New to the Parish: ‘In Ireland I can say I’m an artist and I’m not seen as a hippy’

A Greek artist, struggling in the ‘chaos’ that descended on Athens, took a trip to Galway, found that Ireland resonated with her and decided to stay

Nina Panagopoulou from Athens, Greece is a visual artist who moved to Ireland in 2012. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Nina Panagopoulou: arrived from Greece, 2012

Before moving to Ireland, Nina Panagopoulou often felt uncomfortable telling people she was an artist. In Greece she was asked when she planned to get a real job and stop playing around painting and making music.

“I like the fact that I can say here I’m an artist and I’m treated like an artist. I’m not wasting my time or being a hippy, you aren’t labelled like that. I think there’s an appreciation of the culture.”

As a child growing up in the suburbs of Athens, Panagopoulou attended a music high school, where she studied classical piano and singing. When she turned 17 the young artist dropped her music lessons in favour of moving to an art college seven hours from the capital.

“I really wanted to get away from Athens to a smaller place. I had this kind of movement, this power dragging me to explore what exactly was the medium I wanted to work with in terms of an artistic practice.”

In 2009 she travelled to the UK to study an MA in fine art at the University for the Creative Arts in Canterbury. Panagopoulou produced a number of art exhibitions in the UK but increasingly felt a push to move on and develop her artistic style. When a friend invited her on a trip to Galway, she jumped at the chance.

“My father loved Irish culture, particularly music and literature, and I grew up with an understanding of it. Sinéad O’Connor and the Dubliners were always the music playing in the background.”

She was surprised to discover Galway reminded her of Greece. “It went back to my roots, because my grandfather was a captain – that part of my mother’s family comes from an island, so we had a big sailing background. “I could see the similarities between Galway and Chios, where they came from. It resonated with me and I wanted to go back and paint.”

After a second trip to the Dingle peninsula in 2011, Panagopoulou returned to Greece, where she began working in a gallery. Living close to her family, she felt safe and protected. However, she was not immune to the financial crisis developing around her.

“I could feel the crisis was hitting Greece at that moment because my salary went down. I was living in a house in the centre of Athens and could see the chaos of the atmosphere revealed in the city.”

 

Artist’s residency

In April 2012 Panagopoulou was awarded an artist’s residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co Monaghan. When her flight back home to Greece was cancelled, the 30-year-old artist decided to follow her instincts and stay in Ireland.

“It was a very sentimental and emotional time for me. It was the first time in my life I did something like that with my suitcase in my hand. I was completely alone.”

Panagopoulou says she wouldn’t be brave enough to take such an adventurous leap again, but in that moment she felt her art had a real connection to rural Ireland.

“It was like my heart was in something. I suppose I got so much strength and courage that I didn’t care. I wanted to paint the landscapes of Ireland, the wild nature of Kerry and the colourful sky. It was like: I’m here, my painting is here, so I’m going to stay.”

On the advice of her fellow artists at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Panagopoulou moved to Dublin, where she found a room in a house. She struggled at first to fit in to her new surroundings but began to settle when she moved in with a musician in Stoneybatter.

“I started to become more conscious of what was going on in Dublin. At first I had no idea where south or north was.”

Even though her home was in the capital, Panagopoulou was eager to continue exploring the Irish wilderness. In 2013 she successfully applied for a residency at the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre in Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry, where she could capture the colours and energy of the Atlantic coast.

“It was interesting painting there, because my background comes from a very different perspective. Greece has a history of the ancient Greeks, classical sculpture and different periods of architecture. It’s in our genes somehow. When you talk about Ireland in art, the first thing that comes into my head with painting is landscapes.”

She soon discovered a number of art communities outside the capital, particularly in west Cork, where she says an older generation of international artists have gathered.

As she settled into life in Ireland, painting landscapes around the country and working as a gallery assistant in Dublin, she became increasingly aware of the economic turmoil unfolding in her home country.

When the Greek debt crisis began to make headlines, friends and acquaintances in Ireland turned to her for guidance through the complexities of her country’s financial situation.

“Being in a foreign country, away from Greece, I was treated like I was an expert: a politician or an economist. Someone who knows everything about why, when and all the corruption. I can only express things from my perspective, of how I’m living and actually experiencing it, the fact that I’m living outside Greece.”

 

Offensive stereotypes

Watching the international media scrutinise and stereotype her homeland was often offensive.

“They referred to it with comments like ‘Greeks are lazy’. That was the moment I started feeling this is rude and they are passing judgment on my country.”

Panagopoulou plans to continue working in Ireland, where she says artists are far more accepted and embraced than in Greece.

“If I go back to my country I’ll have to do something different because what you face there is bureaucracy. There’s no funding for emerging artists.

“I’ve met a huge amount of very interesting people in Ireland during my journey of three years. I suppose when you are alone in a place and following your heart, then you find people that resonate with this part of yourself.

“I find this inspiring because Ireland is a small country. I didn’t expect to find that here.”

  • We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com
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