Seeing art as a kind of freedom, the owner of Gloria Gallery tells THEO PANAYIDES about 40 years of exhibitions and her role in the arts scene
We decide to sit upstairs, just myself and Gloria Kassianides in the gallery that bears her name. Downstairs there’s a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, 40 Years of Gloria Gallery, representing dozens of artists who’ve exhibited at the gallery over the years (it actually started life as Zygos Gallery in 1977, before being re-named a few years later) – but upstairs there’s an even more intriguing section of the exhibition: paintings, sketches, sculptures and photos of Gloria herself, amassed over time and reflecting the fact that the anniversary isn’t just to celebrate the place, but the woman behind it.
Here she is in a sketch by Stelios Votsis dated 1986, looking quite severe in a high-collared shirt. Here’s an abstract painting – just a few artful blotches of colour – titled ‘Gloria in Nature’ (oh these artists and their warped sense of fun). Eleni Nicodemou, an artist who specialises in graphic panels, has a panel devoted to Gloria; here she is in the gallery, surrounded by philistine customers (“Darling, I like the red,” a woman is saying to her husband, “it goes with our red sofa”), giving the artist what-for. “So you’re finally awake, Mrs. Eleni!” barks this fierce cartoon Gloria. “Come on, get to work now. I won’t grant you any more extensions!” The oldest painting is from 1958, a portrait of a wistful teenage girl by a certain Mr Petroulakis. The most recent is dated February 18, 2017, a pencil sketch entitled ‘My grandmother Gloria’ by Dimitris Kassianides.
That particular artist (or one of his brothers or cousins) appears in person at one point, eliciting an enraptured response from his grandma: “My darling grandson! My love! My leventis! My beauty!”. It’s the morning after the grand opening, and a steady stream of visitors stops by to greet her; they include Stavros Kikas, a young artist who provokes another burst of affection. “An outstanding artist,” raves Gloria, “and a very dear friend. He’s like my own child”. Stavros was among a group of friends – including Gloria – who went out for rembetiko music till two am last night, after the opening, which may explain why she’s slightly woozy this morning; the words don’t always come to her, at least not immediately. Numbers are more Gloria’s specialty – as becomes clear when her assistant appears, passing on enquiries from visitors:
“Katerina’s piece, how much does she want?” asks the assistant in a low voice.
“1,500,” replies Gloria without a moment’s hesitation.
“And Karousios? The small piece?”
I’m impressed (there are literally dozens of artworks in the exhibition), but perhaps I shouldn’t be: you can’t run a gallery for 40 years without developing that kind of total recall. Besides, she was always good with numbers. Maths – not Art – was her top subject in school; she stopped painting after being discouraged by an art teacher (not that she ever did much of it) and hasn’t tried since. She’s spent her working life dealing with artists, but was never one herself – indeed, that may well be her strength. I recall the (affectionate) caption in Eleni Nicodemou’s piece, Gloria cracking the whip; maybe artists need someone like that, someone tough and decisive. Gloria tries to put it into words: “Maybe my personality is – I don’t know, quite strong-willed? Maybe I’m able to impose what I want, sometimes? Maybe others feel safer when they’re around me? I don’t know, I couldn’t really say.”
She was born in Epirus, the rugged mountainous region of northwestern Greece – she still has the accent, after all these years – though that portrait from 1958 (when she was 18 years old) was painted in Crete, where her father was posted. Dad was an officer in the Greek army, rising to the rank of brigadier, and raised his oldest child – Gloria has two younger brothers, seven and 14 years younger respectively – in a style best described as soldierly. “My father raised me as if he were raising a boy,” she recalls. “I remember him teaching me how to ride a motorbike, when I was 13”. She was born just months before the Nazis invaded – and her father fled to the hills to avoid capture, taking his family along, so that Gloria spent her early years (the most formative) living in a shack in the mountains surrounded by open spaces, sparking a love of freedom that’s remained a lifelong impulse. The art gallery, too, is a kind of freedom, insofar as it’s not always geared towards being commercial or showing what sells. Would she call herself a businesswoman? “No. I’m not a businesswoman. Because, if I were, I’d do the work in order to make money. I don’t do the work in order to make money”. Is the gallery not making a profit, then? Not recently, she admits without embarrassment. “I’m not a businesswoman. I’m a free person.”
Back in childhood and adolescence, the more accurate word might’ve been ‘tomboy’. Riding a bike was only part of it. She loved guns, and still does; she was a hunter for years – setting out every Sunday, sometimes as early as midnight, to hunt the sparse local game in the Paphos forest – and a regular at the shooting range. She likes knives too, and once shocked an artist friend by buying a huge Chinese cleaver for her collection. “If you buy that thing, I’ll faint,” sighed the artist; “Go outside and take a walk,” advised Gloria, taking advantage of his absence to buy the cleaver. When she was a kid, “my dad never called me ‘my darling, my pet’. He called me ‘Karafotias’,” she recalls with a chuckle, ‘Karafotias’ being the name of a local outlaw famed for his pair of crossed bandoliers.
In her teens, she was quite the terror, shocking the Cretans by swimming in the cold winter sea and taking no nonsense at all from amorous boys. “I didn’t stand for any of that… You know, back then [the boys] used to harass girls and so on – well, the moment any of them tried to say something to me, I’d grab him and beat him up. I could do it, too!” She still looks quite fierce at 76, glowering dolefully like a bird of prey. I suspect she’s very loyal to those she loves, and forbidding to those who cross her – though she’s only ever quarrelled with one artist, out of 750 exhibitions over 40 years. She doesn’t recall who the artist was or what they did (she claims), but “I was very angry, and I thought, I’ll take the paintings outside and set fire to them”. Only last-minute qualms about bad publicity prevented a bonfire.
Given her strong personality, it’s surprising that she didn’t do much with her life till her mid-30s – though of course those were different times, and raising two children hardly qualifies as ‘not doing much’. She had a scholarship to study in America (a Master’s, I presume), which might’ve led to more – but meanwhile she’d also come to Cyprus, in December 1961, and was engaged to be married to an aspiring Cypriot doctor named Christoforos whom she’d met in Athens, and America fell through the cracks. Does she regret it? Not at all, she replies, “because when I take a decision I take it after thinking it through, not impulsively”.
She chose this life, it didn’t choose her. The marriage was happy, lasting till her husband’s death in 2009, even though – in keeping with her unsentimental teenage self – it wasn’t love at first sight. The couple were friends before they became a couple, one common point being a half-submerged artistic streak: Christoforos was a singer and musician as well as a doctor (he’d studied both, then made a choice between singing and medicine) while Gloria, despite not painting herself, had a burgeoning interest in art. Childhood reading on Gauguin and Da Vinci led her to start collecting in the 1960s, local artists like Lefteris Economou and the much-acclaimed Christoforos Savva, whom she used to see having his coffee at Charalambides café. Was she also drawn, vicariously, to the thought of the artistic lifestyle? No, she shrugs, “I never thought about that”.
Even now, after 40 years of gallery-owning, her life doesn’t sound very bohemian. She does have a house full of paintings (almost 500 pieces hang on her walls) but seems even more devoted to her flower garden, which she tends every morning – even today, after last night’s excitements – starting the day with a bit of weeding and getting her hands dirty. Manual labour isn’t a problem. For years, she hung up the paintings for gallery exhibitions herself, leading to a comical incident when one nouveau riche couple (they’d pulled up in a big Mercedes) mistook her for the hired help during a Stas Paraskos exhibition. “We don’t like this rubbish, we like ‘The Crying Boy’ and ‘The Gypsy’,” scoffed Mrs Merc, then asked if she knew Adamantios Diamantis, one of the best-known Cypriot painters. “I thought ‘What if they go to Diamantis and tell him I sent them?’, so I said ‘No I don’t’. Then the man says: ‘I told you she wouldn’t know anything’.”
She’s spiky about looking back, nostalgia being perhaps a sign of weakness. What’s her proudest achievement? “I detest the word ‘pride’!” Was there an exhibition that really left a mark? “All of them,” she snaps – though she does single out the bicommunal shows she hosted, with the help of the US Embassy, in the dark days of the early 90s. (Her own politics may be further to the right – “As you’ll have gathered, I grew up in a nationalistic family” – though she’s quick to voice support for the Turkish Cypriots.) Still, she has stories to tell, after all these years. The time when four men from the Palestinian delegation came in and started yelling at her to close the curtains, paranoid about being killed by the Mossad. The weirdo with an umbrella who “didn’t like the exhibition” he was visiting, so he came up to her and raised the umbrella to hit her (“I think it was Andreas Karayan’s exhibition,” she adds obscurely, as if that explained anything). Needless to say, Gloria wasn’t fazed. “Just you dare!” she yelled at the man, and he ran off quickly. “The crazy thing about me,” she muses, “is that I have no fear”.
She has no fear of Death, either – “it’s the one certainty in life” – though she’s also much too rational to believe in an afterlife. She’s not religious, indeed one of the books she’s currently reading (she always has three or four on the go, mostly history and philosophy) is an irreverent history of the Crusades by Nicos Tsiforos. And what of Art? “It’s a breath of air,” she replies. “It’s a relaxation”. Doesn’t it uplift the spirit, though? Isn’t there also a mystical element?
If there is, it may have passed Gloria by – or perhaps it’s fairer to say that she’s not interested in that whimsical, mumbo-jumbo aspect of Art. She enjoys the aesthetics (the hardest part of any exhibition, she says, is hanging up the work so everything looks just right) and perhaps the process of bonding with artists, and trying to encourage them. She gets on with all local artists, except one. “There’s one I can’t stand,” she affirms darkly, refusing to specify if it’s a he, she or it. Is that how she sees her role? To encourage? “I don’t think I have a role,” she replies evasively. “I just do my job.”
But surely she’s part of the artistic community?
“I don’t really like this kind of talk…” she mutters – but does allow, after much hesitation, that she’s able, if she likes someone’s work, to try and support them, “if I see that they have the truth”. This, she explains, is the point – not so much talent but “the truth”, meaning each person’s own particular truth. Their core, you might say. Their very essence.
So what’s her own truth?
“My truth is the love of freedom,” replies Gloria. “Man’s greatest gift is freedom. It doesn’t matter how restricted you are – your freedom of mind.”
Some would say the greatest gift is love, I point out.
“Treha-gireve,” she replies impatiently, a very mainland-Greek phrase meaning the equivalent of ‘Yada yada yada’. “Love, whatever. Freedom is everything… I wouldn’t care if they put me in jail, for instance – but I’d care if they could control my mind”. Modern life is teeming with mind control: “They direct you all the time. You’re constantly being controlled. And people don’t realise!”. TV news is mind control (she no longer watches TV or reads the papers), Facebook is just ridiculous; why would you want to share what you’re doing, or what you had for breakfast? “I like solitude basically, eh?” she muses, as if admitting something she’s only just realised herself. “I love my kids, my grandkids, I adore them – but I’m happy just being with my book, with my flowers, with my thoughts…”
Maybe that’s the hidden artist in Gloria Kassianidou: the stubborn individualist and the solitary woman, happy to commune with her own inner being. Not the airy-fairy side, though, not the stereotypical artist being precious or indecisive. Who has time for that nonsense? The catalogue for the current exhibition almost didn’t get printed because many artists were lazy about sending photos – so she took an executive decision and cut the photos, filling the pages with 40 years of guest-book comments instead. “I can’t rely on others. What I do, I do myself,” concludes Gloria. “My husband used to say ‘You’re monolithic!’,” she adds and laughs delightedly, looking around at the sketches and paintings and busts of herself.