Greek Sailor, Turned Artist, Paints Astoria Red

By Aaron Scott (OPB)
Astoria, Oregon Aug. 8, 2015 3 p.m.
Christos Koutsouras in his studio

Christos Koutsouras in his studio

Aaron Scott / OPB


Editor's Note: When we first visited the painter Christos Koutsouras in 2015, he showed us around his studio, an old fishing building and net loft perched precariously on piles out in the Columbia River. We've re-edited our profile for his newest show, running at Imogen Gallery Aug. 12–Sept. 5, that is focused on that very building, known locally as Big Red. 

The life of Astoria painter Christos Koutsouras sounds like it was ripped from a classic adventure novel.

Born in 1957 on the island of Samos, the birthplace of people like Epicurus and Pythagoros (you know, the guy with the theorem), Koutsouras forged his father’s signature at age 18, got a sailors book, and climbed aboard a ship bound for Mozambique. And he hasn’t stopped since, traveling the world and making a name for himself as a painter.

Now Koutsouras calls Astoria home, and he paints big, tumultuous landscapes of Fort Stevens. His newest exhibition, "Accessible to All," opens at Imogen Gallery and at a pop up retail space in downtown Astoria during the Second Saturday Art Walk on Aug. 8. It runs through Sept. 8.

As a sailor, Koutsouras traveled all over Europe, Africa and across the Indian Ocean. He used art as a form of escape when the boat felt small.

"Being up on the bridge, you had hours to observe and think," he said, looking like he rolled off the back of a freighter, his graying stubble framing a weather-beaten face, a rumpled vest atop a rumpled button down. "I have a necessity to go to the ground of things and ask a lot of questions. And up on the bridge, when it's you and the ocean, there's nobody to give you the answers, so you have to do it yourself."

By age 25, sailing had lost its sense of adventure for Koutsouras, and he moved to Germany to study painting. He bounced between cities as he built a career, landing in Bonn, Cologne, New York and Indianapolis, where he taught at the University of Indiana. In 2007, he followed his now-ex-wife and kids to Seattle.

"The Artist's Studio" by Christos Koutsouras at Imogen Gallery through Sept. 5.

"The Artist's Studio" by Christos Koutsouras at Imogen Gallery through Sept. 5.

Christos Koutsouras

In 2011, while looking for a place to work on a show for the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, he passed through Astoria on his way to Cannon Beach.

“Astoria has been introduced to me—I don’t know if I should say it on the radio, but truths, they have to be spoken—as a small town with a big alcohol problem,” he said, with a deep, hoarse laugh. “Look at the history of Astoria: being a sailor, I know they're drinking a lot. Loggers, they’re drinking a lot. You do hard labor work and you go out and you want to have fun, and the fun usually turns into turmoil. It's a real place. And wherever is real, I love it. At the same time, it makes space for the muse to come; it makes space for reverie.”

So he spent six months in Astoria working on the IMOCA show, painting day and night. Then he came back to paint more. Then he came back again, traveling down from Seattle for months at a time.

A funny thing happened as he started painting on the Pacific. He had always created figurative work: nudes, dancers, city scenes. But now he started painting landscapes.

“This play of the light and the grace,” he said, looking out the window of his studio. “There's no day like the other. You think you seen something, and you look again the next day and say, ‘wow.’ It gives those wow moments.”

Koutsouras’s studio includes two rooms in a ramshackle old building on the waterfront. There’s no running water, and the artist has pitched a tent in a corner. As if to emphasize the rawness, when we entered, a starling rocketed from the rafters and collided with the window, dropping to the ground, stunned.

“They find their way into the studio, but I have to help them on their way out—without hurting them,” Koutsouras said, putting on gloves and gently picking up the screeching bird before letting it out the now open window.

"North to Disappointment" by Christos Koutsouras

"North to Disappointment" by Christos Koutsouras

Christos Koutsouras / Imogen Gallery

The view is spectacular, peering out over the Columbia at the Astoria-Megler Bridge. Tankers nap in the current.

“It’s like a symphony of colors and grays and goldens,” Koutsouras said. “To paint that I won't do it. But to be able to observe it and transform it into a painting later, that's the way I'm working.”

Unlike many landscape painter,s Koutsouras doesn’t paint or even sketch

en plein air

. Nor does he use photographs. Instead, he observes, he looks deeply at the world, and then he waits. And if an image sticks with him, after a number of years, he’ll sit down and start drawing studies of it from memory.

Which is how he ended up focusing his entire show at Imogen Gallery this month on Fort Stevens State Park — in particular, a small building at the edge of the park, right near the Peter Iradale shipwreck, where the Columbia and the mighty Pacific collide. It’s a place he often visits when he’s having a hard time.

“The land and the sky and the environment are always constantly working around that building,” said Koutsouras’s gallerist, Teri Sund, who has taken shelter in the small building in the park during storms.

“It's almost like an eddy, a vortex of the energy," Sund said. "There is really quite a bit of power out there with the confluence of the river meeting the ocean. I can think of very few places that have that.”

Indeed, it’s a spot that’s captivated many artists, including iconic photographer Robert Adams, who also calls the North Coast home. He explored the area in his book “West From the Columbia.”

After Koutsouras finishes his initial studies, he starts painting expansive, almost abstract landscapes made up of strong brush strokes and powerful, luminescent color fields, mostly in greys and blues. And they’re big, up to 6 feet by 9 feet.

"Over the River" by Christos Koutsouras

"Over the River" by Christos Koutsouras

Christos Koutsouras / Imogen Gallery

Koutsouras’s series of work depicts the spot in winter, with dark clouds and rain whipping around the small, mundane structure, making it a stand-in for the viewer, or a lure.

“That’s something you need to experience,” he said. “Standing up on the platform on the south jetty and having winds of 5-miles or 60 miles an hour blowing in your face with water, and see those waves calming your soul and slashing over the rockery. Those are the moments where you feel as a human very small. It puts you on your right dimensions in your existence in nature. Because we tend to forget what we're surrounded by and what we’re made of. So those moments that can call us back.”

To see the works, we leave his studio and head to an empty retail space downtown that is serving as a pop-up satellite gallery. Dozens of canvases lean against the walls waiting to be hung, bathed in light from huge windows. They have darkly clever names, like “Truth I’ve Ignored” and “Not Another Goddamn Sunset,” which is a stormy landscape painted over an old painting of a sunset, although the colors of the sunset peek feebly beneath the grays.

Koutsouras has lived all over the world, and even though he hopes one day to return to Samos to start an art school that would help misunderstood creative kids like he once was, for now he plans to live in Astoria full time.

“It's the winter, the moody time, the so-called dangerous time,” he said. “If I look for a word to describe this series of work, I’d use the Greek word psyxograma. Psyxḗ, the soul, and grafo is writing. They’re writings of the soul.”