The sunny dining room of the Azari house.

The old door with the marble pilasters and the date 1736 engraved on the lintel leads from the library to the great hall.

The hall of the house. On the upper right corner there is a second old marble door sealed now. On the wall, a large painting by the Parian painter Maria Agourou.

One of the two cool and bright bedrooms that comunicate with the big hall.

The photograph of the old owner Mr Azaris, wealthy merchant from Parikia.

Paulien Lethen

Text: Avgi Kalogianni | Photos: Dimitris Varnas (A.I.F.)

Citizen of the world

Paulien Lethen is a visual artist from Holland and a citizen of the world. As the true artist that she is, she turns every space she lives in, into an art space; the Azari house in Parikia, her summer house in Kounados as well as her winter main house in Newburgh, New York. In this interview we follow her life across Paros, Japan, Paros again and finally New York in her own words.

I moved to Paros in 1967 from Utrecht, Holland, with the man who would be my husband and father of my two sons, Richard Lethen, an American painter, who had lived in Greece for a number of years. We travelled to Greece with the Orient Express, Amsterdam – Athens. As I knew I was going to live a totally different life, no electricity or running water, I took some of the antique oil lamps I had been collecting as curiosities with me on the train, to put to use. From Piraeus, old ferryboats, like the “Elli” and the “Kyklades”, made the trip to different islands.
It took 7 hours to get to Paros, often in stormy weather, I carried always Dramamine with me!

Paros had electricity only in Paroikia, the capital, and Naoussa. At night the island was dark. There were two Russian cars on the island, taxis, Jacoumis and Stavros were the drivers. For the rest it was donkeys, and footwork.
There was not much garbage, everything was being reused, everything found a next destination. One had to find bottles -not easy- to buy loose olive oil, sporelio (frying oil), vinegar, wine and suma, from barrels in the grocery stores. We hollowed out gourds to keep wine in, old clothing was cut up to make koreloudes (rag rugs), tin cans became flowerpots for basil, not used for cooking, it is a holy plant in Greece; Vasileus means King. You learn to save water, if you have to get it in a bucket from the well, and fill the vrisi (small water container with a miniature tap that hangs from the wall). It was a different life, I learned a lot.
The Greeks were very nice, generous, interested in the Xeni (foreigners). There were a few foreigners on the island, Brett Taylor was one of them, an American painter who founded the Aegean School of Art, that is still there. The foreigners all knew each other, and would meet in the port cafe for coffee or beer, at Dionissaki for raki or wine and exchange news and gossip!
I can hardly describe the changes that took place on Paros. It was a quiet, no tourist island; it was the time of the Junta. Tourists went elsewhere. Now, Paros is a luxury island with an airport, many cars and hotels, villas, swimming pools, unlimited flushing of toilets and traffic jams in summer. I get nostalgic remembering how simple and quiet it was.

The Japanese experience
We went to live in Japan a couple of times. Richard had been there before and was inspired by Sumi-e, Japanese Zen ink painting. Japan was the total opposite of Greece! In Greece, everything -fruits and vegetables- are piled up in crates, in the stores, like beautiful action paintings. In Japan everything is carefully, painfully arranged, no space for improvisation. A culture, although beautiful, of suffering. In Western traditional art, the composition is always in the center: Madonna with baby, the still life, the bouquet. We lived in Kyoto, the former capital, in a small temple. In Dutch tradition, I put some flowers in a jar, in the middle of the low table. When we came back from shopping, I noticed that the flowers were all over to one side, so I centered them again, but the next day, the same thing! I realized that this was the idea. The more Japanese art I saw, I understood, there can be a whole empty space, with the action in a corner, and even beyond; a whole new idea for me that influenced my work.

Settling in New York
In 1982 I left Paros with my two sons, went to New York, to be with my new partner Bix Lye a sculptor, son of Len Lye, a well-known innovative film maker and kinetic sculptor. We lived in Greenwich Village in a loft.
It was a shock to come from Paros to NY! Subways were filthy, homeless people sleeping on benches in parks, even in the winter! Day and night there was traffic and sirens going… I couldn’t believe the waste, everything was only used once and thrown out, the piles of garbage. Scary!
I didn’t know anybody and missed Paros.
I got work as a housepainter, my kids went to school and I found time in the weekends to do some of my own work. No more paintings of mountains and seascapes, but the rectangles of skyscrapers and water towers I saw from my window. I was able to buy an 1860 Brownstone in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a “rough” neighborhood, that is why I could afford it. Artists were moving in as there were industrial buildings that made good studio spaces.
In 1997 I built in my garden an 8 by 10 ft shed, to house my plants for the winter. It was a nice little space, and as there was an Open Studio weekend in Williamsburg in November, I decided to put works by my artist friends and myself in it. It was a great success, people loved the mini gallery and said I should keep it as a gallery. I did, I called it the Holland Tunnel. As more galleries opened and Williamsburg became an art destination, people started calling it the New Soho, after Soho in Manhattan, where there are many galleries.
I live now in Newburgh, a historical city at the Hudson river. It is a “rough” city, with crime, drugs, neglected mansions, but artists are moving in, some from Williamsburg! Houses are being restored, galleries are opening up. I found a beautiful industrial building where I opened the Holland Tunnel Newburgh gallery in 2017. Now Newburgh is sometimes called the New Williamsburg.

Studies and work
I studied Monumental art at Arnhem Art Academy in Holland. After my studies I became an art teacher and used found materials, I lived in an area where junk dealers had their storage to make assemblages. After I moved to Paros, my work became more realistic more about where I was then. My work is influenced by where I am: Holland, Greece, Japan, and now NY.
I was for years a housepainter in NY and the flaking layers of paint inspire me, I use big brushes and skimming knives.

The Azari House and the Holland Tunnel Gallery
It was always my dream and my sister’s, Heleen Schuttevaêr, a jazz vocalist and pianist, who comes, just like me, every summer to Paros, to find a big old house on Paros where we could have exhibitions, concerts, poetry readings. Early in 2000 we found the Azari house in the center of Paroikia, a centuries old merchant house, ideal for what we wanted. We fixed up the neglected two-story house, saved what we could – old doors, shutters, bread oven, marble washtub. The first exhibition opened in the summer of 2000 with woodcuts by 20 international artists, poetry readings, and jazz concerts. Our dream had come true.
For the next years I invited artists to work with Greek themes like Labyrinth, Enigma, Olympus Revisited, Pandemonium and others, for the summer exhibitions. It was nice that the visitors to the gallery included our Greek elderly neighbors who enjoyed seeing the art and the house where their beloved Daskalissa, Kyria Azari (teacher, Mrs. Azari) once lived.
I like work from many artists and buy whenever possible. I have collected work from two artists from the island, who have passed away.
The first is Maria Agourou from Marpissa, who went to Athens, as a young girl, to become a hat maker. She returned in her old age and started painting ladies with hats but also the stamping of grapes, the four seasons, and even a nude!
The second is Nikos Karpodinis, the shoemaker, who sat in his colorful little workshop, in a back street in Paroikia. When there were no shoes to repair he made paintings about Paros – fishing boats, animals, windmills churches, on pieces of cardboard, with a little rope hook, to hang them from.
I have a collection of their work that I am showing this summer in the gallery. They tell the story about Paros as it was. The works are not for sale, I want to keep them as a collection and maybe have them in a place in town, for all to enjoy, but there will be postcards and a calendar, to take home.