Born in 1933, in the village of Anaphotia, near Larnaca in Cyprus, into a family of very poor peasant farmers, Stass Paraskos was to become of one of the most important Cypriot artists of his generation. He was also a significant
lecturer on art in several British universities and art schools, and he played a key role in the battle against censorship of the arts in Britain in the 1960s.
EARLY LIFE AND ART STUDIES
Stass was born into a very poor family in the small village of Anaphotia (now called Anafotida) near the town of Larnaca, in Cyprus, in 1933. At this time Cyprus was part of the British Empire, but it was also a time of extreme poverty on the island. Stass said of his early life that most of the time was spent looking after his family's flock of sheep and goats, although he did attend elementary school.
According to Stass, his father sent him to England in 1953, and once he had arrived in London, he began working as a pot washer, waiter and cook in various restaurants in London, most notably the ABC Tearooms in Tottenham Court Road. At this time he lived in the then thriving Greek-Cypriot community in Camden Town. In 1955 he moved to Leeds in the north of England, again to work in restaurant kitchens, but with encouragement from the artist Harry Thubron, he soon become a student at Leeds College of Art (Leeds Arts University). It was in Leeds he met and befriended some of the key artists who would influence his attitude to art, including the painter Terry Frost, the Fluxus performance artist Robin Page, the Surrealist artist Tony Earnshaw, and the sculptor and installation artist Laurie Burt.
ARRESTED BY THE POLICE
In 1966, Stass was involved in a notorious court case when he was arrested and charged by Leeds City Police with exhibiting obscene paintings. As a result he became the last artist in Britain to be successfully prosecuted for obscenity under the Vagrancy Act of 1838, the same law previously used against D.H. Lawrence. Several of the obscene paintings are now owned by the Tate Gallery in London.
Despite this, Stass went on to become a highly regarded artist, exhibiting at galleries such as the ICA, and lecturer in art, teaching at Leeds College of Art, Leeds University, De Montfort University, the University for Creative Arts, and elswehere. In 1969 he founded the first art college in Cyprus, the Cyprus College of Art, running it as an artist-led institution in which artistic and social freedom were the key guiding watchwords. Despite having primitive facilities, the Cyprus College of Art became an international sensation, and attracted to Cyprus many leading artists, including Terry Frost, Euan Uglow, Dennis Creffield, Anthony Caro, Mali Morris, Jennifer Harding, Geoff Rigden and Rachel Whiteread, as well as art students from all over the world.
A POLITICAL ARTIST
Stass was always a highly political artist, with left-wing, and later anarchist, sympathies. A member of the Communist Party of Cyprus (AKEL) in his youth, he used his art to look at subjects such as political and social oppression, the rights of women and the horrors of war in Cyprus and the Middle East. This political activism went beyond his painting too, with frequent articles by Stass appearing in Cypriot newspapers attacking what he saw as the destruction of Cypriot culture, society and the environment by capitalism. Of the international arts festival, Manifesta 6, due to be staged in Cyprus in 2006, he wrote of it being 'a capitalist plot to hijack and destroy what is uniquely Cypriot in our culture and replace it with a bland globalism.'
Stass's painting style drew on the western art traditions of modernism, especially the work of Gauguin and Matisse, but this was combined with the ancient traditions of Byzantine icon painting, particularly in the way Stass composed his picture space, to create a unique form of art. Although this has been described as a 'lyrical style', that phrase threatens to hide the social and political vehemence of both the style and subject matter of Stass's painting.
Given this, it is perhaps not surprising that Surrealism was also an influence on the way Stass painted. Stass would often start a new painting by using accidental marks, for example by randomly cutting pieces of paper and using these as stencils to create a series of abstract shapes on the canvas. Working over these abstract forms in an open-ended way would slowly turn them into the figurative elements of the final painting. As this shows, Stass did not believe artists should pre-determine what their work would look like, even if their aim was to explore social and political issues. Instead, it was better for the work of art to form itself, or evolve, through the process of its production.
MUSEUMS AND GALLERY COLLECTIONS
Stass's work can be seen in many of the art museums of Cyprus, including the State Gallery of Contemporary Cypriot Art and the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation in Nicosia. He also has work in collections of the government of Greece, and in the United Kingdom in the collections of the University of Leeds, Leeds Art Gallery and the Arts Council of England. He is the only artist born in Cyprus to have work in London's Tate Gallery.
Stass Paraskos died at his home in Paphos, Cyprus, on 4 March 2014, of septicaemia, caused by diabetes-related gangrene in his legs. He was 81 years old.
The art college he founded, the Cyprus College of Art, still continues, and the sculpture garden he created in its grounds in the village of Lempa, near Paphos, is open to the public.
Stass Paraskos in his studio
in Leeds, England in 1966
Detail from 'The daughter of Pharaoh, Thermonthis receives Moses from the Nile', 1999
Detail from 'Enclave teacher in Karpasia
and her frightened children', 2000
Detail from a British newspaper report published following Stass Paraskos's arrest in Leeds in 1966
Text on this page by Michael Paraskos, April 2018