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Connected to the Earth
Trisha Kanellopoulos paints large-size paintings. The artist finds the most important ingredient for her colors in the soil, in riverbeds, sandpits and woods, whether on the Giesinger Berg in Munich (Giesinger Hill) or in Abu Dhabi.

by Renate Winkler-Schlang (English translation by Trisha Kanellopoulos)

Sometimes, friends bring Trisha Kanellopoulos a little foreign soil in a plastic bottle as a present from their holidays. But that is not the same thing! When she goes for walks with her dog Chilli, or on excursions and trips with her husband Dedalos, she prefers to rummage with her own hands in the earth, to feel the humus and the little stones, fir needles, or little pieces of branches between her own fingers. She then keeps the treasure in one of her many preserving jars. The artist prefers to find her raw material herself. In this way, when she applies the color that she has obtained from the earth, she can reminisce about the place where she found it.

In her collection of earths in her studio, Giesinger Berg in Munich stands alongside Santorini, the Ebersberger Forest right beside Abu Dhabi. North German soil is soft. For volcanic soil from Santorini, she needs a hammer. Some soils have almost an orange shimmer, while the kaolinic soils that are suitable for porcelain have almost a white shimmer. Each sample has its own character and its own quality―in this respect, she says, the soil is comparable to wine.

On her work table lie things from the kitchen: the soil is crushed with a mortar, and then rubbed through a tea sieve. She mixes the powder she has obtained in a bowl with a little water into an old yoghurt pot, before she adds an acrylic thickener. “Authentic,” that is Trisha Kanellopoulos’ favorite word to describe her earth colors, “authentic and honest.” Layer for layer, she applies them to her canvases, which are mostly large-size. She herself has sewn some of these canvases together out of strips or squares, and she composes them with fine lines to form very tranquil, profound paintings.

These are paintings that one needs to have seen “live”: when they are photographed, the monochrome works are very far from having the same “sensuous” quality that they have on the wall in real life, where the one who looks at them sees every grain, where every unevenness and nuance of color contributes to the vitality, where one can perceive the fine nuances and contrasts. In the current exhibition of her “earth paintings” in the Center for Ecological Education in Bogenhausen, the director, Marc Haug, notices that most visitors can scarcely keep their hands under control: they simply want to touch a picture and to stroke its surface gently and cautiously. Surprisingly, the surface sometimes feels as rough as sandpaper.

The 67-year-old artist takes pleasure not only in her paintings and in the positive echo, but every day, she delights anew in her studio, bathed in light, in the conservatory of a former garden nursery in Untergiesing, where she has worked for the past twenty years. She says that she has always been fond of beautiful things, and one sees this. The geraniums inside and the beautiful chairs outside let the boundaries dissolve. The soils and the brushes are composed to form fine still lifes on tables and shelves, as if she was just about to photograph them with her Nikon.

Trisha Kanellopoulos grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, a place that she describes as petit-bourgeois and conservative. “Very elitist,” she says. This was not in fact true of her own family, but she knew very early on: “I belong somewhere else.” At college, she studied economics and psychology, but she soon moved to New York. She studied photography and became a photographer’s assistant. But soon she realized: “I need to travel.” She recalls: “A backpack, a long dress, and a hat. It was the wild 1970s.” In 1974, she landed in Europe: London, Paris, the Canary Islands, always with her camera. Then Munich. Here, she fell in love with a “Greek Bavarian,” and they got married six months later. They have two sons and four grandchildren: “I have been lucky,” she says with her charming light American accent, and her eyes sparkle. Her husband has always supported her, never put the brakes on. She laughs: “But he had no other choice.”

Trisha Kanellopoulos has had many jobs. She has been a waitress and worked in an orthopedic practice as “a mud fairy.” She and a friend had an interior design firm, where she was “in charge of the colors.” She has been a professional seamstress, although she never had formal training. Painting too is something that is largely self-taught: she found that all the courses she took part in were ultimately “dry.” For many years, she herself gave courses in painting and drawing, until she discovered with a shock that her pupils were beginning to paint in the same way that she does. And again and again, she takes photographs. She sums it up with self-confidence: “I can tell you that I am a professional.” She has had a colorful life, and everything had a meaning: “Nothing happens for nothing.”

Trisha Kanellopoulos began with painting and drawing, above all nudes. Gradually, she reduced her motifs more and more, she relates: first groups, then couples. And then, there was usually one person alone in the landscape in her paintings. Later, she displays torsos. “And then only lines, detached from the figure.” There are also sculptures made of wire in her studio.

For more than ten years, she has experimented with soils and with ashes. She sends soil home with the post from holidays, or she puts it in her suitcase, even if it sometimes smells somewhat sulphurous. She has mixed soils for many of her works, and on each of them she has noted precisely where the components came from. Kanellopoulos assures us that she is not in the least esoteric. “But I am very close to nature. When I don’t feel well, all I have to do is to feel the soil in my garden.” She is still “in search of the ultimate color and the perfect surface.” The 67-year-old has no intention of retiring for a long time yet: “I have the feeling that I am only just starting,” she says.

The exhibition “ERDBILDER / SOILPAINTINGS ” with paintings and photographs by Trisha Kanellopoulos can be viewed until August 9, 2019 in the Center for Ecological Education in the Englschalkinger Straße 166, 81927 Munich: Monday to Thursday from 9.00 to 16.00, Friday from 9.00 to 13.00, and on weekends while courses are taking place. Entrance free.

Captions under the photographs:


(1) Trisha Kanellopoulos in her studio.

(2)Comparable to wine: every soil sample has its own character, says Trisha Kanellopoulos.

(3) The artist paints her large-size earth paintings in the conservatory of a former garden nursery in Untergiesing, where she has had her studio for twenty years.

All photographs are by Catherina Hess.