MODERN HISTORY : Not All the Cultural Legacies Are Ancient, as 2 Exhibitions on Greek Folk Art Prove

Benjamin Epstein is a free-lance writer who contributes frequently to the Times Orange County Edition.

If you think that the legacy of Greece means only togas, columns and marble statues, Irini Vallera-Rickerson has a couple of surprises for you. And they're both called "The Greek Legacy."

"The majority of people are familiar with Classical Greece," said Vallera-Rickerson, curator of exhibitions at Orange Coast College's Fine Arts Gallery in Costa Mesa and at the Decorative Arts Study Center in San Juan Capistrano. Of Greek folk art, she said, few people know anything.

"But folk art is also a legacy, something extremely important to keep alive. Every day they would use these costumes," she said, indicating Greek outfits from early in this century. "But look at the care, the pride, the time they took to do the embroidery and the silver work. . . . They lived a legacy."

Vallera-Rickerson's two concurrent shows include textiles, elaborately filigreed metalwork, woodcarvings, religious icons, jewelry, ceremonial masks and even shadow puppets, as well as costumes, ranging from the early 19th to late 20th centuries. The display at the Fine Arts Gallery is set up like an open marketplace. The Decorative Arts Center depicts two rooms typical of Greek homes, one of the Greek islands, the other of mountainous northern Greece.

Vallera-Rickerson, professor of art history at Orange Coast College, began accumulating pieces for the show, initially intended for the college only, with items solicited from her own family in Athens. As plans for the show spread--by word of mouth alone--Southern California families soon overwhelmed her with Greek heirlooms, most originating with the great-grandparents of the lenders. As it turned out, even expanding to the Decorative Arts Center wasn't enough.

"We have about 200 pieces total in the two places," she noted. "There are 150 more pieces we could show, but we have no space."

According to Vallera-Rickerson, the immense variety to be found in Greek folk art is probably best exemplified in the costumes. She notes in the show catalogue that the ancient classical form of dress, a single uncut fabric draped around the body, had no obvious influence on Greek costume from the Byzantine period (6th Century to 1453) onward.

Perhaps the key word there is obvious.

"The aesthetics are so great in Greek folk art," she said. "The Greeks are raised among beautiful classical art. Wherever you go in Greece, you see the ruins and the beautiful proportions of ancient times. If you're raised among the monuments, your eyes are trained. You don't need to take an art history class. Greek folk art has those proportions and aesthetics.

"Not all of us see, even with two eyes," noted the professor. "Here you've got to take a course to be trained."

Though she grew up in Greece, Vallera-Rickerson studied architecture and art history for seven years at the University of Florence, Italy, where, she said, she gained an appreciation for the Renaissance masters. When she returned to the Greek countryside for a vacation, she rediscovered her appreciation for folk art, an appreciation that's only deepened with time.

"I'm not the expert on folk art from every culture, but every time I see folk art I see the love of the people coming through," Vallera-Rickerson said. "Folk art is an emotional art. It comes from the people, for the people. . . . It's the way it is because it's the way they want to do it. It expresses nothing but themselves and their emotions and their beliefs."


What: "The Greek Legacy," an exhibition of Greek folk art and artifacts.

When: Through April 20 at Orange Coast College Fine Arts Gallery (Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursdays and the first and third Mondays of each month, 7 to 8:30 p.m.). Through June 10 at the Decorative Arts Study Center (Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.).

Where: Orange Coast College Fine Arts Gallery, 2701 Fairview Road, Costa Mesa; Decorative Arts Study Center, 31431 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano.

Whereabouts: To reach OCC: Take the San Diego (405) Freeway to the Fairview Road exit and head south. (Use the parking lot on Merrimac Way.) For the study center: Take Interstate 5 to the Ortega Highway exit and head west; turn right on Camino Capistrano.

Wherewithal: Admission free at OCC, $3 donation requested at the study center.

Where to call: At OCC: (714) 432-5039. At the study center: (714) 496-2132.

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