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In focus: The dynamic creative pluralism of Maria Coletsis

MARIA COLETSIS is an artist who has explored painting, digital media and computer installations in her oeuvre, and has travelled the world for her art. She has also lived and worked in Canada, England, Greece and Hawaii, and each country has left an indelible mark on her creativity, which has a pluralistic character. With an open mind and a discerning eye, she has tackled a wide range of subject-matter, ranging from ecological issues to female identity. At the heart of it all however, is her fearless interest in exploring the many facets of both nature and human nature, something which she does to this day, often with an unabashed, realistic, and probing, photographic process. Her recent series of works ‘Intermissions’, with its unique creative focus on environmental awareness will be part of the 6th Biennial of Fine Art & Documentary Photography (December 9, 2021 – January 9, 2022) at Barcelona’s Foto Nostrum Gallery. Furthermore, she returns to the art scene of Athens, where she will be exhibiting a black-and-white pandemic portrait for the group exhibition ‘Life in the Pandemic’ (January 21-February 2, 2022), at the Blank Wall Gallery.

Born and raised in Vancouver, Coletsis obtained her BA in Fine Arts from the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in her hometown, before moving on to the San Francisco Art Institute to complete an MFA in 1995. But everything started in her high school’s dark room: « That high school darkroom, the art department and a special art teacher were life changing. I was quite a lost teenager but when I discovered the alchemy of the darkroom and image making, I really found my way out, by going in», explains Coletsis.

Coletsis has had 9 solo shows (physical and online), many of which were in London. She has participated in over 40 group shows (physical and online) that have taken place all over the world : from St Petersburg to Rome, Barcelona, Budapest, Los Angeles, Korea, and Athens. Her work has been included in photography biennials in Spain, Beijing and Berlin, and has featured in many photography festivals, including the East London Photography Festival, but also  Chania’s annual International Photography Festival (in 2020 and 2021). Her work has garnered many awards and has been featured in many publications and online editions. Furthermore,  in 2010, it had been chosen by Whitney Musuem curator Elizabeth Susman, for the Viridian Gallery open call in New York. Coletsis has contributed editorial photography for many international magazines and newspapers, and many of her images appear on book covers and websites, plus music covers. She has also printed her images on blankets, in a project which brought colour to the lives of children and the elderly living in hospitals/care homes.

The London Chapter

Certainly one of her most daring projects and also the artist’s «most memorable», was when Coletsis travelled the world in order to document the subject of the professional ‘Dominatrix’. Her photographic investigations were published in the photography book ‘Behind the Whip : Dominatrix’, and were presented in a solo art exhibition at the De Luca Gallery in Toronto, in 2011 (where the book was also launched). Later, the exhibition travelled to Vancouver’s Raw Canvas Gallery, and there was also a film screening of the making of the book. She is not the first artist/photographer to explore aspects of underground, fetish and subcultures, but she definitely stands out as the one who investigated this particular subject, on a global perspective. Unafraid to go where no artistic photographer had gone before, she carried out her investigations and arrived at some interesting conclusions: that it was in the most conservative societies, where she found this particular fetish to be the most prolific.

It was in fact in London, where this project began, that she met ‘Mistress Vanessa’, who had a ‘dungeon’ in the heart of the most expensive neighbourhood, in Mayfair. Coletsis explains: “I was working as a professional photographer doing editorial photography for various London magazines. One job was at a fetish club, where I befriended the hostess who would hire me for future events. Ultimately, I was hired by a prominent Dominatrix who I would go on to photograph many times and begin a friendship with. I was fascinated by this persona and the book idea evolved from there.”

Ecological awareness

“I am currently concerned with our relationship with the environment”, states Coletsis, whose most recent project, ‘Intermissions’, is of a very different nature to her previous projects, and sees the artist employing her creativity as a means to heighten our awareness of the magnitude of environmental pollution, and the many factors that contribute towards its escalation. Seeing abandoned surgical masks both in the urban environment but also in nature, got Coletsis thinking. The results were a series of works where the surgical masks are protagonists, and have been photographed in natural settings, but each one of them represents one of the key culprits of pollution, as evident via the image depicted on its surface: mining, pesticides, jet streams, over-fishing, radiation and deforestation are just some of the images. Via this series, the mask becomes a screen or canvas, upon which the culprits of environmental pollution are presented. “During covid, I spent my time going on hikes, kayaking and rides. I noticed during lockdown that the environment was getting a real break from us, people! Everything had come to a stop except nature which appeared to be revitalized. I started to think about our dysfunctional relationship with our natural world and started putting masks on it. Then incorporating specific images on the mask that pose a threat to our environment, making it a very clear message”, explains the artist.

Focus on Femininity

Looking back at Coletsis’s early art, one interesting project which stands out is her ‘paper dolls’ series, where the artist had taken the image of the paper doll – a simple paper toy that many girls have played with – and had blown the image up to life-size proportions, in order to explore the idea of femininity. “Femininity is seen as a masquerade, as a performance role”, says Coletsis about another series (the ‘Staged Stills’). Another aspect that Coletsis enjoys to explore is the use of different lenses in her work: apart from the glass lens of the camera, she also likes to see things through other lenses, such as that of the photocopier machine for example, which she has employed to stage scenes which she then photocopies: “I find it amusing to use a machine of corporate culture to produce art concerning feminine issues”, the artist has stated.

Extra glass barriers are also often employed, so that Coletsis is in effect photographing through two lenses: the lens of the camera but also that of a glass table, window or fascade. It could be interpreted as a game of glass ceilings, eluding to those that so many women come across. “I became very interested in making images through glass, with or without a camera. I felt like I was working within a huge petri dish, exploring diverse female archetypes” explains the artist.

The Greek connection

Greek nature and culture have also often come under her lens: from ancient artefacts to stalwart character types of Greek culture and quintessential Greek ‘moments’. Her lens is always interested in capturing the realism of each situation, sometimes disclosing its ironic undertones in the process. When Coletsis was living in Greece, she had exhibited her work at the Titanium Gallery, and at Antinor. Her work back then in the ‘90s, was a mix between art and painting, realised via the exploration of the non-silver process, by which she could intervene on the photographic image to a greater extent. Lyrical red and blue images emerged from her creative subconscious, and made their way into her photographs.  The artist explains how this process evolved: “I tend to push what I do with photography and had created a technique which could blend historical photographic process with my own tactile expression. My ‘photopainting’ would go on to inform 3 distinct bodies of work whose subject-matter addressed: women, archetypes and mythology. I had the opportunity to have a solo exhibition in an Athens gallery and consequently stayed. Later moving on with another gallery and a new exhibition in Athens at the Titanium gallery. After 2 years in Athens I returned to the San Francisco Art Institute to finish my Masters Degree.”

Now, Coletsis’s work returns to Athens, at a time when the art scene here is certainly attracting a much more diverse gamut of creatives. Let’s hope this is a new beginning, and that we will see more of this artist’s open-minded and dynamic creativity in this unique, ancient-yet-contemporary metropolis.  

  • ‘Life in the Pandemic’, runs Jan 21- Feb 2, 2022, at the Blank Wall Gallery (55 Fokionos Negri Street 11361  Athens).
  • For more about Maria Coletsis, check out her site http://www.mariacoletsis.com
  • Artists interested in featuring in the ‘In focus’ series of ‘Art Scene Athens’, can send an email to Stella Sevastopoulos (stelsevas@yahoo.com).
  • Art Scene Athens’ is written and run by artist/journalist Stella Sevastopoulos, who moved to Athens from London, in 1994. Since then, she has been following the Greek art scene, writing about it, but also exploring her own artistic practice. For examples of her art you can also visit her online portfolio

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