Michelle Echenique

 AEGEAN PASSAGE
Michelle Echenique

Over the course of four weeks in May and June 2018 I was artist-in-residence on a four-acre property full of olive trees, grapevines, and fruit orchards overlooking the Aegean Sea. At its nearest point, just 3.4 miles away from the island, Turkey is easily visible across the water.

Proximity to Turkey figures prominently in the island’s recent life. Since at least 2015, refugees have been landing on Lesvos in their first hopeful steps for a new life in Europe.

The current circumstance is visible daily, from the people on foot, to the giant, overcrowded camps along the roads, to the life jackets and abandoned boats on the beaches. Lesvos has always been a destination for migrants, sitting as it does at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
That history is baked into the land and as a result emerged in my project The Aegean Passage. The artworks along the path, in sections both groomed and wild, provide a meditation on the island’s long and rich history within the context of its current geopolitical position.
It was extraordinary to have an artistic blank slate, what felt like a lot of time, and the freedom to do whatever I wanted. And, coming on the heels of this Spring’s Wheel Sea Trail, I had momentum.
Figuring out what to do, and how, happened quickly and organically. A first day’s find on a nearby beach – an impossibly tangled fishing apparatus – set a direction. Other finds unearthed on the property itself and scavenged from the always-full dumpsters along the roads provided the rest. Toiling with the sound of hens cackling, roosters crowing, sheep bells clanking, and mourning doves cooing, along with a view of the blue sea and Turkey beyond, set an inspiring tone.
The Aegean Passage includes five main sculptures and a newly hardscaped viewpoint, all using found-on-the- island material.

Fishwife: This piece features found fishing apparatus: net, floats, and rope. Every fishing harbor on Lesvos, even those with just a handful of boats, boasts piles of these intricately woven forms.
In their visual familiarity, the shapes and textures in Fishwife took on a feminine tone. An outdoor lamp framework, perched high, entwined with net builds on that expression, adding a resilience that suggests another feminine fishing connection: widow’s walks.

Olympiad: What to do with all those rings freed from the fishing apparatus?
Ancient Greece, as home to the first Olympics, provided an obvious visual direction. The rings are a modern (1912) icon of the Games with colors representing the five regions participating in the Summer Olympics in Sweden that year: Africa, Asia, America, Oceania and Europe. The interlacing rings symbolize continuity. Olympiad serves as an aspirational reminder of our global shared humanity.

Totem: The grid structure at the top of the pole was the first composition. My intention was to represent Lesvos, in all its richness, the good and the bad, by way of a totem. Apricot pits from the tree adjacent, almonds from the orchard, pottery shards, fishnet, fruit boxes, and the persistent plastic caps found littering every beach fill and hang from the slots. The entire piece is weighted, literally, by the driftwood top piece and its entangled fish weights.

Loaves and Fishes: I wanted to create a bench at the farthest point of the path facing the bountiful vines and welcoming house rather than the enduring sea. As a collage artist I love using found paper, particularly from food. Fish stall wraps, colorful fruit boxes, bakery and flour bags caught my eye immediately and symbolized the richness of Grecian sustenance. The Loaves and Fishes bible story of the feeding of the many felt appropriate as a tribute to bounteous, time-tested Greek hospitality.

Shatter is perhaps the most poignant piece of The Aegean Passage. Humanitarian and environmentalist Alison Terry-Evans offered for my use the globe, an award from Foreign Policy magazine as a “Top 100 Global Thinker of 2016”. That it’s glass seemed to perfectly symbolize earth’s fragility, particularly now with so many active threats. The broken shards at the foot of the piece and running down the pole provide warning; that the orb is intact suggests hope.”