At a time when Greeks were arriving in Australia en masse aboard the ‘Patris’, in search for a better future, Michael Winters, a young, recently graduated artist born in Frankston, was crossing the ocean in the opposite direction, aboard the same boat, in the Spring of 1965.
His desire to visit Greece was so strong, that he took on the hardest jobs just to save up the money for the one-way ticket to Greece, also breaking his studentship with the Australian Government that required him after his studies, to work as a teacher until the age of 27.
“I had a History of Art lecturer, an extraordinary man. Warrick Armstrong. He was an aesthete and was particularly interested in Ancient Greece, the philosophers, the sculptures. He told me, ‘Michael, I can see the ancient in you. Go to Greece my boy’.
Like a young hero in a Greek myth, Winters cast his fate to the wind, and as a result, formed a lifelong connection with Greece, but also with the Greek Australian community through his strong friendship with poet Dimitris Tsaloumas, and interestingly with the Greek Australian Cultural League, his drawing being on the first copy of the Antipodes periodical published fifty years ago.
Michael Winters, who is now based in Canberra, turns out to be, not only an extraordinary artist whose vibrant linocut prints of Greece, we admired at the Antipodean Palette exhibition recently, but also an engaging storyteller, as he recounts to Neos Kosmos his adventures during that first journey to Greece, and the chance meeting with Antonis Tsaloumas on the boat, that would change his life.
“On the boat there was also a young painter and an aspiring writer and we formed a trio of young discontented Australians who wanted to leave this country because of the ethos, to try to find out who we were, culturally speaking. Did we have what it takes to become a writer or a painter, by getting out of our comfort, and throwing our fate to the wind?”
Amongst the few Greeks, on the same trip, Antonis Tsaloumas -brother of Greek Australian poet Dimitris Tsaloumas- was returning to his island, Leros, to look after his ailing mother.
“I wanted to go to Athens for the archaeological museums, the sites, the atmosphere, and after that, I did not know where to go.”
It was Antonis who told him to go to his island.
Upon arriving in Piraeus, they could stay on the boat for three days. They toured the ancient sites in Athens guided by Greek archaeologists who were passionate about the history and fluent in English.
Athens was a living, breathing city, Winters describes his first impressions. “The street life, people out in public, guys carrying brass coffee pots, men selling little pieces of bread in boxes. The kafeneio with people sitting around… The world of modern Greece, the pace of life, with the ancient as a backdrop. As you sail into Piraeus you see the Acropolis. As you come up the coast, there is Sounio with the Temple of Poseidon. There was all the architectural, the archaeological sites sitting there, after all this time, but around all that, was modern Greece.”
On arriving on Leros, Antonis had found him a lovely house. It was the time of the Junta, and Leros in those days had a big political prison. “There was an atmosphere that was very ominous. The army was everywhere… I remember the matchbox, which had the symbol of the Junta, the Phoenix with a soldier in the middle. If the matchbox was turned upside down, a soldier would make sure to turn it around.”
Michael, or Mihalis to the Leriots, would spend his time with the locals and other artists he met on the island. The Swedish novelist and poet Sun Axelsson and her husband in those days, British sculptor Michael Piper, became good friends of his. The view he painted from the window of her writing room, would later become the cover of The Observatory, the bilingual collection of poems by Dimitris Tsaloumas, which won the National Book Council Award.
Throwing his fate into the wind again, Winters, then 22, went north, to Sweden, to study in the Arts School in Stockholm.
“From Sweden, I went to England which became my base, but I kept returning to Greece, to Leros.”
He would return to Australia seven years later, in 1972. “Though I was making success in exhibitions in London, I was exhausted and struggling financially.”
Winters continued to return to Greece, to Leros but also spent some years in Crete after the Australian Embassy asked him to exhibit his work there for the 43rd anniversary of the Battle of Crete.
“I framed all the work on Leros and had them shipped to Rethymno where I had an exhibition in a beautiful Franciscan Church. Those were unbelievable moments. At the reception for the Australian group in the agricultural college up above Rethymno, I’m sitting there looking down at the town spreading away from me. And I thought, this island is the labyrinth, the Minotaur, El Greco, Australians fighting for their lives in the Second World War.”
“The reality of Crete, what it went through in the war, what all of Greece went through in the war got to me. As an artist, you’ve got to be aware of all these things happening around you. They have an impact on one’s consciousness too, and one’s social awareness of things. Life is a pretty messy business. It’s got highs and lows. And it’s got tragedies. Look at Greek theatre. It’s got tragedy, it’s got joy.
“I decided to come back here before the 50th anniversary [of the Battle o Crete]. I was married then. And with my then wife and my three kids we lived in Argyroupoli, a village high up the mountains in Crete. I spent two years working there [1990-92]. My kids did correspondence school from Australia but they would play with the Greek kids at night who at first would call them Xenoi.
“For the 50th anniversary I combined military history with mythology. I had an exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. They were amazed by what I did. Such a tragic story.. Young Australians who’d never been out of Australia, who had never read a history book. They were driven off the mainland, as the Germans drove all the Allies down to the Peloponnese and from there they had to flee all the way down to Crete.
The only time the Germans used paratroopers was in Crete and Leros. Strange irony was that at the time, Dimi [Tsaloumas] had gone to Patmos to get food for the family. He was trapped on Patmos, and he wrote this poem, which is one the most epic poems called the ‘Sick Barber of Patmos’.
“Dimi wrote no matter what. He wasn’t chasing success, it came to him. And he was finally recognised for the brilliant poet that he was here in Australia, but he’s also recognised in Greece.”
“One of the most beautiful moments for me was when Queensland University Press published The Observatory and sent me a copy to Leros, And Antonis didn’t have it. I knew what time I’d find him on his veranda with a kafedaki and a cigarette. I walked around the corner, and told him ‘Koita! Na!’ And I held the book up with my painting on the cover, Dimi’s book which won the National Book Council Award for Australian Literature. That was just such a moment. For me to take that around to him, after that meeting on the boat all those years ago, the generosity he showed me, that saw me painting on the island and for that painting to go on the cover of his brother’s, Dimi’s book in Australia, that would win the award.”
Another incredible moment for him, was meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor in his home in the Peloponnese, and connecting him to his friends on Leros, nephews of Apostolos Evangelou who fought alongside Fermor in Crete. Evangelou was tortured and executed by the Germans.
Winters continued to return to Leros, even running a linocut printing studio in town, for a couple of years, where on Saturdays, he would teach locals about this difficult artistic technique. The municipality had even made him Honorary Citizen of Leros back in 1995.
“Those were the times on Leros… and especially when Dimi was back there, I would always be knocking on his door. I have gone back recently and to walk past his house which is empty. And knowing that in that house, my paintings are still on the walls.”
Apart from his vibrant linocuts mainly of Greece and Leros, Michael Winters experiments with sculptural landscapes inspired by ancient Greece. In his 3D series titled “Sailing into the Depth of Time”, he depicts the Crusader Castle on Leros, and a boat, often the ancient Greek ship, the Trireme with the eye emblazoned on its bow. “It is sailing into the depth of time, in other words to the end of life’s journey.”
Philhellene artist, Michael Winters, will be back in Melbourne in October to take part in the celebrations organised by the Greek Australian Cultural League for the 50th anniversary of the literary periodical “Antipodes”.