David D. Pearce served as U.S. ambassador to Greece from 2013 to 2016. In this guest post for Philhellenes, he explains how his work as a diplomat, his love of Greece, and his passion for painting all found expression through the medium of Twitter.
I always had the habit of drawing, but it was only about five years before getting to Greece in 2013 that I started the watercolors.
When I served as ambassador in Algeria 2008-2011, security restrictions severely limited weekend travel and outside activities. So in my free time, I began the methodical study of drawing, perspective, light, shade, and color. I also copied the works of painters I admired, especially Winslow Homer.
Painting quickly became my favorite pastime. I love the zen of it. I chose watercolor because it is a difficult medium, and I like a challenge. If you make a mistake in watercolor, you have to live with it. So you adapt. You figure out how best to turn what happened into an opportunity. Diplomacy is much the same. Things seldom go as planned. You need to be ready to adapt and find solutions that fit ever-changing situations.
When I left Algeria, I continued painting on assignment to Afghanistan as Assistant Chief of Mission 2011-2012, and then again after I arrived at my posting as Ambassador to Greece in 2013. I did very little exhibiting, and no selling, of my work, despite the urging of some friends. I did hang a few pieces in the residence. Since leaving government, I have been building a small website to show some of the watercolors. I have made a few available for sale as prints and I am considering offering up some originals soon as well.
Not long after I arrived in Greece in 2013, the public affairs counselor in Athens, Todd Pierce, pressed me to start a Twitter account. This was in line with Department of State efforts to encourage chiefs of mission to engage actively in social media messaging. Not without misgivings, I agreed. In short order, it became clear to me that growing my very modest little Twitter feed would require more flavor and content than U.S. policy pronouncements and photos of official U.S. activities. But what?
Pierce encouraged me to Tweet my watercolors. He noted this would lend the feed a much more personal tone, and felt it would have some appeal because the works reflected a deep personal interest in Greece and Greek culture. This was true enough. I had had a special affection for Greece ever since my first visit as a Classics student in 1971. I still found it hard to believe, though, that there would be much interest in my paintings.
I was wrong. The paintings became by far the most widely played aspect of the Twitter feed, more popular even than the official U.S. business – imagine that! I should not have been surprised. Greeks are justifiably proud of their history and culture, and they respond with enthusiasm when others show they share that appreciation.
“If you make a mistake in watercolor, you have to live with it. So you adapt. You figure out how best to turn what happened into an opportunity. Diplomacy is much the same.”
Naturally, my first, and favorite, subject was the Acropolis. No matter how often I went out in the city, I never got over the thrill of seeing it bulk over the capital. I thought of it as the numen, or presiding spirit, of the polis.
The painting below is a view of the Acropolis from the Kolonos Agoraios. It grew out of a springtime walk in the Agora. If you climb up to the Temple of Hephaistos you are standing on the Kolonos Agoraios, a rocky outcrop overlooking the Agora. And you are rewarded with this stunning view.
The next image is my Red Acropolis. It illustrates the earlier point about turning accidents into opportunities because it began with a mistake. Thinking I had ruined the painting, I hit the paper hard with a strong cross-stroke, annoyed at the prospect of having to throw it out. But I liked the effect, so I did it again, and again, adding more and more bright, analogous color. The result, Red Acropolis, represents for me not only the emotional fire and independence of the Greek experience, but also the cultural solidity and self-confidence that anchors it. One of my happy accidents. The Greek Post Office honored me with a special presentation print of this painting as a Greek postage stamp just before I left the country.
The trouble with painting the Acropolis is that no one image can possibly convey the different feelings that it inspires. So I did many views in many styles. This one I call the Abstract Acropolis. I first did an underpainting in watercolor and then repeated the underlying tones in slashes of oil pastel above. If you stand back from it and squint a bit, the structures of the Plaka and Hadrian’s Library begin to emerge.
Greece is about much more than Athens, however. So, naturally, I took my sketchbook and camera with me whenever I traveled, always looking for potential paintings. I tweeted out both paintings and small sketches, some with handwritten notes on them. My first trip outside the capital was to Corinth, whose spectacular location had thrust it into the middle of events throughout Greek history. The pen and ink/watercolor piece below is of the magnificent Doric columns of the Temple of Apollo, another subject on which I did several takes.
One weekend, my wife and I escaped for a weekend break at Hydra, the beautiful island to which Leonard Cohen famously retreated, and where cars are still banned. In honor of this, I did this little abstract painting of donkeys waiting at the quay for a fare:
The Greek Orthodox church is, of course, omnipresent in Greece. In the winter of 2015, I got away to Meteora, which hosts the cliffhanging Monasteries in the Sky, one of the most spiritual and striking sites in entire country. That trip inspired this small pen and ink/watercolor sketch of Father Superior Isidros, who was kind enough to escort us around Varlaam Monastery:
Prospective visitors to Greece tend to think first of the islands, but if one tries other, less-traveled ways there are many treasures of natural beauty to be found in every corner. One of my favorite paintings is of this glassy lake in central Thessaly, at the foot of mist-shrouded mountains. Every time I look at it, I remember well the cool tranquility of the damp winter morning when I visited:
As a lifelong Classics buff, I was thrilled to be living for an extended period in the land about which I had read so much for so long. One day, while re-reading a section of the Odyssey, I decided to try to sketch a Homeric ship. There were plenty of representations of 5th Century triremes, but I hadn’t seen many of these older craft. We knew they had dark curving hulls, oars, a single mast and sail, basic rigging, and a steering oar. I found a line diagram of such a ship, and the Greek names for its basic components, in an old text of Homer in my library. As an afterthought, I sent this little sketch, done for my own edification, out as a tweet, complete with scribbled notes in English and Greek. I was astonished at how many and how quickly people picked it up and retweeted it. Who knew there were so many Classics nerds out there?
For the most part, I kept my tweets of paintings apolitical. An exception came when the refugee wave hit Greece in 2015. I could not resist putting together a few pen and ink/watercolor images aiming at capturing some of the pathos of this flow of human misery onto Greek shores. This was a time when the philotimo (φιλότιμο) of the Greek people, especially on the islands, was on vivid display. Here is one:
Many of the watercolors I tweeted out on my official account were not paintings at all, just small notebook sketches, like these:
Color study, Acropolis:
Meteora – The locals called the unusual rock formation you can see in the background the “Finger of God”:
Fort of Palamedes, Nafplion, from Nea Tiryns:
I feel very fortunate to have been able to live for three years in Greece. My paintings were an effort to distill a bit of the beauty I saw everywhere, and keep the memory of it with me always.
Images and text copyright © David D. Pearce, 2018. All rights reserved.
David D. Pearce lived and worked in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for ten years as a journalist, and 35 years as a diplomat, including service as U.S. ambassador to Greece (2013-2016) and Algeria (2008-2011). He attended Bowdoin College and the Ohio State University School of Journalism. Since Mr. Pearce’s departure from government service in November 2016, he and his wife have divided their time between his native Maine and their grandchildren in Southern California.
A self-taught artist, Mr. Pearce has been painting actively since 2008. He recently established a website to display his watercolors: daviddpearce.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @daviddpearce.