A glass artist exhibiting in Paphos believes art can be used to bridge cultural differences. SARAH COYNE meets a man who has found a way to combine his life’s work with cultivating the family’s vineyards
Leading Cypriot glass artist Yorgos Papadopoulos has a slight sadness in his eyes, a reflection of what he has had to face throughout the years. He is heavily influenced by the Japanese philosophy of Wabi – Sabi, which is basically an attitude to life and how it is lived. It literally means following a way of living that finds beauty in even the most desperate times, within the imperfections of life and also to peacefully accept the natural cycle of growth and decay. In common with many in Cyprus, when Yorgos was four his family was forced to leave their home because of the Turkish invasion of 1974, an emotional upheaval added to when he realised that he was stuck in a strict religious society as a gay man, and his sister dying at a young age of cancer – all of which is reflected in his work.
“I realised there was something different at a very young age. I didn’t know how to define it or fit in,” he says about his sexuality. “Cyprus was a society that was so homophobic back then. Even when I left for London at the age of 14 it was still difficult coming out. I must say that today Cyprus has moved on big time but there is still a long way to go”. And his life partner, Arjen, who he met in 2013, not only plays an active role in supporting Papadopoulos’ lifestyle but also his art and international glass commissions.
It was by accident while working with glass that Yorgos realised that was where his destiny lay. He was studying at the prestigious Royal College of Art in London and one day while working on a ceramics project dropped a sheet of glass on the floor. The glass was laminated and rather than splitting into tiny pieces across the floor, it just shattered and the design fascinated Papadopoulos, as all he could see was the beauty within the glass. He immediately picked it up and held it up against the window to see how the light reflected on the glass. Excited, he went to the photography studio and photographed the glass with different colours behind it. In doing so he found his great love and has never looked back. Today, he breaks glass, colours and textures large sheets of laminated glass to produce work that is in high demand all over the world.
Yorgos has spent over two decades in London establishing himself as a leading artist but earlier this year made the move to come home to Cyprus. He was born in Cyprus and spent the first four years of his life in Famagusta. After the invasion the family was forced to flee Famagusta for Limassol and he recalls how his mother covered his ears with a pillow so he couldn’t hear the gun shots and sounds of war as they left their home. But he did hear it and the sounds of guns shooting has stayed with him all his life and to him the noise takes him straight back to that night in 1974. In 2011, he exhibited in Istanbul under the title Transparency, an experience that was surely difficult for him? “When I was invited to show my work in Istanbul I grabbed the opportunity. Even against a background of being a refugee and hearing so much about the hatred towards the Turks – the impact on me was indirect. I’m a believer of bridging the cultural differences and there is, no better way to do this than through one’s art”.
At the age of 14 he moved to London but at couldn’t speak any English. However, he mixed with other Cypriot youngsters in North London and soon felt at home there. It was at an early age that he showed an interest in art, influenced by his mother who was also an artist. “She pushed her artistic energy onto me,” he says remembering the smell of her oil paintings, which he still has today.
At school in London he excelled at both art and maths and it was hard for him to decide which direction to go. After studying Pure and Applied Mathematics at A level he decided to specialise in Interior Design, doing a foundation course in art and design at Middlesex University. The reality was that he didn’t enjoy it and he found himself asking the question “Who am I to enforce my designs onto another person’s home?” However, he finished the course, which turned out to stand him in good stead for his later career as a glass artist when working on big commissions in both domestic and commercial settings.
Once his studies were finished, he decided to travel the world and by chance worked for a lady in Sydney, Australia with a ceramics studio. Inspired, he went on to do a Masters in Ceramics and Glass at the Royal College of Art. It was a two-year course and he loved it. Due to his passion and talent, he was awarded a bursary, as his work, even at this stage, was outstanding. And then he dropped that piece of glass. What excited him most about the shattered glass images is how he would be able to use them on a large scale in architectural settings. He abandoned ceramics and gained work experience at an architectural glass factory, called Fusion Glass in London. This was when he was really introduced to laminated glass, two layers of glass with a plastic layer in between. The glass artist Richard Jackson encouraged him to develop his ideas on the decorative side with architectural projects. He actually helped him with his work for his degree show – a large piece which had purposeful sand blasted detail which played on the light with its translucency.
A friend recommended that when it came to the sale of this artwork at his degree show he should increase the price. Rather than sell it for £500, he was advised to price it at £3,500. It sold to a buyer who owned a Michelin starred restaurant on Charlotte Street in London, who went onto to buy two more of Yorgos’ works. With his work on public display in a high end location, worldwide commissions followed.
After over 20 years in London Yorgos returned to Cyprus earlier this year. He relocated his studio to Kedares, a village of just 28 inhabitants. Kedares was his father’s village and Papadopoulos had inherited property he and his partner felt offered an alternative lifestyle to the urban living of London. It was a decision he had struggled with for a number of years, finalised with his sister’s death in 2016. “Life is too short and Maria’s death did prompt my return to Cyprus and the awareness of living and making the most of it”.
An example of finding beauty through tragic times can be seen in a glass work which he matched to his sister’s blood cell results from when she was seeking alternative treatment in Switzerland for her breast cancer. Papadopoulos repeated the imagery in one of his glass works to find beauty and, hopefully, comfort through a very hard period of his life. He found beauty through his art even during the most horrific time of his life. This is his philosophy for life.
While his work had taken him all over the world, he wanted to return to his roots and changing attitudes to homosexuality on the island meant one of the obstacles to doing so had been removed. Now, back in Cyprus, he has the freedom to work on commissions from his newly built studio in Kedares and ship them to requested locations all over the world. He regularly travels to destinations across Europe for work on commissions and his creations are included in private and public collections in the UK, the USA, Cyprus, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa and Switzerland.
And the return to Cyprus has also been reflected in his work, with the sea, sky and sunsets an important influence. Yorgos says that “the light in Cyprus has changed his work as it has become a lot more vibrant”. The influence of Cyprus can also clearly be seen in his new works, particularly in his series of the Virgin Mary. One feels the sense that growing up in Cyprus his religion meant a lot to him. The images of the Virgin Mary abound on religious icons and this can clearly be seen in his glass works of today. Personally, I feel that these are his strongest and most beautiful works. “My Virgin Mary series of works are both a meditation on, and also in recognition of the abiding power of a figure that continues to catch the popular imagination,” he says.
Earlier this year, Yorgos was invited to Buckingham Palace to an event which honoured Cypriots who have made a difference. He met Prince Charles and felt this was the pinnacle of a lifetime dedicated to art. “To be included in the company of other leading Cypriots at such an event meant a lot to me and I felt that my international reputation with my roots in Cyprus had been recognised,” he says.
But being back on the island is not just about the art. Yorgos now spends a lot of time in the vineyards of Kedares which he owns. When he returned to the village, the vineyards which his father had tended had been neglected for over 15 years. Yorgos was advised by the locals in the village to take the vines out and plant more profitable plum trees instead. The vineyards were an utter wilderness but after much hard work this year, he was able to harvest a sizeable quantity, which have been taken to the local Nelion Winery. The variety is called Cinsault, which is an extremely rare grape in Cyprus and an interesting variety that is currently enjoying a revival. The plans are for the harvested grapes to be made into over 2,000 bottles of red wine.
An neatly combining his two passions, Yorgos has invented a new word to describe the movement and vision of wine in the glass – Oenography. “When wine is swirled around in a glass, and tears of wine start dropping down, I am fascinated. I will take photographs, add light to emphasise such a vision. Wine for me is experienced through all the senses, not just taste and smell – this is oenography – the vision of wine in movement”. With his wine production in full flow, it is a certain that wine oenography will be something that Papadopoulos will expand further in the future.
Breaking the Surface
Yorgos’ glass works are currently being exhibited at the Anassa Hotel in Neo Chorio, Paphos. The exhibition ends on September 22