Memories of a painter from old-time Sifnos

• Category: Interviews

When Christian Brechneff first stepped foot on Sifnos, in a time when there was no port on the island and a boat would go and pick up passengers from offshore, he was a 21-year old artist searching for inspiration. This is how a love story of 30 years would begin, years when both Christian and the island would change and shape. Today they may live apart, but Christian has gathered his memories in a book with the clear title The Greek House- The story of a painter's love affair with the island of Sifnos.

What was the special thing about Sifnos that kept you there for so many years, Christian?

I really fell in love with the place right away. It is hard to explain why. One can never really explain why one falls in love with anything or anyone. I was young and romantic and the island was beautiful and isolated, dreamy and remote. And the people were so incredibly nice and kind to me.

Remember it was 1972. Sifnos was another world. There were barely any roads, no cars at all except a few old battered Russian Volga taxis. Even money was somewhat new as there were still barely any shops and people mostly exchanged goods for what they wanted or needed. And very very few tourists. I was, in fact, one of the first tourists that "stayed", or at least kept coming back, and so everyone got to know me, nicknamed me Christo and took me in, made me one of theirs.

The island was really a refuge for me as well, a refuge from my "other life" in Europe, and eventually here in America. There were no private phones, no communication whatsoever except telegrams and the phone line at the post office. When you stepped on to the ferry in Piraeus, you truly left the world behind, all your problems, all your relationships with dealers, lovers or family. The sense of isolation was complete and I loved and needed that.

To some extent I was even able to leave myself behind, my anxieties and confusions about myself. I was so confused about my sexuality, and Sifnos, which was a very straight and family oriented place, protected me in many ways. If I had gone to Mykonos, even in those days, the sexual temptations would have been too seductive for me. But Sifnos had no bars, no night life whatsoever, and therefore very few temptations.

From the very beginning, it was a very creative place for me. The perfection of the architecture, the sculptural quality of the landscape, and the colors of the different seasons added up to such an incredible range of visual experiences that I felt I would have material to paint there for years to come. And indeed I did work there over 30 years.

It was never really a holiday place for me. From the start I always thought of Sifnos like some giant mother figure holding me tight. Even to the degree that I rarely went to other islands. Once I had a house, I started bringing all these art supplies to Sifnos and it was hard to move around Greece and other islands with all my stuff. But I needed an anchor and Sifnos was IT.

My parents started coming to Sifnos in 1974 and loved it too. I do believe sharing the joy, the beauty and the people of Sifnos with my parents was very important to me, and a bond between us, and even if we were not often there together, it became sort of OUR place.

How did you first came to Sifnos?

A lot of people ask me this question and I write about it in the beginning of the book. Part fate, I guess, part chance, part coincidence. But very definitely part of the reason I loved the island so: I felt I had found it, it was sort of my discovery, MY island.

Originally I had actually thought I wanted to go to Simi. It looked beautiful, and God knows it was remote. In May 1972, when I arrived in Athens, I was strongly advised by the student travel office on Syntagma Square to go to Sifnos instead, as it was easier to get to. I was told I would have to take several boats to get there, and would probably get lost anyway.

As it happened, a fellow foreign student at Saint Olaf College in Minnesota where I spent my junior year in 1970, was a Greek girl whose grandmother, I remembered, had a house on Sifnos in the town of Kastro, and seeing this happy chance as Kismet, I jumped at the chance to go there.

So, several months a year, for over 30 years, you lived on Sifnos and now you have left. How did you decide to write your memories in a book?

Yes. I went back ever year, staying for weeks, months sometimes. And once I had the house, which I bought in 1977, it made it much easier.

In the late 1990s, a close friend from New York, who is in the publishing world, came to stay with me on the island. After a couple of days in my house he turned to me and said: Christian, I think you should write about your life here in Exambela. And about Sifnos. There might just be a book here... But it was not the right time. I knew as long as I owned a house there I could not write about it. It was too close to me. But once I sold the house in 2007, the flood gates opened and I could not stop writing.

Another thing that propelled me was that I found these letters I had written to my parents from Sifnos over the years: it was the letters really made me feel that maybe I had a book.

Once I had the first couple of drafts, my partner of 36 years now, Tim Lovejoy, decided to help me. You see, he is a real writer, I am a painter first. But together we created this book. And then we got lucky: the book was eventually bought by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York, our first choice of publishing houses. But the journey of writing to publishing took almost six years!

Why you believe you can't grow in Sifnos anymore? Could it be because the island changed over years?

Over forty years, everything changes. But actually, I suspect it has less to do with the island than with me. The island did change, but so did I, perhaps even more. I changed from a 21 year old confused, insecure kid into a rather worldly, accomplished artist and my needs for Sifnos simply were not the same anymore. I was no longer that kid who barely knew who he was and was trying on personas. And I didn't need a refuge any more.

But, of course, the island DID change, Sifnos and the whole of Greece changed- the Olympics were the turning point for me. And I suppose some people might say that parts of Greece have been "ruined" by tourism and the coming of the Euro. I remember my rather old Russian grandmother telling me in 1967 when I wanted to go to Jerusalem that Jerusalem was "ruined over". She had gone there, she said, in 1912- THAT was truly the time to visit. But if you were to go to Sifnos today- not perhaps in the month of August- and you had never been there, it would still be a totally magical and extraordinary place.

No, it wasn't Greece changing that changed Greece for me, it was mostly more personal things like when Kreonides, the wonderful gallery on Kolonaki Square in Athens where I showed, went out of business from one day to the next- that totally took the wind out of my sails.

Sifnos was never a holiday place for me. It was a serious workplace where I produced a lot of art that successfully sold in Europe and the USA. And my house was always a studio first- always- only secondarily a place for house parties and holidays. After all those years though, painting there every summer, religiously working in my studio, I had probably begun to work a bit less, but Kreonides and the two shows I had there, were like a transfusion, and for several more years the pictures had poured out of me. But now I realized I had sort of stopped painting there. It was like a well that had run dry, and I wasn't so sure why I was there any more.

There were other little signs too that maybe it was time to leave, that told me I didn't really belong there any more, and that I had outgrown the place. But not painting there, not working there any more was the biggest change.

Every here and there, we receive mails from people telling us that their life dream is to move to a Greek island. Do you believe Sifnos has something to offer to a foreigner today or you think it has lost its old charm for good?

The temptation of moving to a Greek island has always been great, and still is. Lots of single women particularly venture out there- I write about this in the book, too– but it often doesn't turn out all that well. In the first place, one is ultimately always a foreigner. On an island like Sifnos, even Athenians are foreigners.

Of course that can be a good thing, an asset. It frees you and you are able to live your life one step outside the local society which tends to be very strict and conservative. But you must always watch your step.

I think that unless you have a real focus in life, such as writing or painting, music or any other form of creativity and you are very very disciplined about it, the simple isolated life on a Greek island, as seductive as it may sound, can lead to lonesomeness and melancholia. Alcohol, for many in the foreign community, is a problem, and so are sexual temptations. They often do not have happy endings as an island is a very small place. No, it is hard for me to recommend island life for too long.

So this is how today you live in New York and in your house with garden in Connecticut. Are you coming back to Sifnos for holidays or you never intend to return?

I tell all my friends that I have not sold the island, only my house. Of course I shall go back. And I have been back already, two years ago. I have friends there and speak the language, and it is still some sort of home to me. But I don't travel as easily as I did in my youth, the comforts of hotels and my own house here in Connecticut are so tempting that I don't see myself there again every year, sometimes making two, even three trips. And when I go, I shall try not to go alone. It can be a lonely place when you are not working, even if you know everyone there on Sifnos, as I do.