Exhibition Opening: Papas Retrospective

With Tessa Papas

I would like to begin by telling you about an article I read in the NY Times a couple of weeks ago.  It was a touching story about a soup kitchen run by Father Ignatios Moschos in the poor neighborhood of Kerameikos of Athens.  I asked the Museum Board if maybe we could donate 10% of any sales made this evening to Father Ignatios & his wonderful work and they have agreed!  You can read the article on the board over there.

bill_papasAnd now to Bill and his art …  He was born into a large Greek family in the Transvaal in South Africa and showed a precocious talent for art; in fact he won a national prize for  drawing at the age of 7.  I gather from the stories that his older brother, Tasso, told me that Bill was a very mischievous child and got into all kinds of escapades … and I can say that this was a character trait that stayed with him for much of his life!  At 16 he lied about his age and enlisted in the SA air force as a gunner but fortunately the war ended and he didn’t see any action.  However he was able to take advantage of a grant (something like GI bill here) that enabled him to go to Europe to study art.  He did attend art schools in UK and France but only took the classes that he felt he needed.  His real art education was on the streets of northern European cities.  He would sit on street corners sketching the people and buildings around him.  I still have some of these early sketchbooks and it amazes me that he could capture movement or a character with just a few lines. He always used an old fashioned nib pen which allowed him to vary the width and intensity of the lines in the sketch.

On returning to SA he joined the Cape Times as an artist/reporter and in the late 50s was the only artist asked to cover Nelson Mandela’s treason trials.  These drawings were syndicated around the world and thanks to them he was invited to become the editorial cartoonist of the Manchester Guardian.  Already troubled by increasing apartheid he was happy to leave South Africa.  In the UK he quickly became known for his anti apartheid cartoons which caused him to be banned from SA as well as for his usually liberal take on British politics.  I met Bill at a time he was waging war on the parking meters which had just been introduced to London’s streets by Mr. Marples, the minister of Transportation.  He refused to put money in them and had accumulated at least £500 in fines so he was overjoyed when Mr. Marples asked if he could buy a cartoon.  Yes, said Bill, and the price for it are the parking fines I have accumulated from your fiendish invention!  Mr. Marples paid up, probably the highest price for an editorial cartoon at the time, and they became good friends.  Bill treated everyone with equal respect regardless of who they were.  I remember a square in a Tuscan village where I left him at a coffee shop while I visited a museum.  When I returned his table was surrounded by at least 20 people.  There were the workers who had climbed down the scaffolding of a building they were renovating; there were various shopkeepers and their customers and there was the mayor with his granddaughter.  Bill was busily sketching everyone of them and talking all the while in appalling Italian. Everyone was laughing and drinking the wine that kept appearing miraculously on the table.  That was how Bill was; with his sketchbook he could communicate with anyone.

After 12 years or so he tired of political cartooning.  It was a high stress job but the bigger problem was that the world situations remained the same over the years and only the protagonists changed.  I think of a cartoon he did 50 years ago which showed an Arab and an Israeli fighting with the caption “An eye, for an eye, for an eye …”  Sadly it’s the same situation today.  With a name like Papas he had felt he could use the bully pulpit of a newspaper to change the world but it didn’t happen.   So in 1970 he decided to leave the political world & return to the village of Emioni in the Peloponnese that his father had left a hundred years before.  Bill loved Greece and its people.  He loved their spirit, their lack of class distinction, their filoxenia and he set out to record the life and the people that we found on the islands and in the villages.  Many of the paintings in this exhibition are his recollections of that time while others, the pen and ink drawings in particular, were commissioned in the 70s and published in Kathemerini, the Athenian newspaper.

That was how Bill was; with his sketchbook he could communicate with anyone.

We left Greece in 1982.  Bill was worried about Mr. Papandreou & his politics and in Ermioni at least he was not the only one.  We went to pay our taxes before we left and Yianni the tax collector looked at our tax statement, then at Bill, and then, with a dramatic gesture he tore up our statement saying “Never will I allow money to be given to this government!”  I think he lost his job the next day.

We came to Portland to visit friends.  It was a clear day in February.  The sun and the mountains were out and Bill said, “We should stay!”  And so we did.  As in Greece we set out to record our impressions of USA before, as Bill said, we became too Americanized.  The first three years we travelled 100,000 miles around this country.  Bill sketched and we talked with Americans from every walk of life, from senators to pig farmers, from Native Indians to bankers, and these impressions are in a book and a set of etchings entitled “Papas’ America”.  Bill loved this country and felt completely at home here.  It was a place he said where everyone with the exception of the Indians had at some point come from somewhere else.   But he still had a place in his heart for Greece and we were planning to build a very small studio on a piece of land we owned in Evvia.  Sadly his untimely death intervened but at least he was able to leave behind a wonderful legacy of the people and places he loved.  Maybe this show should have been called the Vanishing Greeks as that was the title of the book we were working on when he was killed.

Its difficult to condense a talk about Bill as there are so many stories and anecdotes to tell but I am planning to complete a memoir in a year or so.  I hope that I have managed to give a little insight into a remarkable and gifted individual.

Before we go upstairs to look at the paintings I would like to thank the Board of the Museum and in particular Bill Aspros for organizing this wonderful retrospective.  And thanks also to all of you for turning out on this blustery evening.