On Resilience and Escaping: Interview with Chrisilia Philiastides

 Chrisilia Philiastides (b.1999, Larnaca) is currently in the third year of her studies in History of Art with Business and Management at the University of Glasgow. Her works focus on the human figure through poses captured in the midst of powerful movements, while a selection of colours express specific emotions, highlighting the relationship of the former with the latter. For the digital exhibition Sign of the Times she has presented a highly personal piece, the oil painting Escape.
In this conversation with curator Bianca Callegaro, she discusses the inspiration behind her work, her views on the digitization of the art world and the impact of the pandemic on her creativity and artistic research.

Bianca Callegaro: As one of the featured artists in the exhibition Sign of the Times, could you introduce your showcased piece?

Chrisilia Philiastides: Escape is an oil painting that has a more minimalistic and contemporary approach. It addresses that great feeling of wanting things to change for the better and believing that, with time, hope will lead us to brighter days. 

Chrisilia Philiastides, Escape, oil on canvas.

BC: Your painting on show is titled Escape. It is also your first explicitly autobiographical piece. What does “escape” mean to you? Has this term got a positive or negative connotation?

CP: This is quite a personal piece. It is the visual depiction of transition: from feeling trapped to gaining back my power. Escape is about changing the way of seeing things, which is essentially what sets us free. 

I am an emotional, sensitive person. My emotional world has always been characterised by intense, contrasting feelings. It’s always black or white for me, there is no place for grey, and that is also linked with the choice of colours for this painting. I always let things consume me and I become very invested. There’s really no inbetween for my feelings, I either feel terrible or extremely good, as if I could conquer the world. Actually, that middle ground, that grey area feels uncomfortable to me. This is also why this pandemic, which was basically a forced, endless grey mood, has been quite challenging psychologically. 

When one feels captured or trapped in a situation, the only way out is to escape that dark place and change mindset. I am usually quite proactive but, during the pandemic, I could only accept a degree of powerlessness, as I was not able to do everything that I wanted. It felt as if I were trapped in a loop of wasted days. But then, I realised that the only way to escape these feelings was to change my outlook on life. In these unprecedented times, “escape” for me meant stepping out of the ‘victim mindset’ and doing the best with what I had. Therefore, the term, and painting’s title, has definitely a positive connotation. It defines the moment when you decide what you want and go out and get it; that is when you get out of the trap, of the victim mindset, to finally make choices that liberate you. 

BC: Your piece expresses a feeling which has been experienced by many during the past year: losing control, being subject to unpredictable, unchangeable external factors that yet have such a strong influence on our lives. How did this apply to your personal situation as an artist working during a pandemic? Was your creativity impacted by the situation?

CP: With lockdown, I found myself with so much time and energy to paint and be creative. Yet, the only thing I was lacking was inspiration. Living my life inspires me to the fullest: from simple joys, like a sunset or a midnight drive, to seeing some friends, and being goofy. The lack of these small, real moments really affected me and my creative process. When all days blend into one and there’s nothing that causes adrenaline or excitement, life feels like a constant low. Stuck in my room, I felt guilty for having so much time to paint but not being able to produce anything. I felt like I didn’t have anything to say, as I wasn’t experiencing life. 

Chrisilia Philiastides, Tumult, oil paints.

BC: I am curious to learn more about your initial approach to art-making. Could you tell us how it all started? Do you work exclusively with painting or have you tried other media too?

CP: I have been into painting and art for as long as I remember. I started taking painting lessons from the age of 5, and then I was painting for school. I took the GCSE and A levels of Fine Art and Design. That was probably the most intense time for my painting activity, as I had to submit a painting every Monday.

As I’ve been painting and drawing for so long. I’ve tried a variety of media, but oil paints are definitely my favourite medium. I also really enjoy pen drawings.

After finishing school, I stopped painting for a while, because having to paint for strict deadlines and grades had become a very stressful part of my routine. I needed to take a break and thought that I’d get back to it when I felt the need to paint again. That was the case for a couple of years unfortunately. I had started university, so at first I didn’t have the material nor the space to paint and when I finally got them I didn’t make time for art-making. And then, after not painting for so long, with the lockdown I reapproached art. Yet, perfectionism got the best of me and the fear of not being good anymore at something I used to excel at paralysed me. Now, my greatest difficulty is knowing what to paint, because I’m not really inspired and put a lot of expectations on myself.

BC: You are currently studying History of Art with Business and Management at university. Has this influenced your personal artistic vision and creative process? 

CP: My knowledge about Art History prior to university was very limited and basic. My university studies have really been eye-opening, providing me in depth understanding and many sources to draw inspiration from. However, studying a joint degree at university makes it difficult to find time to actually be creative. Glasgow is a great place to get to know artists, it’s a city filled with art and cultural initiatives which are easily accessible. This was one of the main reasons why I chose to study at the University of Glasgow, and I am really glad that this year I was able to get more involved with local projects. 

BC: How do you go about creating and conceiving a new project? For example, do you draw inspiration from specific artists? What inspires you the most?

CP: Now, when I create something I want it to come from the heart. Creating is primarily for me. Sometimes, I get the urge of smelling oil paints in the middle of the night, so I take them out and just put paint on paper or canvas, purely for the feel-good purpose. Then, there are also times in which I get bursts of inspirations: concepts arise out of nowhere (sometimes from my dreams) and I decide to turn the idea into a visual. I get stimulated by looking at images that inspire or create a feeling, and from there I get ideas about composition and colour. I also look at contemporary artists to see how they work. A great inspiration and pivotal point was discovering the work of Cypriot artist Nikolas Antoniou, whose work I really admire. Escape was actually greatly influenced by the work of Nikolas.  I got to interview him, and it was such an eye-opening experience. Coming from a very structured background and art education, I realised that art is not meant to be perfect rather that is meant to be felt. Before, I used to paint realistic images. Meeting Nikolas represented a fundamental moment of change for me. His work is all about vague spaces, doing what feels right or comes to mind, and not really focusing on a fixed, predetermined outcome or message. He avoids specific questions and answers, and I admire the freedom he displays in his creative process. 

BC: Who is an artist in the 21st century? Are there any ethical/moral responsibilities that presently come with this role? 

CP: Personally, I think an artist is someone who creates from the heart. Also, an artist can’t be  limited to creating artworks or writings or a craft. To me, being an artist is more of an outlook of life, a mindset, a way of being. It goes back to the idea that art is felt. Thus, I believe that someone who sees colours in life, and then goes on to express that in any way and have an impact on at least one other person, that is an artist. 

When it comes to taking up this title I don’t think it is self declared, it is more something that others associate you with because of the impact you have on others. Artists are often put on a pedestal because they have this ability of communicating messages that can be understood and felt, and that reach people. With that in mind then, there is power associated with that role, and with power comes responsibility, ethics comes into play. Artists can make the mundane and boring world a better place to be in by bringing colour to everyday life, finding beauty in the details, in the ordinary. I think that is powerful and beautiful. 

Chrisilia Philiastides, Breakthrough, mixed media.

BC: Nowadays, our daily lives are overfilled with digital images, coming from across the world and made easily available thanks to the Internet. Then why is art still so important for contemporary society? What do you think is its function, also in comparison with past periods? 

CP: Art will always be relevant. Art is everywhere: from nature to buildings, to the recipes passed through generations. I think that what distinguishes an artist from someone who just creates is the capacity, the lens that enables the artist to find meaning in the details of everyday life.  I think of art as a concept which reminds us to stay still for a moment and observe, to try and understand, feel and find meaning. With that being said, I think that art, in whatever form it might take, allows us to be more human, it brings us closer to our senses. Also, art is permanent, it leaves a mark on society and is looked back at after centuries. We make sense of our ancestors through art and that, I believe, will always be the case because it is a fundamental form of expressing one’s inner world.

Take the artwork Escape, for example: I am being vulnerable through my art and showing a piece of me that others may have never seen otherwise. And in that sense, art, and creating in general, is also important and will always be. In the midst of the pandemic, when everything was on pause and anxiety was on high, everyone turned to creating art in one shape or form to “escape” from their boring reality, to feel something again. Creativity brings us closer to who we are, and for that reason art can never be lacking from our lives. 

BC: This is the first time that you take part in a digital exhibition, an increasingly common practice in the cultural world. Do you think that the digitization of cultural initiatives has advantages only or are there also downsides to it? (Both for artists and visitors)

CP: From a commercial and accessibility point of view, digital exhibitions and digitization in general are certainly great tools for survival. However, going back to this concept of art as felt and experienced, digital exhibitions cannot replace the traditional aspect of going to a gallery, with the experience that comes with it: smelling the paint, being in a room, surrounded by artworks, in which the world almost stops. You don’t get that from digital exhibitions. I also think that, when something becomes easier, that takes away from its original value. Digital exhibitions are great for selling art without limitations of time and place, but when it comes to feeling art and wanting to experience art through an exhibition, the digital, at least for me, does not suffice and cannot replace the sensory experience of art. 

BC: The art world has for sure been significantly transformed due to the pandemic. Do you think that the new digital approach is bound to last? Are there any other changes to the sector that you think will be implemented as a result of the “new normal”?

CP: The digital approach is definitely going to stay in many aspects both for the art world and life in general. The transition has been made, almost forced upon us. It would be a waste of opportunities not to make the most of all these tools that were implemented and developed during this period. However, I do not think the digital approach would replace the traditional one. Art is an experience that makes us feel human. Going to an art museum, you see centuries-old artworks and you are immediately taken to a different time and place. 

BC: Lastly, are there any new projects that you are currently working on or plan to realise in the upcoming future? What is your greatest professional ambition?

CP: I am currently going through a transition phase, trying to find what the next thing will be for me. I have gotten back into painting and I am trying to get over my “paralysis” of perfection. Creating “bad art” will eventually lead to something, it’s all about getting started. 

This is the second exhibition I am part of and, even though it was digital, I was reminded of what it feels like when you create something and give it back to the world . I love that feeling, this experience has definitely sparked a fire in me to create more. 

My greatest professional ambition is to show others the importance of art and its impact. I truly feel that art, in its various forms, is what keeps us human. It cannot simply be taken for granted. Art is a passion for life, it is embodied emotion, and if I can make at least one person see that somehow, then that would be a success to me. 

Learn more about Chrisilia’s contribution to the Sign of the Times exhibition on Relevo Arts. Follow and support her artistic projects on @ciliap99, and keep in the loop with the exhibition on @relevoarts and @artgateblog.

Published by Bianca Callegaro

Bianca Callegaro is the co-founder, editor and manager of Art Gate blog. She is currently studying History of Art with Film and Television Studies (MA) at the University of Glasgow. She is a columnist for Glasgow University Magazine and volunteers as a museum guide at the Hunterian Art Gallery.