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Successful artist’s life of two halves

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Primed for a life as a suit and tie man, Yiorgos Bellapaisiotis has worked with Alexander McQueen and seen his art presented at MoMa. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man who dived into the unknown to follow his passion to create

The house is “pure 60s” as Yiorgos Bellapaisiotis puts it, a zig-zaggy concrete pancake set back a little from the road, with a paved garden area in front. It’s wedged between a pub and a car wash, on a rather forgotten main road in the deeply unglamorous area of Kaimakli, near the Green Line. Anyone driving by, on this grey and sleepy Saturday afternoon, would be hard-pressed to guess that the occupant of this house wrote the theme for Piers Morgan’s show on CNN, or created work for seminal fashion designer Alexander McQueen, or had two of his “metallic sculptural designs” presented at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or once walked a red carpet wedged between, not a pub and a car wash, but Claudia Schiffer and Donatella Versace.

Admittedly Yiorgos isn’t a permanent resident, having lived in New York since 1995. This is his parents’ home, the house where he grew up – the study, where we sit for the interview, features old childhood photos of himself, his twin brother and older sister; at one point his mum appears with homemade pies, and a tumbler of fresh grape juice – nor does he even usually stay here on his once-a-year visits to the island. In the past, “I would come for two-three weeks during the summer, and I would be a tourist” in Ayia Napa or Pyrgos, he tells me; “It’s the first time that I will spend two and a half months here”. The reason for this year’s extended stay is an exhibition of his paintings – his first-ever solo exhibition – titled ‘Beyond Gender & Sexual Orientation: Travels from New York to Nicosia’, opening next Wednesday, March 6, at the Baker Tilly offices in Nicosia.

A few obvious questions come to mind. Why would a successful artist living abroad choose to present his art for the first time in Nicosia, as opposed to New York or Athens? And why in a conference room at a corporate headquarters, as opposed to an art gallery? But exposure, says Yiorgos – a companionable man with a trim beard, greying sideburns, black-rimmed glasses, and a passing resemblance to the actor F Murray Abraham – isn’t as important as the sentimental value of exhibiting in Cyprus, “with the people that basically shaped the first part of me”. He’s now 47 so he’s spent exactly half his life here, the other half abroad, making the exhibition a form of closure. As for the venue, even though the CEO of Baker Tilly, Marios Klitou, is a personal friend who was instrumental in extending the invitation, there’s also another nice symmetry – and a form of closure – in being hosted by a firm of accountants and consultants, given how close Yiorgos once came to joining their number.

His life is fascinating, and completely atypical. What usually happens, if you’re a fine artist or composer or fashion designer – he is, or has been, all three – is that you become hooked at an early age and, if the family don’t support your ambitions, you strike out on your own, or at least develop your art while working a day-job. Yiorgos, on the other hand, spent his first 23 years being almost entirely oblivious of his talent – even though he spent the next 23 becoming the first Cypriot to enter the super-prestigious Parsons School of Design, then beating out hundreds of established names to become McQueen’s assistant designer in New York, then making a sideways move into music and composing for Lara Fabian (a pop diva who’s sold over 20 million records worldwide), and so on and so forth.

Yiorgos aged 4 with a notebook

Can we really say he was ‘oblivious’? Maybe not; he shows me a photo of himself as a four-year-old, already toting a sketch pad. “I was drawing from the age of four, I did my first oil painting when I was 11… But they never said to me ‘You’re talented’, they thought ‘OK, that’s [his] hobby’.” He was secretly Manhattan, but the family were pure Kaimakli. His dad was an accountant for the government, which is also what his sister does now (his brother is a clerk at the Law Courts). The plan was for Yiorgos to be an accountant too – “a suit-and-tie man,” as he puts it – bolstered by the fact that the boy was (a) good in school, and (b) unusually amenable. “I never complained,” he recalls. Throughout his mid-teens – every day, for about four years – he’d go to Greek school in the morning then do another six hours of English school, preparing him for ‘O’ and ‘A’ Levels. “I’d finish from Pallouriotissa high school. My mum would wait for me outside, with a sandwich, at two o’clock, she would drive me to GC School of Careers, and then I would finish at 8.30!… So, at some point, I thought this was normal.”

It’s incredible that he never rebelled – then again he was never encouraged to think of himself as an artist, whether at home or at school, Besides, it’s easy to forget how isolated one could feel, growing up in Cyprus in the 80s. Yiorgos’ sole rebellion came in following fashion trends he saw on Top of the Pops, or in teen magazine Smash Hits; he recalls going to a birthday party in burgundy velvet pants – as worn by the lead singer of Depeche Mode – and white shoes (“They almost threw me out!”), and generally being bullied at school for his weird appearance. “So that was my escape, Smash Hits and Top of the Pops – with Steve Wright, do you remember Steve Wright? He’s now a BBC Radio 2 DJ. And listen, how funny: I used to watch Steve Wright – and now, 20 years later, I compose music for Steve Wright at the BBC.”

That’s a recurring motif in our conversation. Listening to Lara Fabian as the plane took off for New York – “the voice that made me compose myself” on the most emotional day of his life – then writing a song for her 10 years later, actually a duet with Turkish artist Mustafa Ceceli (‘Make Me Yours Tonight’) that spent 27 weeks at the top of the Turkish pop charts. Worshipping Alexander McQueen from afar – then meeting him face-to-face in the final stage of a gruelling selection process, McQueen interviewing the final five applicants himself (from a starting pool of about 1,000), to choose only two. Yiorgos was fresh out of college, and had never worked as a fashion designer in his life, but refused to be intimidated. “At the end of the interview he goes to me: ‘What’s your name? – he knew, but he goes to me: ‘Greek yoghurt, right?’ Because he couldn’t say ‘Yiorgos’. I said: ‘Yes, Greek yoghurt’. And he said: ‘Well, Greek yoghurt, you did something’. So I knew I was going to get the job.”

How to explain the bifurcated life of Yiorgos Bellapaisiotis, a life of two halves? The second half emerged in stages: at 19, he decided he could never be a “suit-and-tie man” – but instead joined Cyprus Airways, and spent nearly five years as a flight attendant (making around three times a banker’s salary, in those halcyon days). Only after a chance meeting with someone who “believed in my talent” – filmmaker Haris Mavromichalis, who told him he was wasting his time in Cyprus – did he finally apply to Parsons, spending a year amassing the work required in support of the application (even then, he says, the first year was a nightmare, surrounded by people who’d been honing their art since childhood). What if they’d rejected him? Would he have tried for a less prestigious school – or just continued on his well-paid, un-creative path here in Cyprus?

Yiorgos is a fluent, expansive talker – but here for the first time he pauses, sighing and clicking his tongue. “I wouldn’t know, Theo,” he replies at last, “because I always deal with things when they are in front of me. It’s the same thing I do with my paintings – I don’t plan, I don’t sketch. I know my concept, I just start and then I let my mood, my feeling, even my subject guide me… So I just dive in, into the unknown, and I create.”

Here, perhaps, is the missing piece of the puzzle – this organic, intuitive link he has to his creativity, whether as painter, composer or fashion designer. It’s the method of a person who creates not as a career, not as a structured process, but more as an extension (almost, you might say, a celebration) of himself – and another clue is surely contained in the title of his exhibition, because there’s a very important fact we haven’t yet mentioned about Yiorgos. It wasn’t just his talent of which he was unaware (or in denial?) for the first 20 years of his life. It was also his sexual orientation.

He had girlfriends in his teens, and hung out with a group where most of the boys had girlfriends; “Even when I was in the army, I had no idea that I was gay” – but in fact he is gay, which must’ve been another cross to bear in the Kaimakli section of his life. His sexuality was eventually accepted, he says – and makes it sound quite straightforward, then again he also gives me a tour of the paintings in the upcoming exhibition, including a couple he’s made during the past few weeks in Cyprus, and it’s clear that his creativity works differently here. The recent work seems (from the outside, at least) more tormented, almost grotesque; if the New York paintings sometimes recall the Klimt of ‘The Kiss’, the Nicosia ones, with their emphasis on bodies, are closer to the Goya of ‘Saturn’. I suspect there’s a few bad memories sparked by this extended sojourn in the old house, gnawing away at his subconscious. He came out to his parents just a few days before leaving, he recalls, but it was only when he’d already been in NYC for a couple of years that they finally accepted “that Yiorgo is not the typical guy from Kaimakli who’s going to get married and have children and go to church every Sunday… and live his life for others. They realised that Yiorgo is going to live his own life, for himself.”

Here’s my Unified Theory of Yiorgos, admittedly based on no more than a couple of hours’ acquaintance: once he admitted – to himself, and others – who he really was, artistically and sexually, his creative juices started flowing, in the organic way that he describes, and haven’t stopped since. “The moment I felt the acceptance of who I am as a person,” he affirms, “this is where I felt stronger, I felt more free, I felt that I am untouchable – and I felt that I can be honest, I have nothing to hide”. When he follows his muse, plunging into whatever field takes his fancy, he does so with the unselfconscious joy of a man communing with his true self after years in the wilderness. He doesn’t really care what he creates; even 23 years ago, when he set his mind on becoming an artist, “I was thinking ‘Shall I become an architect, shall I become a jewellery designer? Shall I become a fashion designer?’. I [just] knew that I wanted to create.”

So here we are 23 years later, following a decade in fashion among the glitterati – his stories include fielding a phone call from Elizabeth Taylor while working for Koos Van Den Akker, shamefacedly lying to La Liz that grumpy Koos wasn’t in the office and could he please take a message – then a second career in music, helped by the fact that his partner of 18 years, Anthony James, is a musician (it was Anthony who translated self-taught Yiorgos’ melodies into actual scores that musicians could play), and meanwhile also painting all the time, knocking out a few pieces each year and giving them as gifts. This week’s exhibition is going to be “a journey”: he’s composed a special soundtrack to accompany the work, and his materials also include spices like curry and cloves (as well as acrylic, pastels and gold leaf) so “the paintings have a smell”. It’ll be a case of synaesthesia. More importantly, it’ll be a case of a life coming full-circle.

If you had to associate one word with Yiorgos, that word might be ‘freedom’ – the freedom to create in a natural, unstructured way, the freedom to be who he is and say what he wants. His openness gets him in trouble sometimes: he’s the ‘crazy guy’ who’ll jump in when he sees, say, a clerk being rude to a customer – “I catch fire when I see unfairness!” – and will also tell you to your face if he thinks your jokes are offensive. It’s a wonder he managed to repress himself for so many years – though in fact his lifestyle in Manhattan sounds positively bourgeois: “Wake up in the morning, go to the gym, do cardio. Go back home, work 10 hours, then back to the gym again, lift weights, come back, cook dinner. I cook fine dining for Anthony every single night, unless we go out”. Things have calmed down since his red-carpet days, though he’ll still get invited to some glitzy event two or three times a month. Otherwise he paints, composes, takes care of “the children” (five kittens, one of them slightly asthmatic) – and perhaps he also thinks back, now and then, to the old house in Kaimakli, and shakes his head wryly at how far he’s come.

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