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A Fading Art

The Golden Age of Sifnos

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Tackey had no American-style paint mixing machine. "No special orders from Athens, either," said Tackey, "What you see is what you get," he added, making like Flip Wilson.

Paying no attention, I pressed on. "Tackey, where do I get that faded blue color?" I asked, pointing to the wisteria-blue store front across the street.

"That blue? It's this can," he replied snapping up a half-liter of electric blue enamel. "Indoors it stays bright, but outdoors it changes- to that color."

"Oh ho, I see," said I, reaching to shut off the light bulb above my head. The Greek sunlight which inspires poets, bewitches photographers, and tans tourists also fades paint!

"For sure," said Tackey. And then showing off a bit of esoteric trivia, he added, "Ultra-violets-from the sun. Screws up the pigments."

The next day found me lurking in the alleyways of Poros with my beat-up Hasselblad trying to capture some of the most pleasing pastels on film. As I took aim at an outstanding powder blue doorsay, a booming voice yelled out, "Deutch?"

"Are you German?" is still the first question asked by many Greeks whose memories stretch back to the Occupation. "No," I replied, "American."

"Oh, American. Oh, oh! Ogden, Utah! Union Pacific! God Damn. Son of a bitch," exclaime the voice, anxious for me to know he spoke English. Then he appeared through the doorway-aman well into his sixties wearing pants two sizes too large, held up by a belt that missed all but two loops. Tipping his snap-brim hat and looking me straight in the eye, he said: "Long time ago I work for the railroad. Nineteen twenty-five. Long time ago. My name is John," he added, waving a cane, "John-with-the-stick."

It never occurred to John-with-the-stick to question why I wanted to photograph his powder blue doorway. He knew it to be one of the subtler tones of blue on the island. The color, he said, was a stroke of luck. He bought a can of bright blue from Tackey, not knowing the exact shade it would fade, but hoping for the best.

"I keep fingers crossed," he said, showing me two pork sausage digits. "Hey, come in. We have Fix. We talk."

John-with-the-stick unfolded his life story. The third son in a family of five boys, he went to sea at the age of sixteen. In San Francisco he jpmped ship and aided by friendly Greeks made his way to Ogden, Utah. At the mid-continent layover, he scrubbed the steel sides of passenger cars headed for California. "I see wwhole world," he told me, "but now I come home to die."

Not wanting to die an ignorant man, John spent his idle hours voning up on ancient Greek culture-especially architecture. he proved an apt student, informing me the business of painting Greed doors and windows goes back three thousand years.

Those stark-white temples we now see on the Acropolis were originally brightly painted, he told me in his brand of Union Pacific English. Blues and browns predominated, but green was the favorite color of the Ancients. John told me how the green was created and applied. First glassmakers made glass, mixing into it salts of copper. Then they shattered the glass and ground it into a fine powder. Painters mixed this powder into hot beeswax and painted it directly onto the temple walls. The results, according to John-with-the-stick, were stunning walls of bright copper-green.

And then, showing more pride in the ancient temple walls than his own powder-blue door, he added, "Hey! Let me tell you. That wall...he never fade."

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