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A 21st century Renaissance man

The quite remarkable Achilleas Kentonis and his Artos Foundation is what happens when you meld art, science and an overwhelming curiosity, Agnieszka Rakoczy discovers

Engineer, inventor, innovator, multi-disciplinary contemporary artist, founder of one of Nicosia’s most unique cultural centres.

All of the above describe the Renaissance-like qualities of Achilleas Kentonis, but very few of his acquaintances could guess that the shining light of his driving curiosity first emerged in the dimness of a cave.

A 10-year-old boy slips out of the family home to explore a mysterious cave on a nearby beach overcoming his fears of the dark. The cave was about 400 metres from the sleeping household in Ayios Georgios in Kyrenia and it was there the young lad discovered some ancient coins.
“Actually it was an ancient tomb but at the time I had no idea about antiquities so I was convinced I had stumbled upon pirate treasure,” Kentonis, a youngish 55, looking back on this character-building, life-shaping episode, recalls as we sit in the airy comfort of his bright office at the Artos Foundation in Ayios Omologites in Nicosia.

“I was very excited about my find. I decided to move the treasure to another cave so pirates wouldn’t take it from me. Obviously, I had to do this in secret. So even though I was terrified of darkness I went there during night, alone, without telling anybody. Even now when I remember this night it gives me such strong feelings. This was the night when I conquered my fears. I gained my freedom. I discovered adventure.”

Years later, jolted into shocked awareness of the fleeting nature of mortality after the tragic 2005 Helios plane crash, Achilleas, himself a frequent flier and traveller, decided he should share something of his past by taking his kids to visit his old village.

“I thought since I travel so much, I’d better take them there now because you never know what can happen.”

The visit proved to be less comfortable familiarisation than disconcerting revelation as he sought to introduce his children to the landscape of his childhood. Where once he had overcome his fears in the magic pursuit of finding buried treasure now stood a huge hotel and a casino, the latter a neon shrine to the lure of a far more mundane and much less imaginative treasure trove.

“I felt almost castrated. I had this big stone on my chest. I couldn’t breath. I felt robbed of my childhood. The place I was closest to nature in had been taken away from me. When I returned home I was dumbstruck. For three days, I couldn’t talk to anybody, not even my kids,” he says.

Turning to another life-shaping story, Achilleas’ voice fills with tension as he recalls the events of July 20, 1974, which he experienced as an 11-year-old.

“We were in our house in Ayios Georgios. There was a Turkish warship on the sea. Then Turkish planes started bombing. My father took me aside and said: ‘Look we have to leave now, we will go to Nicosia, but I have to ask you that from now on you conduct yourself not as an 11-year-old but as though you are 25. You must watch the sky when we drive and if you see that planes are approaching you have to tell me so I can turn the car away from the main line of escaping vehicles and avoid being hit.’ So I said ‘OK, let’s do it’ and we started out. I kept my window open and whenever planes would start chasing us and bullets were coming down I would tell my father to turn aside.”

That must have been a very traumatic experience for a 11-year-old boy, I interrupt, and Achilleas responds with a terse laugh and says: “This was the easiest bit.”
The road from Kyrenia to Nicosia was crowded with cars and so exposed that there was nowhere to hide when the planes were approaching. Then came word from Nicosia that that fighting had started there as well so all the cars had to turn back to Kyrenia.

“Turning back we were in this long convoy made up of private cars and military vehicles full of young soldiers. I remember thinking how stupid it was, that if the planes show up again we are so close to each other we will all be killed. And finally they did appear and they destroyed the first car in the convoy bringing us to a halt. More planes came and bombed us. Many people were killed. There was blood everywhere. Thirty years later I saw a photo of this incident and all the civilian cars are burnt out. I think ours was the only civilian car that survived intact.”

Somehow Achilleas’ father managed to turn their car around once more and was heading away from the convoy when a plane dived after them. “It was so sudden I couldn’t warn him. I heard an explosion. We had a heavy car and it kept going but I had some injuries. Even 10 years later, when I was a student in the United States, I would be picking pieces of grit out of my scalp that had remained there from that day.”

The family finally managed to get to Nicosia but that was not the end to the drama. “Nicosia was hard too. We lost our house. We had nothing – just the clothes on our back. One loses one’s dignity this way…”

Achilleas kept on having flashbacks, reliving his war experiences. He couldn’t sleep at night. He kept on seeing blood and dead people.

“One day I decided to put an end to all of that. I made some sculptures of people with very distorted heads, put them into a big box and carried it as far away from home as I could, two or three kilometres at least. I dug a hole, placed the box in it, buried it, stamped down the loose soil and said: ‘that’s it, it will never bother me again’.”

The boy went on to find yet another innovative and creative way to deal with his traumas. He had always loved the challenge of taking apart machines of different types, the more intricate the more intriguing. His father, who worked for the Vassos Eliades trading company, knowing his son’s penchant, would bring home old typewriters or calculators that the office was planning to dispose of so that Achilleas could dismantle them and explore and their inner workings, the hidden treasures, as it were, of their mechanisms.

“He knew my hands were thirsty for action. He always said: ‘you have to learn how to destroy in order to build’, and I was always trying to build something with tools I was making on my own as well. This gave me the necessary confidence to proceed. I just knew that if I wanted to do something I could do it. It was OK to fail sometimes because I knew I could always readjust and adapt whatever I was doing and bring it to success.”

By this stage, Achilleas was eager to move beyond that of tinkering hobbyist. He embarked on a series of correspondence courses determined to broaden his knowledge and to learn everything he could about the workings of machinery and mechanisms.

“I wanted to keep my mind as busy as possible. They would send me books and exercises and I would send them back and they would grade them and send more.

It was very interesting. By the time I was 14, I had built my first radio. It was made of wood. I still have it.”

Not surprisingly, after graduating from his high school and serving two years in the army (“I was sent to the furthest possible place on the island – to Pyrgos – so it was hard”), Achilleas set off to study engineering at the University of South Alabama in the United States.

“It was a small university but with a very good department and received lots of funding for research from big companies,” he remembers.
Achilleas’ talents were quickly recognised. By the third year of his studies, his tuition fees were being covered by Nasa, and he joined the famed space agency after graduation.

However, despite being in a position literally to reach for the stars the young man opted to go back to Cyprus. “In the immediate years after the war, the family was still dealing with the fall out and side effects. Then I spent two years doing my military service in the most isolated place on the island before going straight to the States. So I just felt I needed to give Cyprus a chance. I thought I would come back for two years and then decide what my next steps should be. But I never managed to leave again. I started a family and that was that,” he says.

Achilleas has never regretted his decision to return. Yes, there was no comparison between the money he was offered on the island and what he had been earning at Nasa. Nor did he realise his hope that this might be offset by having more time to relax while in Cyprus. But he is philosophical about it.

“When you work in a place like Nasa, the higher you get up the ladder, the more you get focussed on just a small element of the whole problem. I always wanted to deal with the whole story, the big picture. Cyprus was able to offer me exactly that.”

Remaining on the island also offered plusses such as having his children grow up in a safer environment and being close by his parents as they advanced into old age. More surprisingly and humblingly, Achilleas found that being in Cyprus forced him to address some issues of ego. He quickly had to come to terms with matching his expectations with the reality of his environment.

I must have raised my eyebrows a bit on hearing him say this because he hurriedly seeks to clarify by explaining: “You must understand, I came from this place where, whatever I dreamt of, I could do it straightaway. So now, here I am back in Cyprus and it is the 90s and I see so many things I believe I can improve… I have all these ideas and solutions so I am going around and giving them to people for free, saying, here, this is a good practice, take it, implement, move on.”

Yet despite his rapid-fire take on ways to remedy aspects of the prevailing situation, the former Nasa staffer is forced to come down to earth with a bump, because “nothing was happening…”

After a few more bumpy landings, Achilleas began to take on board that, just as when working on his innovative projects, so too, when it came to his new life on the island, he had to be ready and willing to readjust. As he put it, a little ruefully perhaps: “I understood that science at that time in Cyprus was neither capable nor ready to bring about the kind of changes I envisaged.” It simply lacked the resources for being an agent of change. Trying to be a pioneer in a rarified, specialised field in such circumstances was akin to being taken for “one of those Micky Mouse characters”. So it was that he switched creative disciplines and turned to art.
“My first love was always the creative rush that comes with invention and I think science is where that best flourishes. Art is more like a therapy. Yet, at that time in Cyprus people were moving away from the old school represented by the [Adamantios] Diamantis and [Michalis] Kashalos style of art and discovering a more modern art.”

This newfound curiosity bode well for the future and suggested to Achilleas that there was an audience open to and willing “to communicate”.

“The closest thing to creativity that people associated with was art. That was why I thought that art could make the difference then,” he explains.
So began another form of exploration. Not that Achilleas abandoned science entirely. Instead, he launched the Artos Foundation, a contemporary arts, science, innovation and social impact centre, dedicated to research, creativity and education.

“At that time it was a completely new departure because people didn’t yet see science as being an integral part of art. Here we were, launching all these new things from scratch and having to work extremely hard just to prove the obvious: that it all works together.”
Have they succeeded in their plans?

“In some ways definitely yes. We managed to attract an audience from all spectrums of society ranging from scientists, doctors, and priests, to policemen, poets, actors. We put together a lot of pioneering projects. An example was ‘the Kids University’ that teaches participants to use both the left and right sides of their brains simultaneously, the idea being to help them focus and learn how to imagine the whole picture when seeing only one part of the puzzle. We did workshops on how to design 3D sculptures on computers and how to do video mapping on buildings, all of this well before anybody else knew what it involved. We were probably the first organisation in Cyprus to work on programmes funded by the EU — not those sponsored through structural funds via the municipality, but those that you have to compete for with thousands of other organisations from all over the EU.”

Currently, one of the projects the Artos Foundation is preparing is documenting short stories about the history of Nicosia. In short, the aim is to make the city an open book. The intent is to have researchers tell these stories on video, which then graffiti artists and designers will use to create stencils in different places in the town. These will be geo-tagged for tourists to find. Using their mobile phones, visitors will then be able to see what the location looked like at the time of the particular story while listening to the narrator explaining what happened.

Achilleas talks with pride of the foundation’s accomplishments and describes the struggles to find funding for the ambitious projects it has carried out over the last 18 years. “Every year we start from scratch and have to acquire a five-digit sum in order to do all our projects, and yes, we always manage it.” That said, he readily admits to disappointment at what he perceives to be art’s declining social impact.

“When we were starting, I thought it would act as a language that people would speak, understand and communicate for common issues but unfortunately nowadays I see it rather as a break from reality. Yes, it can still work as a therapy but more on a personal level than global.”

Now he is exploring another approach, “a kind of creativity called ‘mature activism’ where one knows where to focus, what and how much to say, and also how to build teams.”

Achilleas’ thoughts have distilled into another new project he calls Innovation Gym, a research lab dedicated to the discovery of new ways to invent and re-assess ideas, processes, products, policies and infrastructures.

“People want to find the ways to improve the process of working in their organisations. They want more innovative products, better standards, more compatibility with environmental issues but they don’t know how to approach such changes. So, using neuroscience, I developed my own technique about helping them find solutions. I connect them to various sensors and study their bodies with quantum medicine. I learn what their patterns are, how their brains work and analyse the results. Then I train them in how to adjust and to be more efficient. You might describe it as a study in human psychology but I see it as human mechanics. It is because I see their performance as if it was a machine with some problems that need to be addressed. Sometimes what has to be done is very simple. It might be just like a car that rattles when you drive it at over 120 km but is absolutely ok when you go slower. So you slow down in order to focus on the right things.”

The Innovation Gym project targets both young and old, individuals and corporation. It even goes as far as prescribing what one should eat — “because whatever you put in the machine has an impact”; and which emotions one should get rid of — “because wrong emotions are the most toxic chemicals you put into your body”.

And this is where Achilleas falls back into his childhood experiences once more because “it was the cave that opened my horizons and made me go against my fears, and it was the box that I buried that taught me how to turn the page.”