how marble is separated from the bowels of the earth by slaves using nothing more than the basics of wood and water, how it is dragged up vertical tunnels nearly too steep to climb, how it becomes sculpture, how sculpture reflects light, why and how and touch it and feel it and can you see the two ancient ships supporting between them a sling on which a 10 ton slab of it sails slowly towards Athens. Here you can see how it is separated from itself by drilling a hole with a stick and pouring water into it, how a hot stone forces it to boil and the steam creates the crack that will dislodge it. Here is where they recorded its weight on the wall with some ancient pigment. Here is where they dragged it, thousands of men, to the surface. And the sculptors, the most famous in Athens, come to make some initial cuts, to reduce its weight, in the hopes that it will not drag the ships and their crews to the bottom of the Aegean.

The climb out a back passage I discovered was as challenging as any climb I have made in Vermont or the Canyon de Chelle (this past Summer). And coming back to the surface is like entering another reality. I felt I learned more about sculpture in that descent than I have in a lifetime. But, the marvel is that we descended with a student who had extreme clostraphobia – and who John talked through this experience. John always giving him the option of returning him back to the entrance, and lovingly working him through it. I sat next to him feeling his tremble of fear and it brought me to tears at the end to see him make it. I’ve just never witnessed something so miraculous. I’ve worked through fears. I know how hard that is. I’ve had a teacher like John once before.

So, does Piezography exist on this ancient little island? Yes. You can drive around it in three hours, and you will have circled around students and teachers who use it – and artists and photographers who call Paros home – that come to the center to print. John maintains two Epson large format printers perfectly. Humidity does not often visit this island. Electricity is too precious with which to run humidifiers – so John creates his own to keep the print heads moist. He teaches a perfected Piezography method that starts with the paper – and how it is handled and how it is fed. He calibrates his displays and honors the technology internal to the K7 curves. His students produce really fine work with it. There is a final display station with a viewing booth for precision.

What I brought with me to the island was every flavor of Piezography ink and lots of sets of refillable carts to begin them on desktop printing in an Epson R2880. It was immediately evident that Piezography Glossy was a big hit with half, while Piezography Matte was a big hit with the other half. Many of the inks were used and swapped out for others in just minutes. It was a printfest scheduled to run a couple hours which went late into the early evening. Each of the students would load up their favorite ink set in the printer, make their images and then hand it over to the next. Split-Toning and custom split-toning seemed to be very popular. In the end – the system was incredibly accessible and at the same time very customizable. The students instantly advanced into customizing Piezography ink sets to suit their particular vision.

I wish I had been invited to lead workshops for ten days but it was finals week and there was precious little time. And as designed, Cathy and I were to enjoy Paros life – which we did. But this would be the perfect setting for a long Piezography workshop, hours of conversation about photography, good food and wine, an immersive knowledge.

The location of the Agean Center for the Fine Arts is in the heart of a sea port white village named Pariokos which is simply spectacular for its natural light. There just is nothing quite like the light that filters into the art studios from a white village. The studios of the center were plentiful and spread about on different floors and in different buildings all interconnected by courtyards and stepping stones. Pariokos is ancient. Parts of this village are pre-hellenic and many of the buildings are built from marble quarried on the island and found in the ruins on which Pariokos was founded. I photographed this island for days, returning to the same places to match myself against the light, subject myself to its presence. And all of it lost to a computer crash. What I brought back however, will last me a lifetime.

Had I not made the journey to Paros to meet John Pack, to work with him, to be inspired by him, to adventure with him, to witness his teaching and relationship with his students, to have my own world turned topsy turvy in the most amazing way – I would not have known that an art school like this could exist. And the school of fine arts that he directs is unique in the world. It provides what truly is necessary for an artist to practice creativity. The foundation is everything and it is delivered without dogma. I remain energized to this day, a changed person, a changed photographer, and a re-inspired teacher, and a re-awakened student.

 

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