From November 2017 until the end of January 2018, Hull’s world-famous aquarium and gallery, The Deep, is staging an exhibition of the Aegean-based artists, Alexander Reichardt and Katharina Bolesch as part of the city’s status as 2017’s UK City of Culture. This gifted couple operate from their atelier and gallery on the Greek island of Naxos under the brand name Fish & Olive, a name that reflects the iconic symbols of the Mediterranean that inspire their work.
The first time I walked into the gallery-shop of L’Olivier (now Fish & Olive) on the Greek island of Naxos, I felt the jolt of excitement that is joy to a hardened travel writer in search of authenticity.
This was many years ago on a late evening in the Aegean Spring. I was in the village of Halki at the centre of mountainous Naxos, the largest of the Greek Cyclades, that great loop of islands that lies at the heart of the Aegean and that boasts such world-famous destinations as Santorini and Mykonos. The dozen other islands of the archipelago are the real deal compared to those catwalk queens of the Aegean and Naxos is one of the most compelling islands of all.
The velvety dusk of the Tragea, the high mountain basin of Naxos, had settled like a veil on Halki’s tiny village square. Young Scops owls called from marble ledges on the facades of long-abandoned Venetian mansions. The mellow air was heavy with the pot-pourri scent of the Greek dusk. There was no one in sight. Inside L’Olivier, the internal lighting was cleverly deployed, like evening sunlight that still lingered. Everywhere I looked, there were stylish arrangements of beautiful stoneware and jewellery. The shop was untenanted, the door wide to the subtle air of evening. Outside, nothing stirred. Even the owls seemed like ceramic effigies.
The reflective moment was broken suddenly, but with a comedic flourish, when a bright-eyed collie dog bounded through the door and grinned up at me. A wagging tail signaled peacecoming. A few seconds later a dark-haired woman appeared in the doorway, a curious, questioning look on her face. This was Katharina Bolesch, the inspired ceramicist of L’Olivier. Close on her heels came her husband, Alexander Reichardt, L’Olivier’s equally inspired artist and designer, especially of the beautiful fish motifs that would soon transform the L’Olivier brand name to Fish & Olive.
Katharina’s collie, Felix, was guardian of the shop. I had passed the test, she said.
‘He usually barks his head off when he finds anyone in the empty shop.’
Alex told me later that they had felt at ease with me immediately, albeit I was a stranger arriving in the closing moments of the day. They were even more delighted to hear that I was from Lonely Planet and was bearing apologies for misinformation contained in LP’s current Greece guide. What would continue to delight them was my enduring enthusiasm for their work, for its defining Cycladean style and its iconography of land and sea.
I had called at Halki because I was working on an update of Lonely Planet’s Greece guide. Katharina and Alex had sent the editorial team a polite email pointing out that, while they were grateful for a small entry in the current guide, a correction was required regarding the type of pottery that Katharina produced. This was the first time I had been sent to revise the guide; I was keen to fine tune what I could.
I had almost by-passed Halki that evening. I was tired after a long day of working my way across the island checking the multifarious details of the Naxian section of the guidebook under review. My journey had taken me from the island’s port town of Hora, along the western shore to Apolonas at the northern tip of the island where the main attraction is a giant kouros, one of the mysterious Naxian marble effigies of supine male figures that date from about the late 6th century BCE (BC).
From Apolonas I drove up the steeply winding road into the Naxian highlands, to the remote villages of Koronidha and Koronos, green accents on the approach to the increasingly barren uplands of the island’s emery mining country. A time-consuming but rewarding diversion led me to tiny Keramoti, nestling in its herb-scented pocket between the hills, while the coastal village of Moutsouna, an old emery port turned cheerful resort, added to the long haul.
Some places are surplus to the essentials of guidebook revision but, wherever I work, I cannot resist even a brief diversion off-track. Late afternoon found me at the intriguing mountain village of Apiranthos where the Cretan tradition of mantinades, the clever conversational rhyming that passes for everyday chat is still practiced among descendants of historic settlers from the Great Island itself.
From Apiranthos, I drove downhill to the farming village of Filoti beneath the looming heights of Mount Zas, at over one thousand metres, the highest mountain in the Cyclades. Soon, in the gathering dusk, I moved on to Halki, my commitment waning after such a long day. The narrow road through the Tragea skirts round the edges of Halki. Where I parked by the dusty roadside, the featureless outer buildings of the village were dark and uninspiring. Harbourside Chora, where I was staying, was a dozen looping miles further on. I needed food, wine, and sleep. A brief phone call the following day would easily have given me the information needed to correct the L’Olivier entry for the next edition of the guidebook.
I was tempted to drive on, but something stopped me from restarting the car; the tug of curiosity, a writer’s essential blessing and curse; the same imperative that might take you several miles on foot to a remote chapel or a mountain crest because you are certain there will be something fascinating just ahead. Call it curiosity, call it instinct even. The greatest rewards of travel writing come from turning the next corner, from heading off at a tangent, from going always a little further.
I got out of the car and picked my way through a dark, uneven alleyway into the silent heart of Halki. The rewards of finding L’Olivier were to prove timeless.
For years after, through many working trips across the Greek islands, a visit to Halki was unmissable. It was a joy to find that L’Olivier had matured into Fish & Olive Creations and that the work of Bolesch and Reichardt had gained in sophistication and style without sacrificing the beauty of their work. I witnessed their expansion into a custom-built Fish & Olive gallery, workshop and home that stood just round the corner from their still busy shop. Over the years, they honed their craft to an exquisite level. Their imagery merged increasingly the representational with the impressionistic, especially in Alex’s design work. Katharina’s craft remained rooted in her strong ceramic traditions while her imagery became more and more subtle. The colour and lightness of the Cycladic world permeated their work- the clear accurate air, the blueness beyond blue of the sea and sky, the green heart of the fertile Tragea and the bone-white cubist buildings of the islands .
Halki prospered also. The initial expansion was in keeping with the historic traditions of the village and of the Valindras distillery, the long established manufactory of the historic Kitron liqueur that had made Halki the commercial centre of Naxos until the early 20th century. Wealthy merchants of the Kitron trade built Halki’s Venetian-style mansions. The still handsome facades of these buildings bear witness to Halki’s long history as the island’s capital and trading centre, a position it maintained from Byzantine and Venetian times until the mid-20th century, when the village was partially abandoned after the 1939-45 war and the Greek Civil War that followed.
Today, against this background of historic commerce and culture, Halki has enjoyed a gentle renaissance. The village contains the oldest distillery on Naxos, the Vallindras distillery and museum, guardian of the island’s tradition of kitron production. Surrounding the distillery and the Fish & Olive gallery is a small network of shops, cafés and restaurants.
The Greek fare in Halki is authentic and the archetypal central taverna apart, the village boasts several outlets that stand out above the usual guidebook listings. Outstanding is the unique Era, where Yiannis Mandenakis makes delicious jams and the famous γλυκό του κουταλιού, the delicious ‘spoon sweets’ of Greece. Opposite Fish & Olive Gallery is Christina Faleriou’s Dolce Vita cafe, a serene haven for locals and visitors alike, while just round the corner is the village kafenion where Katerina Galani serves up a famous Galaktoboureko to round off classic Greek cooking.
Halki lies at the heart of Tragea, the triangle, known also by the ancient Greek name Drimalias, the forest of olive trees. The olive trees of Tragea originated hundreds of years ago in Venetian Naxos. They are deeply symbolic, not only of the Mediterranean Sea but also of the island’s heritage.
From Halki’s central square, narrow lanes radiate between the buildings and extend into a glorious hinterland of olive groves. The pockmarked trunks of ancient trees seem wrapped in gnarled roots that reach up from deep underground as if to anchor them more solidly.
There is a serene atmosphere here. Paths lead on, unsurprisingly, to Byzantine chapels. The most compelling is Agios Georgios Diasoritis, thought to date from the 11th century and built, probably, on the ruins of a pre-Christian temple. Framed by its mottled stonework and by the surrounding olive trees, the church is one of the loveliest Byzantine buildings I have seen, but it is the interior that is most striking, because of the wealth of frescoes portraying Agios Georgios himself, the Archangel Michael and other saints.
The work of Fish & Olive Creations is now celebrated worldwide. Katharina Bolesch’s ceramics were displayed at the Academy of Athens during the 2004 Olympic Games and have been featured at the United Nations in New York. In 2007, a major exhibition of her work was staged at the Design Museum (iittala Group, Arabia Museum) in Helsinki. Alexander’s work has close associations with the Goulandris Natural History Museum in Athens and the prestigious Cretaquarium. The works of Fish & Olive have represented Greece in the National Art Center in Tokyo. The work of Reichardt and Bolesch is in private collections and in homes worldwide.
Now the work of Fish & Olive has been curated for the first time in the UK in the apt setting of Hull’s great aquarium, The Deep. A truly ideal venue. Alexander Reichardt is a skilled scuba diver and still dives with his friend Apostolos Stylianopoulos who runs the Atlantis Diving centre in Santorini. Alexander is also a lifetime member of the famous Cousteau Divers and a close friend of Pierre Yves Cousteau who was guest of honour at the opening of The Deep exhibition where the Cousteau campaign for marine conservation was celebrated.
The growing international recognition of the work of Fish & Olive seemed inevitable to me all those years ago in the dusk of the Tragea when I first wandered into Halki. This tiny village is still the finest showcase of all for Alex and Katharina’s universal yet essentially Cycladean work. It lives and breathes at the heart of Greece and the Aegean, proof enough that geographical identity is often the driver of creativity.
KATHARINA BOLESCH was born in Bonn but was effectively brought up on the island of Naxos, which has been her home for most of her life. As a young potter she studied in Siegburg, a city famous for its pottery. The motif of the olive underpins Katharina’s stoneware and porcelain production but she also includes in her three-dimensional imagery, lizards, bees and frogs as well as the vine. Her work is handmade, from the throwing over to the forming, and to the painting and glazing. Each piece is fired twice at a very high temperature to produce stoneware ceramics of great strength and durability. In recent years, Katharina has enhanced her craft by producing delicate porcelain ware to which Alex has applied his elegant designs.
ALEXANDER REICHARDT was born into the Mediterranean world and has observed its marine environment with an artist’s eye during many years of travel throughout that world and through being a skilled scuba diver. He draws on his creative affinity with the sea to produce fish designs both as enhancements of Katharina’s ceramics and for his own jewellery. Alexander also paints his fish motifs on paper and creates artifacts in other mediums, such as marble, textiles and wood.
All photographs courtesy of fish & Olive Creations