A TRIBUTE TO BILL PAPAS
Bill Papas and his wife, Tessa, went to Greece in 1969 on what was to be a year's sabbatical from his work as a political cartoonist with London's newspaper, "The Guardian." Instead, they bought property in Ermioni, established a charter cruise business, sold paintings, sailed from one beautiful bay to another in the Aegean and Ionian seas in warm weather, and lived the good, Greek life in villages during the winter. Their "sabbatical" lasted twelve glorious years.
Bill did not grow up with a good understanding of his Greek roots. Born in South Africa to Greek parents, he began his odyssey to discover his roots when he was about thirty-three. That was the year he became disillusioned with politics in the turbulent decade of the 1960's. At that time, Bill Papas was the best known political cartoonist in London and his work was syndicated world-wide. He was featured in London's "Guardian," "Punch Magazine" and "The Sunday Times." He became famous for drawing a highly political rodent to satirize the early 1960's takeover in Greece by the Colonels. In his cartoons, the rodent made constant. sarcastic pronouncements on the coup and the Colonels, and a ban was put on his work. Pundits then declared the "brave" Colonels were afraid of a little mouse and the cartoons were reinstated.
Before coming to London, he was also in the center of controversy covering the treason trials of Nelson Mandela for major publications in Africa. For a time, he and his cartoons were banned from both South Africa and Greece. His work, however, was gaining international attention even before he moved to London.
As a young man, Bill studied at art schools in London and Paris and supported himself by sketching street scenes. When he finished his studies, he satisfied his wanderlust by hitch-hiking in France, Germany, and Sweden, taking with him little more than his sketch pad and pencils. He spent about a year in each country.
Bill considered himself an "artistic reporter" and said he was "a recorder of people, places, and events." He wrote "A sketchbook commands respect, a degree of awe and instant communication in a way a camera cannot. It is a passport to people."
I became aware of his unique artistic vision when I wrote a cover story about his life for "Greek America Magazine." At the time I had just finished my manuscript for "A Lone Red Apple" and was thinking about asking Bill to do my cover. When I was writing the article, I had never spoken to Bill, but communicated with him by e-mail through his wife, Tessa.
The first time I actually talked to Bill was when he had finished the sketches for my book and I called his studio after unwrapping his work and marveling at my good fortune to have my story graced by his art. I thanked him profusely and told him how honored I was that he illustrated my story. Tessa had cautioned me previously that Bill did not like to talk on the phone.
I expected him to be brief and he was. He listened politely then said, "It was my pleasure." I was about to say goodbye, but there was a pause and he added "It was fun."
I never had the honor of meeting Bill Papas, although I had suggested to Tessa that someday all of us lovers of Greece would have to assemble at the Parthenon and go from there. Bill met an untimely death in June of 2000 at the age of 73 in a plane crash in Canada.
When I think about Bill Papas' art and his life, I remember his voice telling me "it was fun." I wonder if that would have been the way he would have summed up his bold, bountiful odyssey on the road he chose that was indeed less traveled.
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