From Ancient Greek pottery to contemporary Cyclades ceramics
As one of the smallest and often overlooked islands in the Cyclades, Syros feels relatively undiscovered – but a new eco art hotel is putting the ‘City of Hermes’ back on the map for the creative crowd. Perfectly placed within the historic city of Hermoupolis, which enjoys a thriving year-round arts scene, Aristide Hotel (pictured below) is a beautifully restored neoclassical mansion with a dedicated art gallery which hosts regular exhibitions of resident artists. The owners’ eclectic permanent collection in the common spaces and bedrooms is heavily skewed towards portraiture and figurative art, which includes works by Christy Lee Rogers, Igor Skaletsky, and Riccardo Vecchio.
Alongside an exciting artist residence programme, Considerate Collection property Aristide Hotel offers an array of art-centric activities to guests, from behind-the-scenes tours of a restored textile factory and private neoclassical homes, to pottery classes run by Manos Mastorakis and his local artisan friends in the garden of his traditional Cycladic cottage. Originally hailing from Athens, an ancient cultural epicentre for ceramics which has seen a recent resurgence in modern crafts, Manos set up shop on Syros with just a pottery wheel, a bench, and a kiln.
After completing classes with local ceramicist Sofia Trigoni alongside attending workshops in Athens, Manos established Chimera Art & Craft, a gallery and boutique exclusively dedicated to handmade Greek pieces. The creatively inclined can join Manos in his home on the wildly beautiful, agricultural area of Apano Meria on the northern side of the island, for three hour alfresco pottery classes beneath the shade of vines learning simple ceramic techniques like coil building, pinching, and kurinuki. Artistic appetite whet, guests are treated to a traditional Greek lunch cooked using locally sourced ingredients and served on handmade ceramics. The experience brings together people with a passion for art and nature from all over the world – simply leave your address with Manos and your creation will be posted to you as an authentic souvenir of Syros.
Manos Mastorakis photographed in his gallery, Chimera Art & Craft.
What makes Syros stand out from other Greek islands?
Syros is unlike any other Cycladic island. Imagine the cliché of a Greek island with small white houses and blue windows. Now forget everything you know and you have Syros! The capital Hermoupolis has a different aesthetic due to the large scale neoclassical buildings. The town hall, St. Nicholas church, and Apollo Theatre are monumental buildings and do not match the quaint architecture you’ll find on Cycladic postcards. For context, between 1823-1880 Syros was a very important commercial and mercantile point in Greece. Factories, shipyards, and international commerce were the main activities here – all operated by Greeks who left other islands like Chios, Psara, and Kasos due to repressive Ottoman rule.
On the other hand (or on the other hill to be more precise), the medieval town of Ano Syros, which resembles a medina protected on all sides with its steps and narrow streets, is the place where the locals lived and thrived for a long time. Ano Syros is a trip through time, thanks to its UNESCO monastery and French-Catholic influence over the years. Outside Hermoupolis, you can still find golden beaches and small agricultural areas but also villages like Episkopio, Chroussa, and Parakopi with grand estates and villas from the neoclassical era, resembling Tuscany more than the Cyclades!
Do your surroundings influence your craft, and do you draw on Greek sources of inspiration?
Living all year round by the sea, surrounded by beautiful architecture everyday affects me deeply. As for my craft, of course, it is all about influence – by people, by nature, by the past. In the prehistoric Kastri settlement of Syros, located on the northern part of the island, were found some very important ceramics dating back to 2,800 BC. Every time I visit the settlement and read about the first kilns and the pottery made by the ancient Greeks, both for everyday and ceremonial use, I feel really inspired.
When I practise the pottery wheel, which has been used traditionally in Greece and throughout the Mediterranean for thousands of years, I feel a deep connection to the past, the meditative feeling of swirling and turning and touching the wet clay. It is a feeling that cannot be described. As much as I love this sense of history, I use contemporary materials including stoneware clay and porcelain to achieve more a modern look, particularly for everyday items. I mostly make utilitarian pieces, since my philosophy is that beauty is found in the small things that we use daily and tend to make our lives a bit brighter.
What is your favourite piece in your studio and gallery at the moment, and why?
Since I make utilitarian items in my studio, there is nothing artistically impressive to mention – but I love this breakfast set since the colors bring me joy! Wheel-thrown with stoneware clay fired at 1240C. As for the gallery, my favourite piece at the moment is a ceramic sculpture-installation made by Helen Mudie Ioannidou and titled Silence. It creates a unique feeling of serenity from the moment anyone sees it, a true masterpiece.
Tell us about some exciting up-and-coming local artists and exhibitions?
Chimera Art & Craft partners with Greek artists including Christina Skoulodi, who works with wood, metal and leather and wants her designs to communicate qualities and memories of authentic Greek life.
As the Greeks tend to be quite last minute, not all exhibitions for this year have been announced yet. There are festivals that are held every year like Animasyros (International Animation Festival), SIFF (Syros International Film Festival), and Eyes Walk Digital Festival to name a few. But there are quite a lot of artists on the island exhibiting regularly like Makroulakis, Katagas, and Brisnovali, as well as emerging younger artists who have the opportunity to show their work thanks to the municipality-organised exhibition spaces during the summer. The upcoming artist residency programme at Aristide Hotel is very exciting for the art community here, as the international exchange of opinions on art will be a huge boost for local creativity. From our side, we are also preparing a special residency programme for ceramicists.
Do you feel a connection between art and food? Is there a must-try dish in Syros?
The home of Manos Mastorakis plays host to alfresco pottery classes and traditional Cycladic meals cooked using locally sourced ingredients and served on handmade ceramics.
Food is art! And art is nourishing for the soul and spirit so…definitely. I am a foodie. I love to cook, to eat, to savour, to enjoy, which is why I include traditional Greek food during my pottery classes as an integral part of the experience. Simple, Mediterranean, mostly vegetarian, and utterly delicious. For a must-try dish in Syros, I would recommend the fennel sausage, San Michali cheese (a local cow milk cheese resembling Gruyère or parmesan), and capers – don’t leave the island without buying a jar of pickled capers. For those with a sweet tooth, we have two traditional desserts. One is called loukoumi, a kind of ‘Turkish delight’ in a variety of flavours, and the other, halvadopita, is a nougat paste in between two ostia cookies, the ceremonial ‘bread’ of Catholics.