The beginning and end of an island love affair
Our destinies may be profoundly shaped by the places we choose to live - or that choose us - as Christian Brechneff discovered on a small Greek island as a young man in search of artistic inspiration.
In his recently released memoir "The Greek House: The Story of a Painter's Love Affair with the Island of Sifnos," the painter, who resides in Hadlyme and New York with his partner, Tim Lovejoy - co-author of the book - tells the story of the 30-plus years he spent in Sifnos, where, at just 26 years old, he bought a little house on a cliff overlooking the sea.
The book also chronicles the end of the love story - how the rural terrain of the island changed with the arrival of tourists, high-speed boats and the euro, and how Brechneff also changed and could no longer grow in the place that had given him so much over so many years.
Born in the Belgian Congo and educated in Switzerland and the U.S., in 1975 Brechneff received his Master of Arts from the Royal College of Art in London. Since then he has exhibited in Europe, Sri Lanka and the U.S., and his paintings are in public and private collections worldwide, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art.
The idea for the book, Brechneff says, first came to him in the mid-1990s when a friend in publishing was staying with him in Sifnos and told him he should write about the unique and wonderful life he'd been leading there.
"I felt I wasn't a writer and this wasn't the right time, but it did have an impact on me, Brechneff says. "I also knew I had to wait until I sold the house to begin writing this book. It was like a relationship, before it's really over you can't analyze it or speak about it so well. Selling the house for me (in 2008) was a real turning point and suddenly the flood gates opened and I began writing."
Another impetus, he says, was finding letters he had sent his parents from Sifnos in the early years (published in the book) in their house after they both had died.
"Without the letters, it would have been much more difficult to give it the authenticity and aliveness that it started to have, and it encouraged me to pursue this," Brechneff says. "The letters were so touching and wonderful for me to find that I got very excited and I think the excitement went into the book … without their help and encouragement, I couldn't have bought the house."
Lovejoy, who is a writer and painter, met Brechneff soon after Brechneff bought his house in Sifnos, and together they traveled to the island every summer for many years.
"At a certain point, when Christian was working on the book and had a draft, he gave it to me and we started to talk about it," Lovejoy says, "and instead of going and getting a ghostwriter, we decided, let's just do this together."
The book brings to life how "smitten" Brechneff says he became with the island from the very start.
"I was 21 and certainly romantic at that age," he recalls. "I was overwhelmed by the place, no question. The sense of discovery was magical."
Brechneff says Sifnos had a huge impact on his work and the isolation actually helped him grow as an artist.
"Once I got on that boat in Athens, I left the world behind. In those days there was very little communication. Letters and telegrams - no phones, no other way. The amount of concentration I could have was extraordinary because there was nothing that would interfere.
"I discovered color there," he says. "The island created tremendous energy for me to express myself and just let go … the village, the mountains, the sea, all sort of wrapped around me. It was a haven of complete relaxation. No one bothered me. I could just work and this was very freeing. And I sold a lot of those pictures.
"I've always earned my living by my art," he adds. "I'm very much a landscape artist - Sifnos and the Swiss Alps taught me that."
"Greece is where I started painting," Lovejoy notes. "For both of us it was kind of a muse."
Brechneff and Lovejoy say their house in Hadlyme "found them" in a way similar to the house in Sifnos.
"It was almost by chance, while we were here visiting someone, we went by this house and just fell in love with it," Lovejoy says. "We had no intention of coming here."
"We suddenly had a garden to look after, a house both of us really loved," Brechneff adds. "We were part of a community we really loved. Hadlyme really picked us."
Lovejoy is now writing his own book about East Africa, where he lived in the 1960s.
"He's the real writer," Brechneff says. "I'm thrilled he's writing a book."
In telling his story, Brechneff says he hopes to communicate something to young people in today's world, who are experiencing similar feelings of sexual confusion and of coming into their own as artists.
"I asked the publisher why he was buying this book, and he said it was because of 'the otherness,' which is an interesting word," Brechneff says. "So many people have the idea they're going to live on an island ... But they don't really do it. They fantasize about these other worlds, but they don't really live them. At 21, I actually lived that fantasy, even though for me, it was very real.
"Maybe I can teach something to young artists about how they can stay in one place and focus on what they see," he adds, "and if they really put all their energies into something as constructive as I did, then something very positive can happen."
IF YOU GO
What: A booksigning/reception with Christian Brechneff, who wrote "The Greek House" with Tim Lovejoy
Where: The Cooley Gallery, 25 Lyme St., Old Lyme
When: Friday, June 14, from 5 to 8 p.m., where a retrospective of Brechneff's art is on exhibit through July 13. Brechneff will give a talk and booksigning on July 18 at 7 p.m. at R J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Rd., Madison.
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