Behold Greeks bearing gifts
BONDINGS Ciara Ferguson talks to two sisters about ratty suitcases, family dramas and art
ELLI and Daphne Petrohilos are as close as only two sisters can be. Between them is a bond born of, and strengthened by, an unconventional upbringing and a mutual interest in creating things: delicate, handmade and originally designed pieces of silver in Elli's case and evocative figurative paintings in Daphne's.
The inspiration for their striking work comes from a rich and varied life, extensive travel and frequent upheavals, though both now live in Ireland. Their childhood was never settled and the bohemian, colourful and sometimes difficult experiences that are its legacy become manifest in their unique art.
Growing up, first in London, along with their brother Alexi, the family led something of a nomadic existence. The sisters learnt that home was not so much about a sense of place as about the people they encountered and, above all, each other.
"I don't know if it was escapism or a sincere desire to see the world, but our mum was really into moving around. We'd come home from school and she'd have a line of ratty suitcases packed and ready for departure by the front door. By midnight we'd be in Austria or on some ferry, only to spend the night, smell some edelweiss and hurry back to London for school on Monday," explains Daphne.
"We were always tired and dressed in odd clothes. On birthdays she'd insist on going for a drive, mostly in thick London traffic, to get a packet of crisps and an ice cream at the first pub just out of town."
Although there is only a year between them, they have the close duality of twins; each is better able to articulate the talents of the other. Which makes it hard to believe there was a time when they were not close.
"We didn't get along at all until I was 17, and she was 16," Elli tells me. "She was always much more sophisticated. When we were teenagers she had a bottle of vodka in her locker, smoked and read Brecht, while I worried if my ribbons matched my socks."
But in true sibling fashion, everything changed at some intangible point. "I think it was after I spent a summer in London when I was 17. Now there is no one who knows me better. Daphne is the one who tells me off for not getting enough sleep or eating properly, and makes me do Pilates and reminds me life is short."
Born of Greek parents, the girls grew up mainly in London and America, maintaining contact with Greece. Their mother's family were from those Greek pioneering stock who settled in Tanzania during the civil war in their own country. It was in Tanzania that their parents met. Both have left their imprint on their daughters in their artistic streak (their father is a furniture designer), and in strong characters that are both forthright and creative.
"Elli was eight when Mum taught her how to read maps so she could sit up front and tell her where to go, while I mostly puked all over the back seats (and our brother). We travelled twice to Greece this way when we were children.
"She started taking on responsibility at an early age, not just for driving, but when the going got rough which it often did she'd always be there to help us dress for school or stay out of trouble.
"Our parents epitomised the liberal trends of the times, so we were left to our own devices a lot," Daphne tells me.
Elli, ever the diplomat, is quick to restore a sense of balance. "In defence of our parents, despite the lack of conventional care, we got a different kind of education. I remember Alexi ordering spaghetti in a greasy spoon on some motorway somewhere, asking for Parmesan, but they brought him grated Cheddar. He said, 'This isn't Parmesan,' and refused to eat the spaghetti, and he was just six.
"Our mother really tried, and we have never ever doubted that both our parents loved us and each other. It was just difficult sometimes being part of a drama that included divorce and remarriage."
In London their parents separated. Their mother remarried an American and the family moved to Oregon. They lived in a tiny college town in the middle of nowhere, where their immigrant oddity was regarded as more romantic than strange. Their father also went to America and remarried. Both parents have since divorced and remain close. Their father still wears their mother's wedding ring.
Daphne continues, "Our social lives went from appalling to almost stable. Elli became a top student. We didn't get along there for a spell, I was busy working on my pretentiousness and smoking fags, but I understood that she had gained so much confidence and she was so clean and well turned out it was inspiring. She was also supported by school friends and teachers.
"Alexi and I dropped out of high school, he to build boats in the back garden and me to just drift. But while we drifted, Elli graduated and provided stability for Alexi and I. When no one was looking she'd pile on the praise and encouragement, tell you where to turn and how to be where you wanted without you hardly knowing it."
In Oregon, their mother opened a Greek restaurant. That was where Daphne discovered the possibilities of lard, which she mixed with powder paint to make a sort of simulated oil paint. Daphne's stepfather bought her an easel, and she headed for the Chicago Art Institute while Elli settled in London.
Later Daphne went to live in a farmhouse on Kythera, a small Greek island between Crete and the mainland. She married, had a son and painted over the following eight years.
Elli, who had been in London for a number of years, then moved to Ireland with her Irish husband, the actor and singer Eoin McCarthy and their two children Luke and Caitlin. Around the same time, Daphne, now separated from her husband, was on her way to London with her son Alexi, but thought, 'Why not Ireland instead?' After all, that was where her sister was.
"I think our unconventional upbringing led to a closer bond between us. Unable to take authority or guidance from grown-ups, we more or less raised each other. Still, the freedom of expression could be great fun, though I think Elli's role of caretaker limited her freedom as a child. She was always trying to do what was good and correct. Even if she was sad she would have our brother and I in stitches, doing clowny mad things just so we'd laugh. She'd draw little cartoon people with funny hats that for some reason just made us explode with laughter.
"So I guess the creative side was more a means to an end and never quite her own thing. She just didn't see herself as a priority. With hindsight it makes her all the more rare and brave today. It's no wonder I'm in Ireland really," concludes Daphne.
Now, with each other's support and encouragement, both Elli and Daphne have turned their energies to their separate artistic endeavors. Elli's fragile silver Christening spoons with tiny flags hand-engraved with the child's name, and beautiful silver fairy tooth boxes available from the Designyard, are perfect Christening presents. Daphne, meanwhile, is busily working towards a solo exhibition. The paintings feature the characters who swim all year round at Seapoint. With the artist's view into their world, the idiosyncratic, toe-dipping, chattering figures changing their clothes or basking in the ocean, impart to the viewer a shared human warmth and intimacy. That is their uniqueness. Just like Elli and Daphne really.