Dimitri Kolioussis, the Santorini icon painter whose work has been exhibited around the world, is a quirky fellow—intelligent, with a quick wit and some would say, a bit eccentric.
By Michael Ermogenis
Kolioussis works year round in his subterranean studio in the heart of Oia, a space that has an ambience perfectly suited to his art and personality. His work surrounds him along the cave walls, and the space is often filled with the sound of the classical or Byzantine music he loves.
Kolioussis was born in the stunningly beautiful but seldom visited area of Epirus in northwest Greece. His interest in drawing and painting started in childhood, and he is entirely self-taught.
As a child, his experiences in the small remote churches in the mountains of Epirus made a lasting impression on him. He admits to feeling mesmerized by the combination of imagery and sound when being inside some of the ancient churches and small chapels in the remote part of Greece in which he was raised.
He grew to love Byzantine art, music, and architecture. He describes it as a fusion of ancient Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern art forms that has immense depth, history, and meaning.
Painter makes Santorini home
At the age of 21, he decided that painting was to be his vocation in life, although he was still expected to contribute towards sustaining his family. He managed to travel through Europe and eventually visited Santorini by boat in 1978.
The island was then vastly different from its modern, cosmopolitan self that it is today, and facilities were very basic. He was let out of the ferry below the village of Oia, on to a smaller boat which at the time brought visitors to shore. From sea level he looked up and saw the cliffs of Oia for the first time…. and he knew. This was the place!
Thirty years later, the Santorini icon painter still lives and works in Oia, producing some of the best artwork in the world in his highly specialized field. He works with materials that, in his words, have “history and character.” These include old doors, old wooden window shutters and pieces of timber that he treats and prepares himself prior to using them as his canvas.
When asked if he has an image in mind first, and then looks for the right piece of timber, he pauses: “Not always…sometimes the old timber tells me what should be on it.”
Glacing around his studio, one gets the feeling that there is a good deal of discussion that goes on between artist and old timber. The images seem to fit the character of his wooden canvases perfectly.
Although he has painted with oils, he favors the classical technique of egg tempera. It’s the technique of applying egg yolk (without the membrane) and powder pigments. It’s a painstaking process, but coupled with the exquisite gold & silver leaf gilding and the meticulous preparation of the old timber surfaces, it produces stunning results.
Each of the archangels he painted recently is portrayed on a separate old door. The detail (given the medium on which it is painted) is exquisite.
Work exhibited all over the world
The Santorini icon painter’s work has been exhibited all over the world, and COVID- permitting, he will soon start once again. But a lot of his special work is still hidden, at least from public view. Over the years, he has been commissioned to paint some of the most superb private chapels in Greece and other countries, as well as frescos for villas.
He is also commissioned by churches, as well as international collectors.
Having spent quite a few winters in Oia, the artist and I have often sat over coffee or an ouzo (or both) and philosophized about the state of nations, cities, geopolitics, the world economy, and anyone else we believed had a problem that required our invaluable input.
His mind is quick, his knowledge broad, and his ideas highly creative, as one would expect. I often wondered what he does in winter when there is nobody to talk to, and then I noticed these:
Parts of his cave wall are covered in pencil-written quotes, ideas, thoughts, and opinions. It’s a personal graffiti of sorts. I’ve asked him about the writings, and he shrugged: “Just random thoughts,” he said.
However, these are not just random drivel. They are very personal thoughts, poetry, and opinions held at the time. Anything but random! The wall just happened to be his companion on the day.
I’ve always believed that good or great artists are children at heart. Some openly declare it (Steven Spielberg), and others disguise it.
I asked Kolioussis what he loved in the arts. He mentioned modern art, architecture, music, and all the great painters. Then he sat back and said: “But what gives me the most pleasure are the drawings of children.” Fancy that…
I didn’t want to intrude any longer, so I told the Santorini icon painter that I wanted to ask him a couple of questions I have been asking people for years. If I were to make a movie about you…who would you like to play YOU? DK: “Hm…. a country peasant,” he replied.
When asked ‘What’s one thing you believe to be absolutely true, but can’t prove it?’ he replies “A fourth dimension.”
So, dear reader. Picture this. It’s winter, and there’s nobody in the village except me and this quirky guy who paints icons. It just so happens that he paints very, very well, is a published “wall-writer,” is modest (at least sometimes), and he can sense the fourth dimension.
I don’t know about you, but he doesn’t sound like a bad person to have coffee or an ouzo or both with. In any order…
Michael Ermogenis is a management consultant and strategic advisor to the Santorini Chamber of Commerce. He lived in Oia for twelve years and is the founding member of the “Save Oia” Campaign. He is also the founding member of the Mediterranean Alliance, which includes the localities of Venice, Oia, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Rhodes, and Crete.