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July 19, 2013

Workshop in Greece


Creating ceramic sculptures amid the influences of the ancient yet vibrant culture of Greece may sound like a dream, but it has become an integral part of my art practice since I began offering Mia Muse ceramic workshops on the island of Skopelos in 2009. And, this September, I am offering my third two-week workshop, building on the strong relationships I have forged over the last several years with the Skopelos Foundation of the Arts, as well as with the Vancouver Greek community.

As a young woman, trying to find my way in life, I lived on some magnificent Greek island beaches and I still feel the beauty and freedom that influenced my choice of a career as a ceramic artist. To return to Greece as an artist and teacher allows me to facilitate for others the inspiration and desire to create that continues to feed my spirit.

Participants come on their own, as part of a couple or family group. Some of my students have told me that it is the best vacation they have ever had because, not only are they creating their own art, they also have the time to swim in the Aegean, explore the island and revel in the many shops and restaurants of Skopelos. One of the wonderful aspects of participating in a workshop on a Greek island is that people of all experience levels become caught up in the moment, the cares of their everyday lives are distant and they are able to manipulate the clay freely to find how it speaks to them.

Prior to the workshop, there is an optional art/travel prelude that offers participants the opportunity to travel to Greece together, enjoying several days of immersion in Greek culture. This year, we will spend the first three nights on Santorini, mythologized as the lost isle of Atlantis, enjoying its architecture, views, and abundant local wine and food. We will also visit Akrotiri, an archeological site and museum from the Minoan era, as well as spend two days in the Plaka area of Athens, visiting the Acropolis and various museums, and dining alongside the Ancient Agora, before heading to Skopelos.

Skopelos Foundation of the Arts is perched upon a hilltop overlooking the car-free streets of the whitewashed town below. It was founded by American artist Gloria Carr, who first visited Skopelos in 1996 and recognized it as an ideal place to locate an international art studio. Within three years, Carr had set up an international board and opened a residency program, welcoming people from all over the world to learn and create in the stimulating atmosphere.

The island gained international attention after the 2008 Hollywood movie Mamma Mia was filmed there. In fact, the lovers’ reunion scene, filmed on the ocean-side cliff and church at Agios Ioannis, is what inspired me to seek Skopart – a large, modern facility offering printmaking, photography, painting and ceramic workshops – as a location for Mia Muse.

Carr’s daughter, Jill Somer, a former banker from Virginia, joined her mother in 2000 for a visit, and then chose Skopelos as her home, marrying an islander. Their daughter Zoe, now 7, is a charming and fluently bilingual guide. Upon arrival, Mia Muse participants are welcomed by these three generations of Greek/American muses, and then are treated to a traditional Greek feast, dancing and music.

Every morning during the workshop, participants wake up to sunny skies and, from their room’s balcony, can take in the view of the green island, red-tile roofs and blue sea. After a breakfast provided by the arts centre, we meet in the ceramics studio, a spacious open-air facility. On most days, we spend five hours of structured studio time, but students have the option of working when the muse strikes them, 24/7. Using Greek clay and glazes, students create sculptures inspired by the vibrant, living culture of Greece that surrounds them and the history they have just viewed in museums, galleries and archeological sites.

Time seems to slow down. I demonstrate and share my personal combinations of hand-building techniques and students are encouraged to create their own unique figurative, animalistic mythical masks, figures and busts. Work dries quickly under the Skopelos sun and then the clay creations are bisqued in two alternately firing electric kilns. Surfaces are decorated with colorful glazes, acrylics and/or patinas.

In the afternoon and evenings, the town of Skopelos begs to be explored, with its winding streets and plentiful, affordable shops featuring local artisans and restaurants. Walking down the hill, we are surrounded by whitewashed houses and balconies draped in bougainvillea and vines. We visit the many churches and beaches and the folk art museum, and hire small boats to take us to neighboring islands. We visit the island potters, including the celebrated Nikos Rodios, a third-generation Skopelos potter, who creates classical Greek-style blackened earthenware vessels using island clay and ancient firing methods. In fact, the minimalist black of Rodios’ vessels, in contrast to my own many-colored and textured ceramic work, sparked him to issue a challenge to me to collaborate with him, to combine my colorful palette with his classical form.

The end to each workshop on Skopelos comes too soon, but we always celebrate our creative journey with an exhibit and closing party hosted by Jill Somer and Gloria Carr. The event is attended by the local Greek and expatriate community, who are quick to express their appreciation of the quality and variety of the students’ work, as well as our contribution to their community.

Mia Muse is being offered this year from Sept. 7-21, with an optional art/travel prelude to Santorini/Athens Sept. 1-6. Everyone is welcome. For more information about the workshop, including cost, and about Suzy Birstein’s work, visit or contact her at [email protected] or 604-737-2636.