Evangelia Philippidis, Daughters of Spirituality and Feminism: An Interview

In the artist’s words—by way of introduction please watch Evangelia Philippidis narrate her life and work:

Interview (Questions by Yiorgos Anagnostou)

Dear Evangelia, welcome to Ergon! Let us start with the topic of ancient Greek mythology, which looms large in your work. What were the circumstances drawing you to this cultural world? Help us understand the power it seems to exert on your artistic imagination.

I was born in Athens, Greece in 1957 and spent the first 9 years of my life there. My parents were trying to immigrate to the United States and since we did not know when that would happen, my father wanted to make sure that I would not forget where I had come from and the rich heritage which flowed through my veins and my soul, so at every opportunity the family would visit ancient sites in and around Athens. My summers were spent playing among the massive columns of the Parthenon on the Acropolis, where my father told me of the battle between Athena and Poseidon. Walking Among the stele of Keramikos I would fantasize about the lives of those depicted on them, and as the sun set over Sounion I could almost make out Theseus’ black sails on the horizon and grieved for Ariadne abandoned and heart-broken on Naxos.

Winters were spent in the Archeological and old Acropolis Museum where more myths and historical tales were spun by my father fueing my imagination of heroes and gods as well as the men and women who had shaped Hellenic civilization.

When we finally immigrated to the U.S the cultural difference was shocking and disappointing and so it was those magical days in Greece that continued to play in my head in a bittersweet melody keeping me bound to that land.

The modern city of Athens (Αθήνα) and the goddess Athena (Αθηνά) play an important role in your life, imagination, and art. How did this pair of identifications come about?

Polias Athena

I remember when I first heard the myth of Athena’s birth, fully grown and in splendid armor springing from her father’s head, I was captivated; It would only be natural she was the goddess of wisdom and strategy. She would be my inspiration because it had a lot to do with my relationship with my own father, as I saw him as the fountain of all wisdom. My father was a feminist ahead of his time, having been raised by his strong and independent mother and grandmother, both refugees from Constantinople after WWI during the great exchange of populations. On Sundays, he took me to the most interesting places in Athens and regaled me with myths but also brought a sense of understanding that myths have a root in reality. The olive tree that Athena made spring from the rock is on the Acropolis, Athens has always had a shortage of fresh water, a curse Poseidon placed on the city for not choosing him as it’s patron. Aspasia, Pericles’ consort who turned the male dominated assembly on its head. Agnodice, the first women’s physician. I learned from an early age that Athens was at the forefront of female empowerment even though they did not realize it at the time and in some ways still do not. A dichotomy Athenian women still struggles against.

The title of your latest exhibit, in 2022, was “Daughters of Athena.” What was it all about? Who are those daughters and how they matter today?

Cover of the Exhibit Catalogue

I am passionate about women’s issues and became so at a young age while reading the myths and history of Hellenic women. Though the men in my family, for the most part, were in support of strong women I became aware of the oppressive patriarchy of the culture I was being raised in. The myths and history were mostly about the male heroes and warriors and when women stepped out of the roles the culture imposed on them, they were seen as uppity, shrewish, scheming or utterly devoted and subservient. How dare Clytemnestra take revenge on the husband who murdered her daughter for his greater glory? Penelope was portrayed simply as a faithful wife not the strong leader who kept her country safe from usurpers while her husband spent time in the bed of one nymph or another. And Lysistrata was just a floozy who brought disgrace upon the women of Sparta and Athens, using sex to end a war and make treasurers accountable for how they were spending the people’s money. REALLY?!

The exhibit showcased women of myth and history whose stories were exterminated or trivialized and include women from various cultures and times.

I chose Daughters of Athena because of their intelligence, cunning, fierceness and because as Athena is also the goddess of weaving, their stories are woven into the fabric of humanity and the protection of civilization.

Would you share with us a couple of images from the exhibit and offer reflection?

Images and thoughts

The Raven’s Grief

The Raven’s Griefis based on this poem I came across after the fall of Afghanistan. These daughters of Athena we just regaining their wings, i.e. their freedom, only to be abandoned to the merciless jaws of the Taliban. The poem moved me compelling me to put a face to the tragedy.

I would be a songbird,
but my voice is stilled,
my music taken.

Or a water bird to swim the seas,
but in these heavy garments
I would surely drown.

I would fly across the world
in great migration,
but my wings are clipped.

The Qur’an says
the raven came down
to show the son of Adam how
to bury the body of his brother,
hiding the shame of murder,
yet haunted by its guilt.

The codes of Haram say
that, of five harmful animals
which are permissible to kill,
the second is the raven

How many sisters
out of eighteen million
will be buried now,
alive or dead?

What can we do,
we black-winged ones,
but circle ‘round
and mourn?

Koré, Daughters & Sisters

This is a very personal piece as it reflects my sister and I as the main subject matter. We have always been very close and protective of each other. Where I suffered taunts and bulling for being an immigrant, she who was born in the US was not spared the same indignities. We found our inner strength in the women who came before us represented by the three birds flying above them.

Don’t Tell Me What to Think

Curiosity and intelligence go hand-in-hand, one feeds the other. Intelligent creatures always seek out answers to the unknown, they aspire to understanding the world around them and thus comprehending their place in it.

When two patriarchal beings command two intelligent women not to seek answers just because they say so, the outcome should be obvious. Pandora and Eve have been maligned through history and religion as the downfall of humanity. Consider perhaps that they were set up to take that blame. Epimetheos and Adam both were complicit in the acts one by standing by and one by partaking of the fruit, yet they are given no condemnation.

Perhaps we should consider an alternative scenario, when Pandora opened the jar she set free positive female virtues of nurturing, understanding, peace, selflessness, faith, while keeping hope close to her. Eve allowed humanity to fulfill God’s plan, freedom of choice between good and evil. How could one choose good without the knowledge of evil?

The presentation of your work often interweaves two forms of storytelling, poetry and visuality. Margaret Atwood’s poem "Siren Song," for example, connects with your piece "Siren's Songlores." What motivates this connection?

Siren’s Songlores

I grew up with the musical poetry of Mikis Theodorakis, Manos Hatzidakis, Melina Mercouri and the poetry of Constantine Cavafy among others, these were a huge influence in my life and in my art from a very early time. Greeks are fond of quoting poetry or bits of ancient wisdom to reflect a situation. Whenever I have a piece to make with a particular theme I automatically go to those sources first. I love to do research, in fact, I spend more time researching a theme then executing a piece. The internet has made it possible for me to find writings I would not otherwise be able to connect and opened a universe to explore across time, and cultures.

One of the issues running throughout your work is women’s empowerment in connection to spirituality and feminism––you speak about “intelligent feminists,” female figures “whose stories cloaked in the mantel of patriarchy, were hidden obliterated, or trivialized.” How do you see the connection between spirituality and feminism?

The divine feminine was revered for millennia. Earth was seen as a feminine entity. All embryos begin as female, in the animal kingdom it is the female who is fierce protector of the offspring. In Judeo-Christian tradition it is Mary who intercedes for us. The evidence is all around us that the force which holds the universe in order is feminine in nature. And when that order is manifested in controlled chaos, that too is a feminine attribute. Women who made history have been strong, independent, and feisty. They were willing to break patriarchic rules, living by their principles regardless the consequences; paying dearly with their reputations and even with their lives. Such women, in the past and in the present, have a strong spiritual conviction that the great good for humanity was worth any sacrifices they had to endure and did so willingly.

Many of the pieces which draw from Greek mythology find value in women’s sensuality and sexuality. And your work does not shy away from “dark” emotional forces. Medea is recognized for her fierce loyalty and, given her experience with Jason, her right for ruthless vindictiveness. Aphrodite for being “insatiable and unattainable wreaking havoc to both gods and mortals.” Yet, in portraying rural women the imagery is realistic, with women following the norms of traditional village life, appearing domestic, modest, and reserved. These are two strikingly different visual worlds. Would you reflect about their place as Daughters of Athena?

It is easy to draw upon the women of mythology, as myths were written to emphasize a point of morality, I find that real women who had traditional roles were true heroes. Left behind when their men go off to war and glory, it is they who are fierce defeners of their family, their homes, and the traditions. Their perseverance, strength, honor, and unimaginable sacrifice in the face of adversity have been passed down through generations. Traditional women are anything but modest and reserved when it comes to their families, they can cook a mean pastitsio and fire a weapon with deadly accuracy at an enemy. The traditional women in my work reflect my paternal great grandmother who was widowed at the beginning of WWI, raised her 4 boys alone, took care of her home, made her own clothes, and had a job. As a refugee she began a new life and made sure her sons were educated. Through WWII she did it all over again as 3 of her grandchildren were left motherless. She continued to run a “traditional house” with a strong sense of honor, duty, and a belief in education for both her male and female grand and great-grandchildren. I see that as the pillar of civilization.

On a related note, I am curious about your views regarding tradition. On the one hand, you celebrate mythological figures such as Ariadne, as “the embodiment of the ancient independent princess of mythology who defied tradition, made her own choice and followed her heart.” You call her your hero. On the other hand, you express great appreciation for Greek Orthodox women who “keep traditions alive.”

It is the dichotomy which I hope the audience will come away with. SOME traditions are what keep the thread of civilization strong. A strong faith, strong family bonds, a strong sense of honor and loyalty, keeping family history alive to pass to the next generation, those are the traditions which, for the most part, are the duty of women. An old monk once told me that Jesus was a feminist who understood that women ruled the house and therefore tasked with raising the next generation to spread his word, women were a huge part of his ministry and were a large part of the early church, yet they were once again denied their place in the church hierarchy by the patriarchal elite. Mary Magdalene and the Holy Spirit, which I believe to be feminine, are included in the exhibition.

We do not see any portrayals of contemporary Greek American women in your work, with the exception perhaps of “Food from the Soul.” If you were to visually direct attention to an issue confronting Greek American women, what this would be?

Food from the Soul

You do not see contemporary Hellenic women because that will be part two of a continuing examination. What I have observed in Hellenic Greek women is that they have the privilege of higher education, are respected by their communities, hold positions of authority. They are mothers who hold on tight to their Hellenic culture and who, unlike some of their immigrant parents, encourage their children to learn the Hellenic language, history, dances and religion. These women are the thread across time and distance which help bind the new generations to their heritage. But I also see that in spite of having gained ground which their contemporary Hellenic counterparts are still striving for, as a whole that glass ceiling is still very much present.

Your piece “Mood Indigo” pays homage to African American singer Josephine Baker. She was a “role model,” you write, “and rule breaker for women’s rights.” “Mood Indigo” is one example of several pieces where your art recognizes the work and life of women across the globe. (The “Maasai female rangers of the anti-poaching squads called Team Lioness” in “Serengeti Symphony” is another example.) Would you connect the significance of their presence with the scope of the exhibit?

Mood Indigo

As I began this exhibition 4 years ago, I was only focused on Hellenic women. Research, however, has a way of leading me down interesting and diverse paths. I began to realize that Daughters of Athena were spread across multiple cultures and time. The essence of the exhibition was to bring to the public the stories of women of intelligence, courage, and integrity who broke traditional molds set forth by the men who wrote history. As I did my research and came across women from other cultures I was compelled to include them making the representations more diverse.

Would you feel inclined to raise a question or two you feel the reader should know about?

Athena has been my patron goddess since I was a child. I thought I never related with the other female deities. As I journeyed through my life I have come to realize that at any given point and depending on the circumstances I have related to many more of them. In my 20’s I was Aphrodite, in my 60’s I am Demeter but always Athena was by my side. Yet in our lifelong relationship we have not always seen eye to eye. I find that she can be petty, jealous, and unsupportive of women. Medusa and Arachne are prime examples. I suppose the fallacy of our mentors can disappoint us but also make us aware of character flaws we must all acknowledge and work on within ourselves. As a mentor I strive to be more cognizant of my own shortcomings and that in part has been a lesson I have learned from Athena.

Evangelia, many, many thanks! This was a joy, I am looking forward to your new work and our catching up in the Columbus Greek Festival!

Born and raised in Athens, Greece until the age of nine, Evangelia Philippidis immigrated to the United States in 1966 to continue a journey that has ultimately led her back to her roots.

Her childhood memories of climbing the Acropolis, running through the Parthenon and around its massive columns; touching the polished mar­ble works of sculptured art created by the great ancient Greek masters have remained intact even as she struggled to embrace her new home: America.

Lorain, Ohio is middle America and a strange place to be for a little Greek girl unable to comprehend a new language, enduring bitter winters and learning new customs. But throughout those uncertain years of learning to live in a new world, Evangelia kept those special places of her youth close to her heart and her unique style of illustration bears this out.

Sounion—the temple of Poseidon, the oracle of Delphi, the icon art of the celestial Monasteries of Meteora; mysterious Crete, the whitewashed islands of the Aegean and many other marvels of Greek civilization, mythology and history have all influenced her work. Her scratchboard technique is bold, graphic—iconic. The style of architecture in her pieces is directly influenced by the hodge-podge construc­tion of the houses built on the face of the volcanic island of Thera. Evangelia has spent many hours climbing ancient footsteps, listening to ancient voices drawing and photographing the sun-washed stones of ethereal temples and quaint villages hanging on mountainsides.

At Meteora in central Greece, however she found the most profound influence on her art. It was here, in monasteries dating back almost a thousand years, that Evangelia came face to face with the true object of her inspiration: the Greek icon. The chapel walls are covered with magnificent and inspiring collection of Greek Byzantine art.

As a full-time Designer/Illustrator for the Columbus Dispatch for 22 years, Evangelia's award-winning work was featured regularly on its pages; most prominently on the Faith and Values section. Editorial illustration is perfectly suited to her scratchboard technique and her penchant for visual storytelling.

In 2009, as the Newspaper industry experiences a major decline Evangelia saw the opportunity to reinvent herself as a fine artist. She opened and operated Galleria Evangelia promoting emerging visual and musical artists by providing an exhibition and performance venue to showcase their art to the Columbus market.

Since 1995 Evangelia has been adjunct instructor of illustration at The Columbus College of Art & Design, inspiring and encouraging new generations of artists.

Through 36 years in the creative field and through several reinventions, Evangelia continues to be nationally recognized for her work.

Her journey continues… Growing up Greek… A long way from Athens