Brett Taylor

Brett Taylor

(1943 - 1983)

He was only 22 when he became an expatriate, and found the unspoiled island of Paros in the middle of the Aegean Sea. There he developed an extraordinary approach to painting, fragmenting space as he captured his environment with a 360° view, as if he were painting in the 4th dimension.

Brett Taylor

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Taylor in the Aegean — Chasing the Fata Morgana

By Wynn Parks

Brett Taylor was one of the far-flung children of the Sixties. In the era of high spirits and social revolution, when his peers were opting for demonstrations, and the excitement of street politics, Taylor chose a more classic road to romance. He set off to experience the wonders of the wide-world; to live large; to jump off into the deep end — No guts; no glory! — with Byron and Burroughs.

He needn’t have, he was already established in Tyler School of Art circles as a young, hot-shot artist. But instead of a career as an academic darling, Taylor dreamed of broader recognition, living in the Mediterranean, where one could pursue painting in the spirit of Picasso and Braque; and meantime, to create a school of art from which students would go away never seeing their world the same again.

A half century later, the images coming out of Taylor’s little-known Odyssey reach us like the light of a star that no longer exists.

Sitting not far from the ancient marble quarry, Wynn Parks (Creative Writing instructor at the Aegean School of Fine Arts) contemplates the panoramic view looking upon the northeast coast of Paros with the island of Naxos in the distance, ca.1981.

Taylor was born in Florida, on the 2nd of March 1943, the son of Henry White Taylor, a well-regarded portrait artist from Philadelphia. The elder Taylor died when his son was seven months old. Taylor’s mother, Mykia, let her son know from an early age that in him she recognized both his father’s love of wordplay, and talent for painting.

In 1965, while half of his male peers sweated in Vietnam and the other half sweated their student deferments, twenty-two-year-old Taylor was teaching printmaking at Cheltenham Art Center in Philadelphia. Though he’d established himself as the Director’s protégé, the “non-vital” nature of his work wouldn’t have provided him with much immunity from the draft. Yet, Taylor’s number never came up. His luck held long enough for him to get married and complete an advanced degree at Tyler School of Art, a part of Temple University. Despite his seemingly charmed life, by March he’d opted to drop out of his tenure-track lifestyle, and go, not for Canada, but Greece. It wasn’t really a case of “dropping out.” That would have been to run away from something. Taylor was chasing.

Taylor was abetted by Gladys Wagner, his boss/mentor at Cheltenham, who ran magazine ads, seeking applicants in a summer arts program, which styled itself The Aegean School of Fine Arts.

Dazed by the whirlwind of graduation, marriage, and departure, Taylor and his wife, Nina, bought a Greek-English dictionary, along with a handful of language tapes, and sailed from New York aboard a Yugoslav freighter. With time running out to locate a base of operations, Taylor and Co. set out to scout the Aegean islands on a Greek ferry. It was a squeaker: a scant three weeks before the school’s first scheduled session, Taylor hurried out wires instructing students that, from Athens they should meet on the island of Paros.

Paros, in 1966 was largely a turn of the century farming and fishing community in the Cycladic group; a twelve by six-mile mountain-top in the sea; obscure in modern-day awareness, except for its remarkable marble, and as the birthplace of the West’s original lyric poet, Archilochus.

      From an approaching ferry, the island often seems to float between blue sky and blue, dolphin-spawning waters. Closer in, the geography is rocky and brilliant with an intense, perspective-shredding light. Steaming into harbor, the organic architecture of the port village, Paroikia, is a Cubist’s vision.

Taylor never considered himself a businessman, nor necessarily considered being one a virtue. But Greece, in 1966, was under a home-grown, military junta.  So, aided by his Greek-English dictionary, and the country’s chilled economy, Taylor engaged the best accommodations the Aegean School would ever have: a large, old house, built by the Venetians with tall ceilings and windows; perfect for studios. The building included a wine cellar and an enclosed courtyard of five or six hundred square feet.

Within a few days of his first classes, Taylor realized the school was going to fly. The combination of relief and elation was intoxicating. In the spirit of the times, and on the principle that you can lead-a-horse-to-water, Taylor refused to play the academic “game” of “requirements.” Much was offered, but nothing, except tuition, was mandatory. The exotic lifestyle invariably put the students’ perceptions on “full gain.” The result was often an unimagined new perspective on themselves and their artwork. Speaking of the phenomenon, Taylor would grin hugely and say:

“It’s like selling ambience! All I have to do is fuel the process with art supplies, aesthetics, and group interaction!”

The first catalogue printed for the Aegean School of Fine Arts, designed by its founder, Brett Taylor, in 1966

During those early years, Taylor, himself, found new direction in his work since leaving the U.S. In “Studio” he painted for the students, to illustrate points about “spontaneity,” on occasion impatiently dipping his brush into liquid medium; then into powdered pigment, and from there to the canvas, where he mixed and painted at the same time. So that, at the center of the school’s “hot” status, lay his own ferment.

Despite Taylor’s own state of grace, however, Nina wasn’t adapting quickly to the simple life.  Despite her husband’s exhilaration with the nineteenth century life of kerosene lamps, and supplies borne home on their donkey, Marcel…  and perhaps to avoid the distraction of family responsibilities, Taylor temporized on his wife’s desire to genetically start her own creation process.

Within two years of the couple’s arrival, Nina left Paros, bound for Crete with one of the Taylors’ Greek friends. It was a blind-siding from which the painter sought to distract himself with paint, canvas, and alcohol.

Finally, out of the crisis with his wife, and the failure of a reconciliation attempt in Paris, Taylor seemed to find sublimation. He began to express himself in an intense, new style. Combined in that style can be seen the honing effect of Aegean light, the islanders’ mystique for discerning function through all the disguises of form, and Taylor’s own fascination with the renowned marble figurines to be found in archaic Cycladic graves.

In 1967, Taylor’s response to Greek island life engendered the breakthrough painting that he’d envisioned in coming to the Mediterranean: Venus on the Half-shell. Taylor considered it a quantum-leap in his aesthetics, epitomizing the techniques, and an iconography that he would spend the next decade exploring. Venus on the Half-Shell emanates rueful humor aimed at the notion of ethereal delicacy as found in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. In contrast to the total nude innocence of Botticelli’s Venus floating to shore on a clamshell, Taylor’s Venus seems to wear the shell for a skirt. Her bare, Minoan-mother-goddess breasts entice, while the cold upraised eyebrow, and pouting lips, reject. The wind blows, and the world shifts around the love goddess, while the little man in the boat sits alone, anonymous, half in and half out of blackness.

Venus on the Halfshell, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 31.5 x 45 inches

Taylor was aware that, historically, the background for his approach to painting was established centuries before. With the rediscovery of perspective during the 15th century, artists adopted an “objective” technique for representing the world visually; one that hadn’t been employed since the time of the Romans. For the next three and a half centuries after its rebirth, the mastery of perspective, for use in representational art, was the sine qua non of artistic achievement. For many in contemporary U.S. culture it still is.  It also carried the seeds of its own destruction since, ultimately, the “objective” nature of linear perspective made it photographically reproducible from the late 1800s on. Drafting skills necessary for the representational accuracy of portraits, or the manor houses of the gentry, were gradually made redundant by the camera.  Taylor once remarked at a school discussion that it was no wonder that the Impressionist movement coincided with the rapid popularization of photography. Ironically, avant garde visual art ended up looking backward to validate itself against the literalistic power of the camera, back to the writings of Leon Battista Alberti, the Renaissance’s chief proponent of perspective. In his discussion of the technique, Alberti, an architect and art theoretician expressed what to his contemporaries must have seemed a quixotic reservation about linear perspective’s limitations — in that it represented its subject from only one point of view. It wasn’t until the opening of the 20th century that this particular one of Alberti’s observations was seriously considered by painters: ­­ the Cubist movement with its fracturing of space into simultaneous, multiple viewpoints.

Though Taylor vehemently rejected any attempt to classify his art, he admired Picasso, and idolized George Braque, Picasso’s alter-ego. In its own way, Venus on the Half-Shell does arrive at a Byzantine evolution of the Montmartre breakthrough of sixty years earlier. The irony is that the concepts by which Taylor worked seemed drawn from the principles of the pre-Impressionists’ old nemesis, photography. Where the Cubists unfolded and flattened at least the skin of solids into one plane, Taylor pressed the solid elements of his paintings each into its own plane in a progression of planes, often painting them so that the eye could focus on only one plane at a time. By manipulating color and tone, he sought to create non-homogenous space in the world that Picasso & Co. had flattened.

Taylor’s iconography included what he sometimes called his “paddle-men,” but which others have likened to Al Capp’s fictional creatures, the shmoos. From first coming to Greece, Taylor had been fascinated with Orthodox icons. In the silhouette and tilted head of his “Venus” it isn’t difficult to spot the special influence of icons of the Virgin.

Later, Taylor would objectify the lens-flare of a camera, using it in his paintings as either a round (bubble) or square form. Appropriating that photographic “fault,” he used it frequently to key the viewer’s attention to the transparent succession of planes — like early astronomy’s Crystalline Spheres — in his paintings. Contemplated long enough, the effect can be a sense of almost febrile distraction.

In time, his work would advance more and more deeply into the realm of hyper-perspective. Not content with fracturing elements, he would more frequently distort them, discombobulating the topography of hollow objects. by presenting simultaneously, inside and out, back and front, in an orgy of the conjunction of opposites.

But from the sly humor and elation he put into his “Venus” break-through, to the last haunted portents of Moses’ Short-cut Snapshot, the horizon, mirrored in the sky, reappears time and time again. The vantage point of these hallucinatory reflections is ambivalent, since no matter how terra-bound the setting in the foreground of a painting, the distant horizon shows curvature, like a photograph of the planet’s limb from high altitude. Between the reflected limbs, the sky seems to part on another world of blue skies and fluffy, white clouds. The doubled landscapes, above and below, each reflect every detail of the other.

The Moses Short-cut Snapshot, 1982, acrylic on canvas, 33 x 54 inches

The fabled “Fata Morgana” is another of these floating landscapes. This mirage, named for an ancient enchantress, has appeared in the Straits of Messina to lead ships astray since time immemorial. Sailors have regarded the Fata Morgana as a wrecker of ships. An eye-witness description includes well delineated castles and “delightful plains, with herds and flocks; and many other strange figures, all in their natural colors, and proper action…”

Perhaps it was Taylor’s fascination with the realms of the air that led him to spin the legend of his Moonwalk canvas. In 1969, an invitation to hang the commemorative painting, for an Earth Day Symposium, came from a friend in Athens. As an employee of the U.S. Information Agency, the friend had put Taylor’s painting on exhibit at the American Consulate. From there the story seems to turn apocryphal: the guest speaker at the Symposium turns out to be none other than the first human moonwalker, Neil Armstrong. As the tale goes, spotting Taylor’s canvas, the astronaut muses over the symbolic, and literal complexity of images. Finally, the alpha-spaceman’s eyes go to the signature: May, ’69, (the Eagle landed in August). “It seems that Mr. Taylor has preceded us to the Moon,” says Armstrong.

Moonwalk, 1969, acrylic on canvas, 73 x 90 inches

Perhaps it is a man’s fascination with the quixotic that makes him attractive to women. Soon Taylor met Stephanie Nathan, an American theater student on a side trip from Paris. She had promptly skipped out on the thespian role in Paree for that of artist’s muse. Suddenly, from the emotional bleakness mirrored in Venus on the Half-shell, Taylor’s paintings take a rebound, emanating color, and movement. He makes one of his sporadic ventures into sculpture. This is the point beyond which all vestige of Taylor’s pre-Greek perspective seems to disappear.

Through the early seventies Taylor’s paintings radiate a sexual exuberance so encompassing that it finally embodies a votive canvas to the goddess of love in Venus Reprise.

Word of things happening on Paros spread among art students looking for adventure in their education. Some were journeyman artists from Europe. Students from American colleges like Antioch were the staple, and ultimately ASFA courses were academic currency in over a hundred American universities and colleges, allowing Taylor to keep the school in session year-round. To broaden the curriculum, he offered stipends to wandering expat artists to teach other mediums. As small fry shoaled on the island, it drew bigger fish.  Seeking a quiet, unpressured life, veteran artists appeared and took up residence to work day-by-day at their passions; and, in the evening eat, and perhaps get drunk in the society of their fellows. One such was Willy Hempel, a painter who had attended the pre-WW II Bauhaus and joined the Yugoslavian partisans when the Nazis closed it. Then there was Gyp Mills, a sculptor who had retired from managing the career of Donovan, a British pop star from the psychedelic era. It was rubbing elbows with the big boys, and there was more.

In its August 1972 issue on the “Aegean Islands,” National Geographic gave Taylor and his school a substantial mention.  Plus, under the school’s aegis, Taylor formed Paros Chamber Ensemble, a group of American classical musicians he called his “hotshots from Boston.” The ensemble’s free-wheeling café concerts on the village waterfront, now lodged the island’s name in the minds of an increasing number of incidental tourists. Already the mayor and village dignitaries hosted an annual taverna dinner in appreciation of the school’s boosting effect on the local economy. Taylor now found himself the go-to man for newcomers, Director cum Instructor of painting, and Classical Guitar, not to mention a grab-bag of Trivium and Quadrivium seminars. The school’s eclectic approach to art included, “Taylor on Taylor” a modest introduction to himself, featuring a genealogical tree of his aesthetic descent from nineteenth century greats.

Paros in 1972 seemed to be quickly becoming the artistic Camelot that Taylor had envisioned, but at the very zenith of this golden age there was the perennial, seductive hazard of women students. Among the students of late 1971 came Gail Wetzel, a young divorcée and occupational therapist from western Pennsylvania — daughter to E.S. Wetzel, an engineer whose cousin was Jimmy Stewart, the movie star. Gail had enrolled in a painting curriculum, and when Taylor critiqued her in the studio for the first time he found himself — all six feet plus — meeting her eyes on a level gaze. Her Junoesque figure and easy good humor piqued his interest. Unaware that one day he would describe her as his raison d’être, he endeavored to keep the incipient romance incipient. At the end of her session, Wetzel packed her bags and joined with the other students on the ferry dock, for the customary stirrup-cups of ouzo.

Meanwhile, subtle friction had already begun to build up between Taylor and his actress-muse, Stephanie.  In the tumultuous years between 1972–1974, she would vacate the island, his Greek friend and landlord, whom he addressed as “Papouz” (granddad) would die; and, in the U.S. his favorite grandmother would pass away, too. It must have seemed like the last straw when, Woodyard, his beloved canine companion, would disappear as well.

It was the first faintly off-key note that two years later would grow into a cacophony of “bad trips.”

During those two black years a thin thread of discontent gradually came into Taylor’s images. The exuberance with which he’d started now seemed to focus tightly on airplanes in his paintings. The theme of air travel appears in Taylor’s work like wistful sidewise glances at escape. Yet, he wasn’t his cup was overflowing where he was?

After Stephanie’s departure Taylor eventually found himself writing his former student Wetzel, and finally asked her to come and be his “co-vivant”— tongue-in-cheek euphemism he’d coined as more discrete for a school director than “mistress.” In the spring, having put her American life in mothballs, Wetzel returned to Paros. Taylor met her at the dock. On their way inland, Papouz — still alive then — shouted at them from his field wishing them, “Kaloh riziko!” (“happy, new possession”).  They approached Taylor’s country house, arm in arm, up a path flapping with fanciful ship’s signal pennants painted by Taylor in his winter solitude, for that moment.

Brett Taylor, Gail Wetzel, and the British painter Lucy Willis

Despite its flourishing activities, by the Aegean School’s seventh year, it was chronically underfinanced. Tuition alone wasn’t enough to meet the bills. Prospects for government aid were dim. The school was incorporated in the U.S., but operating in Greece, this made it an anomaly to bureaucrats of both countries; an international orphan, a school of Lost Youths, with a “hippy” educational philosophy.

With Wetzel’s assistance in administration, Taylor, the artist, was able to devote more energy to private fund-raising. Though the Director loved entertaining friends, he chaffed at the increasing loss of painting time. There were personal friends, businessmen, alumni, and vacationing academics encountered strolling the waterfront. No stone was left unturned. There were too many relationships; too many tainted by the indignity of fund-raising. It was an activity best done over a few drinks.

In periods of faith he spoke of finding an “angel”— a wealthy patron a la theatre jargon — who would recognize the school’s revolutionary potential, and in exchange for a footnote in art history, richly endow the not-for-profit organization. The day after attending one of Taylor’s potential-angel dinner parties, a friend joked that if the fund-raiser had to keep on drinking at that rate, he would never see forty.

In the summer of 1974, Greece’s banks were closed and armed Greek soldiers appeared in the streets of Paros’ main village, Paroikia. For Taylor, as well as Greece, it was the end of an era. He would later reveal the dilemma that dogged him during the crisis of Greek-Turkish saber rattling: If the Turks came, should he fight along with his Greek neighbors, or evacuate to the U.S.?

Ultimately, the Greek military junta resigned and the decision was never necessary. But perhaps, having posed the question to himself, it wouldn’t go away. That fall, on a fancy, the school’s Creative Writing instructor brought back sabers and fencing masks from a trip to Athens. Already at crossed swords with his new teacher over academic questions, Taylor took up the challenge, welcoming a possible winter’s entertainment as well as a chance to pursue their philosophical differences by means of a “conversation in steel.” Both men were highly competitive, and lacking a qualified fencing instructor, they undertook to teach each other lessons from a D.I.Y. book entitled, Fencing. Ripped clothing, red welts, and split knuckles — trial by ordeal was the order of the age. Still, while the fight-or-flight question with which Taylor thumb-wrestled, was more Byronic than existential, his struggles would soon take place on less elevated ground. Following the junta, came a civil government with economic development and Common Market prosperity in mind.

And, for a while, Taylor’s fortunes seemed to be looking up too, from an inheritance that came to Wetzel. Seeing the means to distract her companion from school/money worries, she gave him the windfall to buy a seventeen-foot sailboat Taylor had seen advertised in an English language newspaper in Athens. After eight years, Taylor’s manner was now as much Greek as American. If there remained any ambivalence about where his life would be spent, committing to a boat must have been second only to a house in burying it.

Within days, he’d picked up the little sloop, registered it as Corinne — Wetzel’s middle name — and with the help of his dueling partner, island-hopped from Marathon on the mainland, to Paros. For four days, the two erstwhile competitors careened from Kea, where they sheltered for a day; to Syros, to Paros, all in gale force winds. The wildness of the voyage permanently bonded the two men and etched itself deeply into Taylor’s imagination.

He had always loved boats and water. In truth, the voyage of the Corinne was a case of reality imitating art. Beginning in 1974, the year before the voyage, Taylor had begun painting a group of five sun-bleached canvases exploring the permutations of sun and sea and sail. A most remarkable thing about these pieces is the quasi-mechanical precision of drafting, and their progressive loss of color. Coming from the brush of one whose articles of faith were “spontaneity” and “color,” there seems an uncharacteristic struggle for control on Taylor’s canvases. The last of these — not a sailing picture — was Buster on the Bus, wherein the eponymous figure is as faded as an image from a silent, Buster Keaton film. The scene is the interior of a bus full of Greeks. The exhausted colors of the painting are ethereal, like the vision of an oxygen-starved brain. Toward the back of the bus, the figure of dead-pan comedian, Keaton, struggles forward by climbing over the backs of the other passengers’ seats.

Buster on the Bus, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 52 inches

But interpretations of art are subjective, and the apparent loss of color/affect in his paintings might also have represented a visual analogue to Taylor’s new musical enthusiasm. He’d propped his guitar in the corner of his studio. In its place, he tried to take up the Cool-School saxophone à la Coltrane. Somewhere, in the midst of the “coolest” color temperatures — and, by his own standards the most over-controlled painting he would ever do — bit by bit, the sky began to fall.

Between 1974 and 1979, Paros’ growing popularity with the café-chic, Club Med types, and assorted other jetsetters sent the cost of living steadily higher. Struggle as he might to keep up with the island’s new, tourist-inflamed economy, the dream in which Taylor had tried to envelope himself seemed constantly on the point of drying up and blowing away. He made a barn-storming effort to sell Aegean School franchises. From 1974–1977, the Aegean School of Cultural Anthropology as well as the School of Classical Studies and Philosophy held summer sessions on the neighboring island of Naxos.

But ultimately the infant mortality rate of Brett’s attempts at midwifery was one hundred percent. It was surely a lasting wound to one who set great store by creativity. He would lose the school building when it dawned on his landlord that tourist rooms paid better than studio space and photo-labs. No sooner had Taylor resituated ASFA in a smaller, Venetian-era building, than his friend in the American Consulate, who had been active in searching for school funds, died.

By the late Seventies, Taylor would lose even his dwelling of ten years. The farmhouse where he’d had his “perfect” studio had been the property of Papouz. On the old man’s death, Brett was invited, summarily, to vacate the premises, as the house was needed for Papouz’s son’s family. Though Taylor forever protested that this violated an understanding between himself and the old man, it was like trying to squirt water up a rope. The days of reasonable rents had passed, and trying to maintain the school while buying a house threatened to throw Taylor and Wetzel into a financial tail spin. A crisis was averted when Wetzel and Brett’s mother managed buy a small house on the village’s ancient castro fortifications. A short time thereafter, Papouz’s son built his family a modern house and rented the old farmhouse out to vacationers.

Taylor, the Founder/Director of the Aegean School of Fine Arts, never forgot the sting of dispossession he felt. As a member of a community he had considered “home,” he had been left “out to dry.” Taylor struck back with a bit of psycho-drama worthy of a John Fowles novel.

It was a dark and rainy winter night. The hundred meters of village market-street was lit by two or three fifty-watt bulbs. Occasional persons appeared on the street; then disappeared again, indoors.  Taylor and a co-conspirator had dressed in dark overcoats with deep hoods that hid their faces. Using a discarded stretcher from the village dump, the two carried the last loads from Taylor’s old house, covered with a blanket. Each load had been artfully arranged to look like a body.  On the third trip, an older woman had opened a second story window and asked who the two stretcher bearers were carrying. It was the moment that Taylor had been waiting for, and he responded in a sepulchral voice with the name of the evicting landlord.  The woman had crossed herself and drawn her shutters back together. Within days, a tale of faceless monks carrying a body through town on a stretcher was all over the village.

Perhaps Taylor’s dispossession shattered some illusion about his standing with the islanders. By spring, he complained to Wetzel that “physically” something was wrong with him. And was there a yellowish cast to his eyes lately? A visit to the village doctor set Taylor off to the U.S. for blood tests.

Nothing definitive could be determined in the time Taylor could leave the school, but he returned, confiding to his co-vivant, that for health’s sake, he might have to cut down on the alcohol.

Paroikia Bay from the Monastery (photo by Wynn Parks ca.1981)

By the time of his interview with the Dominion Post in April of 1979, an ominous fatalism had crept into Taylor’s normal obliqueness in public relation matters. At the end of describing his expatriate life as an artist-cum-director, he concluded:

“It’s not a comfortable life. We don’t have any salaries. We just take enough to pay our rent and food. And by the time you get to your mid-thirties, you begin to wonder what would happen if you got sick, or suddenly had to fly to the states, and you had no insurance, and only a hundred dollars in your pocket,” then stoutly, “…but I chose it.”

For the last three years of the seventies, he managed a number of oriental-format, brush drawings on paper. Also, harkening back to his days as a printmaking instructor, he created two etchings.

At this point, those around Taylor attributed his growing gauntness to nothing more than a reflection of his four-year artistic drought. He seemed simply to have no physical reserves to burn, even on painting. Then, three years before his fortieth birthday, something in the artist spontaneously ignited. The first burst of that inner conflagration was Fred Reefing. He’d done nothing like it since before the muted washes of his “Cool School” period. The work now blazed forth with the vivid, intuitive palette of a preschooler. The artist’s vantage point had come down to Earth. The bow of the horizon is still there, but there is no tantalizing mirage, no Fata Morgana.

In real life, the voyage depicted in Reefing was an expedition to the neighboring island of Siphnos with his friend, Fred Remington III, Fred’s wife, Jenny, and three seasick students from the art school. The canvas depicts the boisterous state of affairs as the Remington’s sloop, Syrinx, comes into the wide-open fetch between islands. The couple’s utter exhilaration, and the wretchedness of the three students, encompasses both the joy and pain of existence. Technically, Taylor once again adapts photographic conventions, indicating that the students are below deck by use of the classic, film, remote-view bubbles.

Fred Reefing, 1978, acrylic on canvas, 33 x 54 inches

Compared to the nearly obsessive multiplicity of his studied avant garde paintings, Reefing is as straightforward and sanguine as a dog chasing a ball. There is a burning urgency and a willingness to let aesthetic principles fall where they may. Yet, in the midst of all this joie de vivre, one senses a dark undercurrent. In one of only two known self-portraits from the Aegean years, Taylor paints himself at the tiller, setting the course. Reefing is clearly his voyage. He faces away from the viewer, shoulders slightly hunched revealing less profile than a one-eyed Jack. Those who knew Taylor then, will verify the visor and glasses and moustache. But like the little man in Venus on the Half-shell, thirteen years earlier, the artist sits in the boat’s stern. He seems to stare past the scene of human endeavors, across the endless sea ahead, searching perhaps, for a glimpse of the fabled realm of earlier days.

Summer of the new decade, Taylor and Wetzel traveled together to the U.S. Savoring the now almost foreign home-life, they side-tripped to see a brother-in-law run the Boston Marathon. Taylor followed up on his previous medical visit remarking afterward that his new doctor was a “teeny-bopper.”

Later, back in Greece, he’d discovered his co-vivant’s concealed desire to have children. Only at the approach of her forties had she inadvertently revealed her longing to Taylor’s mother. In Wetzel’s mind, the dead-line was forty-one. Whatever Mykia Taylor said to her son, he ruminated upon it; then, gathered himself up like an exuberant warrior flying to the front. A year later, whether from health problems, or just the throw of the dice, nothing had happened.

Placed side by side, the last three paintings that Brett Taylor completed compose a triptych confrontation of his own mortality. If Reefing had contemplated eternity, then Summer Optics meditated upon disengagement:

Summer hydro-foil service had come to the island in 1981. To many islanders, this supersonic transport of marine travel represented a giant step into the light of modernity. Yet, Summer Optics’ dark atmosphere and unbalanced, snap-shot composition seems more to reflect a disconsolate contemplation of the prospects. The ghostly, haunting images of old-time village life appear submerged beneath the wake of the phallic hydrofoil. Perhaps there, submerged like Atlantis, may be found the missing Fata Morgana. In a caricature of photographic time-exposures, Taylor uses his signature “icons” to represent both a long wail, lingering in the mind’s ear, and a photo-smear left by the hydro-foil’s ports, and running lights.

Though Moses’ Shortcut Snap-shot was the last painting that Taylor did, it could be nothing but the center image of his triptych. In contrast to either Reefing or Optics, the artist has laid out Shortcut with a near, bipolar symmetry. So static a composition wasn’t his usual way, yet, with it, he succeeds in creating a monumental stasis; an instant frozen full of impending forces: the glaring force of its saturated colors, and sheer cliffs of Red Sea water, poised to inundate all. And out of the Fata Morgana the elements come together into some looming, cloud-headed Yahweh, intent on swallowing Moses. The prophet trudges, washed-out and dismayed, insubstantial as a ghost, across the seabed.

Here, as never before, Taylor captions his painting, cryptically, in the language of f-stop, and shutter speed displayed in red before Moses’ eyes. Photographically, the numbers tell of clarity: light which reveals both near and far; clarity in which no host of Israelites crowds behind; and beyond that, up the white-lined highway, barely visible figures suggest pursuit.

Taylor finished Shortcut in the fourth quarter of his thirty-ninth year. In an unfinished poem from the same era, he writes:

                                         “…He wants a sign.

                                          He wants the sky to open…

                                          He wants to see a burning bush,

                                          With its voice of God on fire.

                                          Let the soft clouds go brittle, and shatter.

                                          Let the sea part…”

Brett Taylor seated in his studio in 1973 with an owl on his shoulder. One of his nautical paintings (57 x 32.5 inches) hangs on the wall…with Picasso looking on from the wall cabinet, in Robert Doisneau’s photograph of 1952.

In the winter of 1982–83, the sky truly fell. Both Wetzel and Taylor’s health took nose-dives. First one, then the other, made emergency medical trips back to the U.S. Finally, in the spring of 1983 both of them ended up in Brigham and Women’s hospital, on different floors. They would never see Paros again together. Wetzel was soon on her way to recovery. For Taylor there was no such luck.  On April 12th, at the beginning of his fortieth year the artist died from his long-deteriorating health. He’d heard of his co-vivant’s recovery before he died, and in a final Jay Gatsby flourish, sent a bottle of champagne to her room on the floor above him accompanied by a card: “Am in a state of utter relief….”

In June of 1983, against the backdrop of the Aegean School’s struggle to survive with new owners, Gail Wetzel returned from the U.S. bearing a small, plastic-lined box containing Taylor’s ashes. Honoring her co-vivant’s wishes, she met Taylor’s quondam fencing partner quietly at the south end of Paroikia village. From there they carried an inflatable dingy called Guernica along the shore to the pebbly beach of a small bay where they pumped it up. Paddling out to where the water went from turquoise to lapis, they emptied Taylor’s ashes into the Aegean.

Into which rank Taylor’s art will eventually find its way, is the province of time and the work’s appeal to the human heart. The technical innovations are more easily discerned. Since Manet’s Fifer, traditional-medium painting has been on the defensive against the camera. While his Aegean work reflects its debts to the Cubists, forty years its senior, Taylor, a lover of irony, diddled with both photographic format and theory, then did before the camera what no camera can do — psychic snapshots intended not to evoke another’s subjective “take” but communicate an objective emotional experience. Freed of native expectations, Taylor’s entire Aegean oeuvre contains the hybrid vigor of expatriate sensibilities, with their strange, half-recognizable fragments of the sixties.

The question is not whether Brett Taylor was a hero or a fool. In that realm of concern, he left the legacy of his art and The Aegean School of Fine Arts. And he was willing, however perverse the will, to live the artist’s life as he conceived it, with all its occupational hazards, to chase the Fata Morgana to the inevitable end.

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Brett Taylor — Dispersing the Center of Perception


Brett Taylor’s story does not fit the mold of the usual critical biographies we expect to find in gallery and museum publications. To be sure, this artist’s paintings clearly express an innovative vision, but their making is set within a dramatic screenplay of love and tragedy. Think of it as the 1960s successor to the movie “The Way We Were.” That beautiful but ultimately sad love story was set during the mid 1930s to the mid 1950s. A screenwriter (Robert Redford) and a political activist (Barbara Streisand) are deeply in love but ultimately must part ways for good because they are of different minds. Now, fast forward to Brett Taylor as the Vietnam War erupted in 1965. He had been preparing to leave the country for good — but he was not among the country’s more than 30,000 war protesters. Instead, he was protesting the art world. Even as an undergraduate at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, he was restless. His paintings had stood out as stylistically distinctive. Now he was anxious to make an impact — not only by developing a unique style of painting but by promoting an entirely new philosophical approach to teaching art. He became certain that both would only find maturity in a climate insulated from the successive waves of isms in the art world that were sweeping the country and, he felt, the visual cacophony they were leaving in their wake. First, he successfully convinced the school that he could fulfill the obligations of his Master’s thesis abroad. Having long been inspired by Greek mythology, Henry Miller’s travelogue, The Colossus of Maroussi, and the sensuous 19th century Romanticism reflected in the poetry of e.e. cummings’ Xaipe, he was determined to discover an idyllic environment in the Cyclades islands group of the Aegean Sea. Located south of Athens, its 220 islands encompass an area roughly 120 miles in diameter. His dream was abetted by his girlfriend, Nina Landau, a freshman at Tyler. She at first dreamed of living in Spain, inspired in part by classic Hollywood movies about a culture in which the romantically suggestive flamenco dance played an alluring role. Brett’s intuitions about the Aegean soon convinced her of the Cyclades. They quickly married and hopped a Yugoslav freighter to Naples, Italy.

After exploring the many islands of the Aegean via ferries, by March 1966 they settled on the unspoiled island of Paros, at the center of the Cyclades. There were no telephones, no television, and no U.S. radio or newspapers. It was as good as undiscovered. That also made Paros largely insulated from contemporary art movements. For Brett, just about to turn 23, it was the perfect place to officially open the first art school in the Aegean — still active today. In June of 1966, the first group of students entered the Aegean School of Fine Art. Everyone who knew Brett — classmates, colleagues, faculty, and students — consistently cited his charisma as the powerful catalyst that created a vibrant cross-disciplinary approach to teaching studio art. He also had undeniable movie-star looks, with piercing blue eyes and wavey brown hair. His notoriety as an out-of-the box teacher would continue to attract more international students.

The tragic ending to this story is that Taylor regularly predicted with accuracy his dénouement — that he would not reach forty. He left behind a uniquely exhilarating body of work, legions of students, and the distinction of being the only American expatriate artist to have lived permanently in the Aegean.

An Artist is Born
Just a few months before Henry White Taylor died, he held Brett.

Just how unique is an artist’s vision? One can often turn to childhood to discover those series of catalysts that generated inspiration, reinforced intuition, and nurtured the development of a most uncommon approach to expression. Brett was only seven months old when his father suddenly died. Henry White Taylor was a noted portraitist and illustrator in Philadelphia who, from 1938-on was better known as the Director of the Clearwater Art Museum & School and the leading proponent dedicated to bringing fine art to Florida.1 After his death, Brett’s mother, Dorothy Mitchell Taylor (called “Mykia”), bravely picked up the gauntlet and raised her son with consistent encouragement of his abilities in art, music, writing, and the natural sciences — all passions that had been shared by Henry. At four, Brett was practicing the piano by ear. At five he started an annual tradition of drawing Christmas cards. He easily attracted friends, being one of those natural leaders, boldly creative and uninhibited. For example, in 1952 his fifth-grade teacher assigned her students the task of writing brief autobiographies. Most nine-year-olds would recount their recent pasts. Brett instead looked to the future and posed a question in his title, “The ? is Born.” His first sentence stoutly announced: “I walked in at Clearwater, Florida, on March the second, 1943.”

A few years earlier, Henry painted a portrait of his wife, Mykia.
One of Henry Taylor’s illustrations for the F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company, ca. 1927.

Every summer, Brett spent a month in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, where he became even more immersed in two activities that would continue to play important roles in his life as a mature artist: sailing and birding. His declaration, at age eleven, that he would become a naturalist did not surprise his mother. Certainly, Brett had also seen the numerous newsletters from the 1920s featuring his father’s early illustrations of natural plantings of trees, shrubs, and flowers for the F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company — as well as his later illustrations of coastal plants and birds in Florida. As Brett grew older, he also poured through his father’s books, especially inspired by the adventure stories illustrated by one of his father’s good friends, N.C. Wyeth. For a boy who became an avid sailor, Wyeth’s masterful series of illustrations for Treasure Island (1911) brought adventure and drama to life. Brett’s desire to capture drama is seen in his painting from age twelve, of a small sloop riding out a Florida storm. During this time, Brett appeared on the television program “Art is Easy,” hosted by the well-known Philadelphia modernist painter, Raphael Sabatini.2n When he was only nine, Brett was creating wondrous drawings — this one of deep sea creatures announcing a summer workshop at Temple University. At twelve, he captured the drama of a Florida storm (gouache on board, 10 x 30 inches).

Brett was twelve when he taught himself to play the classical guitar — which would become his favorite musical instrument, and one in which he would excel. By fourteen, even more fully immersed in art, he spoke with a reporter about why his art had been receiving accolades. “Guess I inherited my art abilities from my Dad,” he remarked, “and with outstretched arm, he proudly gestured to the beautiful oil paintings on the walls of the Taylor living room.”3 This quote referring to a genetic artistic gift from the father he never knew appears to stand alone because Brett never brought up his name to anyone close to him. While Henry’s artistic career was dominated by commissioned portraits and illustrations, it was likely his freer works hanging in their living room that aroused the boy’s imagination. One of those paintings was Forest Fire (1940), presenting a surreal mystery. A single female nude in the foreground rushes into the ocean as a thin arm of smoke encircles her. Just behind her, two cormorants dive-bomb into an ocean aglow with orange and yellow reflections — colors that are not depicting a beautiful sunset but instead a forest fire raging across the horizon. Little wonder that this painting, both ominous and beautiful, instilled in the child a mystery about the father he never knew. During Brett’s teens, his increasing focus on art was encouraged by his mother, who from 1948-on served as assistant to the Dean of the Tyler School of Art. Mykia was a stern yet devoted mother and became a published poet.4

The Tyler Period

During his Freshman year at the Tyler School of Art in 1960, was painting large abstract canvases (left) as well as a self-portrait, Little Brother is Watching You, 1961, acrylic on canvas, 31 x 26 inches

During his Freshman year at the Tyler School of Art in 1960, Brett was painting large abstract canvases.
A self-portrait, Little Brother is Watching You, 1961 (acrylic on canvas, 31 x 26 inches)

Brett arrived at the Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park in 1960 and lived in an old loft in the nearby town of Olney. It was only a slight improvement over his first studio — the unheated attic of his mother’s house. More important, he was self-assured, adventurous, and on a natural course toward developing a distinctive style. After all, in his childhood he had absorbed all the inspirational clues left behind by his father. Through the many art books in his home, he had become familiar with art history’s path from classical realism to abstraction to the non-objective. He also had ready access to his father’s published works as well as his manuscripts, including typed and written drafts of his lectures on teaching — all carefully preserved by Mykia. In one lecture on modern art, Henry applied his sardonic wit to art critics, saying “With the coming of languages and writing, critics began to describe art and explain it. With the beginning of this practice, artistic appreciation ceased to be a thing of feeling and became a sort of medicine ball of the intellect on which many a fine man’s nose has been skinned.” His observations were inspirational, often revealing his appreciation of art found in nature. “We can draw a great deal of quiet pleasure from an examination of the markings on a butterfly’s wing — while we are very much annoyed by an artist’s abstraction, which may be just as beautiful in essence.” The essence of this quote would often be repeated by Brett. Henry even revealed that his realist friend N.C. Wyeth “has been delving into modern painting. He has produced a number of remarkable canvases which have not yet been shown to the public.”

The Page of Cups at Home (acrylic on canvas, 40.5 x 42 inches) shows that Brett began to develop his distinctive approach to painting during his undergraduate years at Tyler, ca.1962.

In retrospect, when Brett entered Tyler in 1960 the art world was just beginning to erupt into its most tumultuous decade. A zeitgeist of revolution in styles had begun at the end of World War II when the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School wrested from Paris the title of capital of the art world. As a result, the market for contemporary art was steadily heating up during the 1950s. Many trace the origin of this blaze to a seminal article in LIFE magazine in August of 1949 (left). It featured a two-page spread showing the irascible Jackson Pollock in front of one of his big paintings. The headline read: “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” That headline could be interpreted as almost mocking — and it was certainly provocative. In 1961 Norman Rockwell created a satirical cover for The Saturday Evening Post showing a Wall Street type contemplating a Pollock. It was also an implicit acknowledgement that art as investment had risen to a crescendo. As further evidence, David Rockefeller completed amassing the country’s first major corporate art collection in 1962 — and the works were exhibited throughout every office at his new 60-story headquarters on Wall Street for Chase Manhattan Bank. His collection included harbingers of a changing art world, such as paintings by Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. In short, during Brett’s undergraduate years at Tyler he saw the monopoly held by the first generation of AbEx painters dissipating. Soon, a succession of new and disparate movements had seismic consequences. In 1960, a kinetic sculptor — Jean Tinguely [1925–1991] saw his Homage to New York catch fire and wildly self-destruct shortly after its installation at the Museum of Modern Art. Also in 1960, two New York galleries — Judson Gallery and Green Gallery — were the pioneers promoting Pop Art. The exhibition that made the greatest impact for Pop Art came in 1962 when Sidney Janis mounted his groundbreaking International Exhibition of the New Realists. All bets were off. By the time Brett entered the graduate program at Tyler in 1964, prominent galleries were also promoting Minimalism, Op Art, Shaped Canvases, and Hard Edge (the last having emanated from Los Angeles in 1959). Each was an overlapping assault reacting against, or morphing from, the Abstract Expressionist movement. Clement Greenberg, the period’s most influential critic, named the new era one of “Post-Painterly Abstraction.”5 What was a young artist to make of it all?

In painting this view of his apartment near a coal yard, Brett employed brush and ink (ca.1964, 8.5 x 11 inches).

When Brett began to pursue his Master’s degree at Tyler in 1964, the first place he rented was near a coal yard. His friends were amused but undeterred upon discovering that access was only via a long ladder. However, he soon found the ideal studio in an old carriage house on Spring Avenue in Elkins Park with two floors sporting eleven-foot ceilings. In this new environment he became even more resolute in listening only to his inner thoughts and visions. He seemed to ignore the successive waves of stylistic isms that were continuing their sweep across the country. Instead, he was prone to making introspective observations, such as this one about a mouse in his studio: “Somehow, this tiny furball with a wire tail has enormous significance for me. I regard him as a best friend. He is a microcosmos an inch and a half long. Possibly, I see myself in him. He eats all the time, like a painter devouring his environment. He has an ingenuity courageous enough to withstand an unfriendly environment. A painter needs these things in order to survive the first years. The term ‘mousey’ — meaning timid — could not be further from the truth.”


“Morandi dimmed his palette down to dust and ashes, his table-top world aged with him to light. Morandi bit off the last piece of Chardin and chewed it up good for fifty-five years while the rest of us became bored and started shrieking.”
— Brett Taylor, Dec. 1964

Brett found a teaching staff that was reinforcing through regular critiques. Important among them was Roger Anliker [1924–2013] a brilliant painter of natural abstraction. Brett’s strongest proponent was Richard Callner [1927–2007] who before coming to Tyler had, during the late 1950s, become associated with a loose group of artists called the “Chicago Monster School.” The best known among that group was Leon Golub [1922–2004], whose paintings often reflected grotesque figures engaged in violence. However, after Callner arrived at Tyler in 1964 he developed an entirely new style and adopted a brighter pallet. Equally important to his new approach to image-making was the creation of his own mythological figure, Lilith. He described her as “an amazing creature: beautiful, intelligent, strong, and open to change and adventure. She was feminine, independent, and irreverent. She also had the ability to invoke and control evil and was a master of transformation.” This concept of the ideal woman is one that Brett had long held. Moreover, Brett’s innovative approach of merging storytelling, surrealism, and figurative abstraction had already matured significantly during his undergraduate years before Callner’s arrival. Brett was aware that he had crossed a significant line. “I returned to the studio, and it was like seeing someone else’s place,” he wrote. “It was inconceivable that I could paint the same way again. I was feeling like less aware of the limits, faults, etc., but at the same time, much more secure. There was also a magic — like being in love.” After one session of Callner’s class critiques, Brett’s friend Ned Gibby recalled overhearing Callner describe Brett’s work to another professor as “astounding” — likely because Callner recognized Brett’s transformation into a mythmaker was in parallel with his own. Brett became close to Callner and served as his assistant instructor. Their relationship thus became one of mutually reinforcing artists, each in the process of transforming into a mythmaker and storyteller.6

Brett’s story-telling themes feature actors creating their own mythology within a multi-dimensional fracturing of land, sea, and sky spaces. The result is a sense of motion, as if we are looking at stills from a movie…or even sequential cartoon panels. Indeed, Brett’s visual vocabulary was inspired by cartoons, and at Tyler he created several flip books and even an animation film. He loved the “Archy and Mehitabel” pair drawn by George Herriman as well as the cartoonist’s now-iconic “Krazy Kat.” Among the many artists who admired Herriman’s playfully surreal cat were Willem deKooning, Philip Guston, Phillip Morsberger, and Robert Crumb — the latter being one of Brett’s peers from Philadelphia. A few years after Brett had settled on Paros, it was Crumb who led the way in the surge of the underground comix movement, which represented the forefront of youth counterculture in America. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was first published in 1968 by Zap Comix, and in some ways this lead character could serve as a parody of Brett as “Mr. Natural.” After all, Brett had renounced the material world, exuded a guru-like attraction, and always seemed to be surrounded by disciples. Brett continued to infuse a wry and sometimes whimsical sense of humor in his compositions, drawn from his observations of everyday life. He had also absorbed the works of two Dutch masters of the early 16th century who he considered to be fellow cartoonists. In Pieter Brueghel [c.1525–1516] he saw a cartoonist of society spinning tales of debauchery, sex, and death — and he reveled in the unrelenting nightmarish surrealism of Hieronymus Bosch [c.1450–1516]. This sensibility of parody as homage enlivened Brett’s own unique approach to image-making through storytelling — in concert with an ability to find his own foibles as amusing as he did those of others.

Two artists who remained Brett’s closest friends were Ned Gibby, a sculptor whose roommate, Frederic Remington, was a painter (with no relation to the famous Western illustrator). Ned invited Brett to accompany him on his scavenging forays at a local junkyard. On one trip, Brett found a bakery’s three discarded shelves of pie pans and asked Ned to weld them together. Brett then painted them with a story. His male protagonist in The Chase (left — 1964, acrylic on welded pie pans) first appears in the second plate down in the stack of four plates on the right side — playfully characterized in this and all future figures as “paddle heads” or “paddle people.” The male’s footprints leave this plate and cross over into the central column of pie pans where the object of his chase is discovered — a woman. the The Dadaist Jean Arp [1886–1966] also created playful curvilinear figures that recall Brett’s “paddle people” — such as his Demeter (right — 1960, marble, 25.79 inches).

In developing his signature approach to the figure, Brett had reflected upon Picasso’s figures early 1930s, taken cues from Jean Arp, and felt released by the freshness and authenticity of Art Brut, CoBrA, Art Informel — all Post War movements in Europe. All twelve plates have a unified earthy color scheme, but it is the central column of pans in the process of tumbling that initiates a movement that is reinforced throughout. Other enigmatic elements in this escapade include what appear to be beaches, canals, a boat, and a truck. In short, The Chase, is a story painted on pie plates that invites viewers to jump in as if they were enjoying the sequential panels of a cartoon.

The Allure of the Cyclades

By the Fall of 1964 Brett had become certain that the development of his own unique style could only find maturity in a climate insulated from the cacophony of styles reverberating in America. His critical assessment of an exhibition of contemporary painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art emphasized his conviction. “I suppose that I am of the generation that gropes. Those that don’t are grounded in convictions so firm and narrow that they strangle. Now seems to be an era of suffocating inhibition emotionally, that is, of virtuosity without content.” That Greece beckoned can be seen in his many drawings inspired by Greek and Roman mythology. Among them were a series dedicated to Janus, the god of beginnings, transitions, and dualities. Other classical figures ranged from Poseidon to female figures carved on the Medici tomb. Like many artists who never visited Greece, Picasso was nonetheless inspired by its ancient culture and myths, repeatedly tapping these themes. He was especially inspired by the simple geometric shapes and chalky painted figures inherent to ancient Cycladic sculpture. By the mid 1920s he was connecting with André Breton and the surrealist manifesto.

Brett was unapologetic that Picasso was his early idol, but also noted that “Picasso is forever a great artist but not always a maker of great art.” Even though Picasso never visited the Cyclades, he had drawn inspiration from ancient Minoan cultures, such his play on the myth of the Minotaur, begun in the 1930s. His subsequent series of prints and drawings depict a sexually aggressive minotaur approaching a female nude. While Brett was intrigued by Picasso’s compositional structure, his narrative in a Brett series of drawings called Nude Having Visions from 1964 is quite different (upper left: brush & ink on paper). He instead eliminated the minotaur that was Picasso’s dominant male ego with a curious cow, wolf, and lion hovering over her as she dreams under the full moon. Later, on Paros, Brett’s A Bull for Pablo (right: ca.1970, ceramic, plaster, and weathered bone, 13.5 x 17 inches) pays homage to Picasso’s classic Bull’s Head simply made of a found bicycle’s seat and handlebars in 1942.

Late in 1964, Brett took the next step toward fulfilling his dream of founding an art school offering an educational mission unlike any other. He approached the Cheltenham Art Center in nearby Elkins Park. He had spent much of his youth growing up in this suburb, and as a boy had won many art awards there. Now, he was also teaching there. Full of confidence, he delivered a bold proposal he had concocted for founding an art school in the Cyclades at little expense. Cheltenham had become known for its annual salon held in Philadelphia, which attracted major critics as jurors, including Cement Greenberg. The board became convinced that his audacious venture could further enhance their stature. As the couple were making plans in earnest, the reality of Brett’s commitments sank in. In February 1965, just a month before departing for Greece, Brett expressed his anxiety, particularly over being on the threshold of major breakthroughs.

“I am floating but with a heavy weight on my chest. Each time I make a step or rather go through a change it comes mysteriously. I wake up one morning all heart-achy and bewildered. Something very upsetting is happening, but I don’t know what. It lasts for a while, then leaves, and in some way I am different. This is the biggest and the most painful yet. Everything is different. It hurts. My painting changes radically overnight. The new work is good! But I feel different — a totally new feeling. Every brushstroke, no matter how happy the result, makes me heavy and a little sick. The new paintings are very gay but they make me hurt more — as if they were so real to me as to be unbearable. I am in a daze — out of touch with myself. Mentally, I can’t help referring to myself as “It.” “It” is walking. “It” is sad. Whatever “It” proposes to do with itself! I don’t know — I’ve lost my grip. If I was sane before, I’m mad now. I sat on the couch looking at this strange new thing that “It” painted, and I sputtered and choked at it — a tearless laugh-sob.”Early in 1965, during his final months at Tyler, Brett deeply contemplated both his looming mission and the landscape of the Cyclades islands. He presents himself in The Path of His Heart, by Moonlight (above left: acrylic on canvas, 29.5 x 40 inches) as a figure resting on the shore under moonlight, looking across to mountainous islands. A dark line follows a circuitous path from his heart to a hovering owl, which would become the logo for his art school. This recurrent image in many paintings also represented his guardian angel.

Also weighing heavily in the couple’s timing were their generation’s increasing public outbursts against the newly erupted war against North Vietnam. The first combat forces were just landing on the beaches of Da Nang, and the Air Force’s bombings had just begun and would last for years. President Lyndon B. Johnson quickly increased the number of troops in South Vietnam from 75,000 to 125,000. By the end the year, there were 2,000 casualties, rising to 58,000 by the time it was over. The couple’s departure in March of 1965 coincided with Martin Luther King’s transformational Civil Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Brett could have been seen as joining the more than 30,000 war protesters who left the country, but he was exempt from the draft because he remained a graduate student, still in the process of satisfying the requirements of his Master’s degree.

In retrospect, ever since the late nineteenth century, thousands of young American artists felt obliged to make the pilgrimage to study at the art academies in London, Munich, and Paris. Missing from that equation was Greece, despite the pervasive influence that ancient Hellenic culture had continued to exert on Western art. Americans making the requisite rite of passage through the various écoles in Paris were legion. Many stayed for a year or two, but very few settled permanently. The most famous who became expatriates were Whistler in London, Cassatt in Paris, and John Singer Sargent in both art capitals. Historically, the beautiful Grecian archipelago that is the Cyclades was visited by many American artists, but no American artist had ever decided to live there for good. That changed when Brett Taylor discovered Paros. He stands alone as the only painter in American history to settle in the Cyclades for the rest of his life.

After marrying in March 1965, Brett and Nina promptly hopped on a Yugoslav freighter bound for Naples, Italy. From there, they took ferries servicing the many islands of the Aegean. Toward the end of the year, after about nine months of exploration, the couple continued south to Crete. They were drawn to this largest island in the Aegean owing to its role as the ancient center of the extraordinarily complex Minoan urban civilization. Early in 1966, at the same time Brett was spending a few months on the northern coastal town of Agios Nicholas, the Tyler School of Art was hosting a solo exhibition of his paintings in partial fulfilment of his MFA degree. The final requirement was that he establish the art school he had promised to everyone in Philadelphia. It proved no easy task. Two of the primary reasons artists had instead always chosen the art capitals of Europe is because the Greek language is far more difficult to learn than the romance languages. Plus, no market existed for their works in Greece, and certainly not in the Cyclades. Brett was undaunted by these obstacles. His decision to settle on Paros was more than just an escape plan triggered by the political and social anxieties of the 1960s. The spirit of adventure was clearly an essential part of his personality. Moreover, his twin goals were to fully develop the expression of his own unique vision in painting as well as implement a new philosophy in teaching that would encourage students to visualize out of the box. Could any environment have been more conducive for accomplishing these goals than the isolation afforded by an island?

The only other American painter who was active in the Aegean during this period was Jack Whitten [1939–2018]. Although based in New York, he and his Greek American wife, Mary Staikos, visited Crete in the summer of 1969, three years after Brett and Nina had explored the island. The Whittens had discovered the coastal town of Agia Galini and would return frequently over the years. Had Brett settled there, too, they certainly would have met and shared their common interests in Greek philosophy, sculpture, and myths. Whitten’s description of his first ferry ride to Crete could have been words out of Brett’s mouth. “My first time in blue water with no horizon,” Whitten recalled. “I realized that I was in the center of a circle…a vast, unbelievable void of a circle. It was exhilarating! …It is something about the sight of the sea that automatically gives a sense of joy…hope and adventure…Greece had restored my sanity and I was ready for a new chapter in my life.”7

Fractured Horizonz with Melting Clouds, 1971, acrylic on canvas, 34.5 x 53.5 inches
“Please understand that I could murder myself trying to make art.”
— Brett Taylor, 1969

By February 1966, when Brett was in Crete, his exploration the Cyclades had also proved a vital catalyst in the maturation of his vision and unique approach to painting. Indeed, the island had inspired a new and playful approach to surrealism, and he was beginning to fracture the space within Picasso’s cubism. The perception of near and far in the landscape became interchangeable. Plus, when he stood on any of the islands’ higher elevations he felt, like Whitten, that the horizon was encircling him. It was as if he were at the center of a cathedral’s dome, looking upward at the famous vaulted ceilings of chapels in Florence, Sienna, or the Vatican. At the same time, he had more of an awareness that being on an island also put him on a map at the center of the Aegean — which later resulted in his incorporating Mercator’s projections of space into his paintings. While on Crete, in his journal he confessed, “While waking up I was overcome by a feeling of lack in my painting of something I can only call truth. Is that negative? Better, I felt, to do more everyday and simple things that hit me.” That truth would more fully reveal itself shortly after Brett and Nina arrived on Paros.

A red and white a caïque (a traditional wood fishing boat of the Aegean) is docked in front Paroikia’s iconic windmill and a café. (photo courtesy Wynn Parks, ca.1975)

In March 1966, the harbor at the capital of Paros — Paroikia — sported a dock for small ferries but it would be decades before an airport would be constructed. There were perhaps a dozen foreigners living on this little-known island among its population of less than two thousand, and the people stood out as the friendliest of any island they had explored. Bicycles were the mode of transportation because there were only two cars on the island. Anything heavy required donkeys pulling carts.

Nina with the Wind in Her Hair, 1966, acrylic on canvas, 18 x 12 inches

Brett the perfect building in Paroikia for the school he named the Aegean School of Fine Arts. The lease was inexpensive, fulfilling his promise of a low budget operation that could be self-sustaining. Even the five-room Cycladic farmhouse that he called home was leased to him for only $11.50 a month. Located just outside the town, the stone farmhouse had been built in the late 1890s on the site of a 5th century BCE sculpture studio that eventually yielded to an ancient threshing circle called an alóni. Fragments of discarded Parian marble sculptures often turned up in the threshing circle after a heavy rain. Like most homes, Brett’s had thick white-washed stone walls but no fireplace. There was no running water, but about thirty feet behind the house one fetched water by lowering a bucket on a rope into the well. But it was hard water. “When Greeks talk about water you realize how precious it is,” Brett wrote in his journal. “It is served in decanters like wine. They will walk miles to a good spring and discuss the quality as the French will of wine.” Clothes were washed near the well with five buckets of water poured into a stone sarcophagus carved by ancient Greeks. Their “toilet” was also located en plein air, with no curtain. It was simply a group of flat rocks piled as a seat around a deep hole into which its users would occasionally shovel some lime. Indoors, the kitchen sink was a single large stone carved as a bowl with a drain that simply emptied outside. The farmhouse had stables attached to two of its sides for cows, goats, and donkeys. Brett purchased one of the donkeys and named him after Picasso’s chauffeur, Marcel Boudin. Marcel’s job was to carry groceries home as well as transport the students’ luggage from the ferry to their housing. He might even deliver a bushel of grapes to be dumped in vats during the grape-stomping season. In short, what many would today see as inconveniences were then disregarded by the artist owing to his immersion in the island’s idyllic environment. Tucked beneath rugged slopes are coves of white sand beaches, reminders that the island’s ancient quarries had been prized by sculptors for the purity and translucence of their white Parian marble — including the Venus de Milo of ca.100 BCE and Nike of Samothrace (Winged Victory) of ca.190 BCE.

Figure & Pond, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 39 x 39.5

Three months after establishing the school, Brett would welcome his first class. But before then, he would mingle with the Parians, begin to learn a difficult new language, and immerse himself in their culture. The only American expats he met on the island were a couple — Liz and Jeffrey Carson. Liz arrived thinking she would become an archeologist, but the island’s beauty and culture lured her to become a photographer. She remembered that “It was like living one-hundred years in the past.” Jeffrey was a writer who Brett would later recruit to teach at the school. “Paros was primitive when Brett and Nina arrived on Paros in the spring of 1966, and there were very few foreigners here,” he recalled. “One had to learn Greek; Brett did and was soon fluent.”8 Brett would also discover that paying attention to the little details of daily actions — those “every day and simple things” — would open his visual awareness. Fishermen mending their nets, gatherings at the harborside tavernas, catching octopuses, shopping at the marketplaces in town, watching the ferries arrive and depart — these were just a few of his meditations on common day-to-day events that captured his imagination. He was freighted with commonplace concerns over the beauty inherent in the simplest of acts, such as tying his shoes.

Brett proclaimed that it was “The uniqueness — not the style — but the differentness with which an individual performs a mundane activity like lighting a stove or tying a shoe that is the foundation of his art.” Included among those mundane activities was the cleaning of a fish — expressed in his poetry:

After the metallic noise
of the knife on the little round windows
I feel
with two fingers
the silk of its naked skin
with its sweet-smelling slime

The gut slot
with its smoothness
reminds me
of something
very precious to me

Brett’s observations would become translated into conversations on canvas as a form of storytelling brought to life through an assured rhythmic balance of color and shapes. The intimacy in his new approach to painting is disarming. Increasingly, he became confident that he had synthesized a new form of narrative abstraction with surrealist enchantment. In the first of his journal entries on Paros he wrote, “A painter is concerned with magic-religion. We make miracles or lies. We have license to kill. What a load to walk around with, eh? Surrealism is synthesis — synthesis that doesn’t destroy the identity of that which is combined — style, inner & outer mind, heart, time, dimension. Does that need explanation? Picasso was acknowledged as the great surrealist — all the historians forget that.” At the same time, Brett’s role as the leader of an important educational mission weighed heavily upon him. In a journal entry, he described experiencing a compelling hypnagogic vision while awake that, as he fell asleep, transitioned into a lucid dream. He saw himself as a Christ-like leader with a huge responsibility to his followers:

St. Icon the Incandescent, ca.1969, acrylic on paper, 30.5 x 22 inchesI am not really asleep, so it is more like a vision.

I am not really asleep, so it is more like a vision.Approaching a Byzantine church.
A great chill runs through my body as I realize that I have some special mission.
“Get your instructions from the fool!” Blakos, a certain Greek priest is indicted by this, for some reason in disgrace. [“Blakos” was slang for a fool or bumpkin]
Another chill. I find a door with the word written on it, and inside, see the priest.
Another chill as I realize he has a great spiritual power. He instructs me to go through the next chamber where I will find Christ himself.
Chill. I find him. A short, broad-faced man in robes and chained at the wrists (resembles Rembrandt’s little heads of Christ). There is nothing supernatural about him, yet I’m taken over by a realization that it is Him and that I am to be a disciple or something of the sort — and a force of some kind pushes me to my knees. He gives me my orders and with each one I get a chill.
I’m not sure how accurately I’m seeing it all, not being asleep, so I replay the whole passage in my mind and know that whenever there’s a chill, it’s accurate — and when I don’t I know my mind has made it up.
There is never any indication that he is the Son of God, that there even is anything religious involved, or that he is to “save” anyone. I help him escape, and he endows me with healing powers and a “presence” that causes people to follow me. We go on a long journey with throngs of people following, and I can’t distinguish between him and myself. In fact, this happens the moment I fall asleep for real. We’re riding on a train and recruit the fishermen disciples from the window — a funny scene. We heal but sometimes in a modern way — like we open a fancy eye hospital in Paris for “Morning Retina Displacement and Other Phenomenon of the Eye.” Within there’s a huge theatre, and we see a film. We wander on and have many adventures. Later, I am alone healing and preaching. A magical fluid seeps from the backs of my hands and dozens of hornets get stuck in it but can’t sting me. I feel burdened by my role and duties.

In 1972, Brett described The Cow’s Operation: “Operation on a standing cow performed under local anesthesia in a stable. With the use of a metal detector, a Greek island veterinarian found that the cow had a small piece of wire embedded in her stomach. An area behind the last rib was shaved and sterilized and thick needle heads were slapped into the tough cowhide. The syringe was attached to these later for anesthesia. The incision (about 11 inches) was made, and a portion of the intestine was pulled out and handled with tongs which the artist held. The doctor removed the contents of this length of intestine by hand and finally extracted the wire, reaching in up to his shoulder, sewed up the layers, and injected antibiotics.”
Founding a Unique Art School
The inaugural catalogue for the Aegean School of Fine Art, 1966

Brett had just turned 23 when he officially opened the Aegean School of Fine Art (ASFA) in June of 1966. He addressed only nine students at his home as they sat on large stones that formed the ancient threshing circle. All quickly grasped that the school would reflect its leader’s charismatic personality. Indeed, the headline in the first catalogue introduced his philosophy — “Meeting life on different terms” — which would be reflected in every aspect of his mission. The unspoiled island was part of the magic. No one grumbled when they learned that for $40 a week they would be housed in country farmhouses that lacked electricity and running water. Andy Whipple, one of the school’s photography teachers, noted that part of the special reality of Paros meant “No telephones, no television, no U.S. radio or newspaper, and essentially no automobiles. There is plenty of free time but none of the ‘distractions’ to which Americans are so accustomed.”9 There was no sense of the “hippy anarchism” that was at play during the 1960s. Rather, Brett’s courses of instruction were both organized and personalized. All benefited from regular Monday morning critiques when remarks flowed between teachers and students. Here was a natural storyteller who could hold an audience. His course on “Sailing Therapy” likely surprised the students who joined him aboard his seventeen-foot sloop, the Corrine, cruising around Paros and its nearby islands. All would soon learn how sailing had inspired his art since childhood. Others enjoyed his unpredictable yet inspirational talks on “The Art of Jazz” — which he called “a great cultural phenomenon and the only American original art form.” Other unexpected talks included “How to Clean and Cook a Fish” — a skill deemed essential for island living. He also fostered in his students a sense of belonging to the community. All helped farmers with tasks ranging from fieldwork to stomping grapes. The artist who the islanders fondly called “Bretti” made sure that his students not only attended the town’s celebrations but created extensive decorations for its festivals, including its many “Name Days” of saints and martyrs and its important holidays such as Greek Independence Day, Greek Easter, and the August 15th Festival of the Virgin Mary. Through this process of acculturation, the students saw themselves in a different light — which influenced their approach to art. “Experienced art students are encouraged to paint as if they were beginners,” he wrote, “Attempting this, they discover how affected, mannered, and stylish their work has been, and they can begin to repair the damage that art school has done them. These students find themselves in a process of unlearning, and a number of them break though to a fresh and original means of expression.”

The Table Set Before Them, ca.1970, brush and ink on paper, 14 x 17 inches

Being on a relatively remote island, one of the problems Brett had to solve for his students and himself was art supplies. Even though acrylic paint had become increasingly adopted in America since the mid 1950s, it remained unavailable in Greece. Consequently, Brett made paint just as he had at Tyler, in the centuries-old process before the advent of collapsible tubes in the mid-nineteenth century — by mixing dry pigments with a base. That base was now a polymer, which he received from the Philadelphia chemical company, Rohm and Haas. Their chemists had famously invented acrylic plastic and soon thereafter invented acrylic paint.10 Brett convinced them to support his little school on Paros by shipping a large drum of the acrylic base every year. He purchased large bags of dry color pigments in Athens, making the 176-mile round trip via ferry every few years. Brett began mixing dry pigments pigments with the glue-like base when he was at Tyler. The process fit his philosophy of the archetypal artist. Wynn Parks recalled, “Brett often expounded on how basic art was — how primitive man mixed up his own earth colors with animal grease or whatever he wanted. Brett was getting back to those primitive roots.” Students purchased their canvas at the hardware store in Paroikia and, like Brett, tacked them to the walls. When they completed their term, many canvases were often found left behind. That’s when the local farmers always showed up because they knew their friend Bretti would give them the abandoned canvases, which were coveted as waterproof saddle blankets for their donkeys.

Breakdowns and Liftoffs

When summer ended, so did classes. The next group would not arrive until the next summer, allowing Brett to focus exclusively on his painting for the next nine months. He was a romantic visionary, always introspective, allowing his self to melt into his work.

“Emancipated by all the externals that crippled me. I am here reborn, free as a young man can be, to grapple with myself in peace. Pretensions are at a minimum since there is no one to pretend to and, in this situation, nothing to pretend.
Still the same purpose: to make joyful paintings. Not an escape, but as celebration of head-on confrontation with everything — everything no matter how horrible it might assert itself. I’m trying this on myself today: Nothing to finish before I die…I don’t ask my paintings to say anything. They just do it. I don’t ask myself to paint. I just do it…Maybe you are going to see this man flattened and exiled by his own intuitions and then return to rise high on them. Maybe the reverse. A quote from months ago that still smells good: ‘If I survive, I will paint — that’s my job — hired by my own nerve.’”

A necklace created by Brett for Nina — here worn by her at the opening of the solo exhibition at Hollis Taggart in 2023.

At the same time, Brett was haunted by a darker side. His wife Nina recalled that “Brett was a dichotomy — aloof but intimate. He was always positive that he would die at forty. Perhaps he was thinking of his own childhood without a father who had died at forty.” Another troublesome issue that Brett had made clear to Nina, despite her wishes, was that he had no interest in having children. During their first two years on Paros, Brett kept an occasional diary in a sketchbook, and an entry in 1966 seemed to justify his self-awareness: “How small a man is when he can’t contain contradictions. To believe in two opposite things at the same time does not cancel or dilute just because we don’t have a word, a logic, for it. If a man can’t contain two contradictions at once he is only half what he can be.” Those contradictions proved too much for Nina, and the couple separated in 1968, divorcing the next year. His diary-like entries end with a poem:

Moon — Alone, too,
a distant ally, ignites the fields cold and hard;
throbbing but frozen.
Having pulled the day inside-out with its dumb arc,
in huge silence electrifies your indifference to my love.

One of Brett’s early students was Dolores Poulis (né Krok) who returned to work as Brett’s office assistant and established a home in Paroikia where she lives today. “Brett’s thinking was that no American student would ever come to a Greek island to study art at any other time of the year, other than summer. Remember, this was long before taking a gap year abroad became popular.” By 1968, ASFA was at full capacity with 34 students. American universities began to grant credit for their coursework. News of Brett’s charisma — and his promise that students would “begin to repair the damage that art school has done them” — saw the school’s reputation spreading quickly among colleges. That year, by chance he ran into Stephanie Nathan, an American who had been living in Paris and was simply visiting Paros. He convinced her to stay. During the next four years of living together, she helped manage the school and taught creative writing, improvisational theater, and Shakespeare. She also reinforced his long-held conviction that the school become cross-disciplinary.

An autograph musical score by Brett

Left: An autograph musical score by Brett. Right: Bobby Stallman, floutist, practicing with another member of the Paros Chamber Ensemble

Members of the Paros Chamber Ensemble practicing — floutist Bobby Stallman with Richard Sher on bass.

Brett was a self-taught pianist and accomplished classical guitarist, so it came as no surprise that his next addition to the school would be a music program. He reached out to two young American musicians who had been studying music in France. Robert “Bobby” Stallman (a classical flutist) and Herman Weiss (a pianist) had graduated together from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. In August of 1969, Weiss, who had just completed a Fulbright Scholarship in Paris, received a postcard from Paros from his friend Stallman who had been in Nice and had moved on to explore Greece. After meeting Brett, and having been inspired by his mission, he urged Weiss to join them. Weiss recalled meeting Brett just as he had completed a large canvas, Moonwalk, his rendition of the historic lunar landing. “His paintings always had the implications of three-dimensionality,” noted Weiss. “He understood how to make his subject come off the canvas.” Both musicians were so impressed by Brett’s commitment to bring music to the school that upon their departure for Boston they promised to strategize on how to assemble an orchestra. Finally, Weiss recalled a fortunate moment in a Boston restaurant in 1971: “Bobby and I had long been discussing the difficulties of convincing a group of musicians to return to Paros with us when, suddenly, all the musicians we needed just walked into the restaurant together — two flutes, a piano, violin, cello, harpsichord, and bassoon.” In May, the whole group found themselves in Athens where Weiss had just purchased a Viennese grand piano. The group loaded it on a fruit truck and boarded the ferry for Paros. Fortunately, the boat dock in Paroikia had been enlarged a year earlier to accommodate trucks. With Weiss directing, the orchestra trained for six weeks — and he insisted they perform by memory. The first concert of “The Paros Chamber Ensemble Music Festival” took place on July 21, 1971, and during the next six years they added concert venues in Delphi, Thessalonica, Peloponnese, Mt. Olympus, and the US Embassy in Athens. Brett soon encouraged Weiss to compose an original piece. “Our music on Paros was the defining moment in my life as a musician,” recalled Weiss. “And every one of those musicians will agree — because we had the freedom to write and perform whatever we wanted.”11 The next year, they added a saxophonist and two violinists. Word spread quickly and most of the concert goers traveled from Germany, Italy, France, and Great Britain. The directors of the Cheltenham Art Centre, however, firmly disagreed with Brett’s initiatives in expanding the curriculum into areas other than the fine arts. They threatened to withdraw their support. Undaunted, Brett remained steadfastly independent. In 1972, he picked up the gauntlet and boldly split from Cheltenham to incorporate the school as an American educational institution operating spring, summer, and fall semesters.

A ferry maneuvering in the harbor of Paroikia, the capitol of Paros. The waterfront is called Limanaki (“Little Port”) (photo 1975, courtesy Wynn Parks.)

In May, Brett met the Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic — Melville Bell Grosvenor — who had docked his sailboat in Paroikia. Grosvenor, the grandson of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, was on a two-month exploration of the Aegean islands, and his account would be published in the magazine later that summer:

From a swing around the island, I returned at dusk to the port town of Paros. Music of Mozart, played by a chamber ensemble, rose from a crowd gathered before a taverna.That was unusual. Generally, the Greek islander likes the waling minor-key music that Westerners associate with Eastern lands. But here were the people of Paros obviously enjoying the music with which they had had little experience. ‘I can explain,’ offered a man standing beside me in the crowd. He was Brett Taylor, formerly a teacher at Temple University, who now directs his own Aegean School of Fine Art on Paros. ‘Greeks are naturally musical and instinctively like any kind of good music. The ensemble, professionals in residence at the school, started giving café concerts as an experiment and discovered one of the most appreciative audiences they have ever had.’”12

Hanging above Brett’s studio door was Great Circle, 1971, acrylic on plaster, 14 x 28 inches
Brett painting in his studio. Note Great Circle hanging above his door.

Everyone who knew Brett — classmates, colleagues, faculty, and students — consistently cited his charisma as a powerful draw to his mission of creating a new cross-disciplinary approach to art education. In 1972, one of those students was Gail Wetzel, who had already established a career as an occupational physiotherapist at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. She learned about ASFA from the hospital’s speech therapist who had been taking lessons in classical guitar from a man who had also taught Brett. Her teacher confessed that although she had learned the technique, she still had not yet grasped how to put emotion in the music — and he advised her to go to Paros to study with Brett. She didn’t want to go to Greece alone, so she urged Gail to accompany her, assuring her that studying art at ASFA would be a uniquely valuable experience. Fortunately, Gail had a fiancé who empathized with her decision to go abroad. However, what began as a six-week test wound being extended for a whole year. “I was enchanted by the island,” Gail recalled. “I got hooked on the canvas. As time went on, I also got hooked on Brett.” Despite having been smitten, she returned to the U.S. after a year on Paros — only to receive letters from Brett pleading with her to return. She agreed. Plus, she learned that shortly after she had departed, Stephanie had broken up with Brett. Gail returned to Paros, evidence of Brett’s habitually serendipitous luck being in play. He had secured in Gail a natural administrator and ardent promoter of the school. More important, he also found in her the final, and longest, love of his tragically short life. The islanders were happy, too, because they realized that Gail was not only a rare and indispensable occupational physiotherapist but one who they could pay in wine and wheels of cheese.

Brett Taylor and Gail Wetzel (far left) with teachers and students outside the original ASFA building in Paroikia

With Gail coordinating Brett’s concepts for expanding the school and adding semesters, enrollment soon hit a high of 53 students. They enjoyed visiting the nearby island of Naxos to visit the quarry where many ancient kouros figures were carved. There they also attended lectures given by visiting professors. One popular lecturer was Ralph Bates, a very successful British novelist who during the late 1930s was a propagandist for Spanish government forces during its Civil War. Carson recalled that Bates “was the only professor who never went to college” — which may also explain why he so easily became part of the ASFA family. Students gathered at his home near the harbor where he gave evening seminars in creative writing.13 Brett taught the life drawing classes in his own home studio, just a five-minute walk from the school building in Paroikia. He was worried that if these classes were held in the school’s studio, curious locals might wander into the class — thereby compromising the life models, who were always Parians. Brett’s next expansion for the school came in 1975 with the Aegean School of Cultural Anthropology on Naxos, directed by the University of Florida. Brett’s immersion in archaeology was in part owing to the extensive and ongoing excavations in the island’s northwest town of Naoussa. Their discovery of early Cycladic art and artifacts revealed that a significant Mycenaean community had flourished there as early as 2500–2200 BCE.14

Left to right: Brett joking with Gail and the school’s printmaking instructor, Lucy Willis, in 1977

Beginning in 1977, students could also attend a printmaking workshop on the nearby island of Syros under the English painter-printmaker Lucy Willis. They also attended poetry seminars presented by her husband, the writer Tony Anderson. Willis’s original idea was to advertise her printmaking courses in England “but before we got started on that we heard about the Aegean School from someone. I wrote a letter to Brett on Paros explaining I had a print workshop and would he and his students like to make use of it. The reply was immediate, positive, and he and Gail Wetzel came over to see us on the next available boat.” For the next two years Willis’s workshop became ASFA’s printmaking annex for which Brett’s students could receive college credit. “Brett was an inspirational polymath with huge talent and energy in the 1970s,” said Willis. “His paintings were everywhere and, to me as a young developing artist, a breath of fresh air — all about the sea, color, bright light, and wind — raw pieces of canvas hanging unstretched on the wall. There were many artists and writers who were attracted to the sunshine, the lifestyle, and the cheap wine of Greece. But we came across few, apart from Brett, who achieved anything of note.”15

Steinkautz, one of Brett’s owls, habitually sat on his shoulder. Behind them is one of the large welcome banners Brett painted to celebrate Gail’s return to Paros in 1973.
Beginning in 1980, the covers for ASFA’s annual course catalogues featured a new logo — one of Brett’s little owls — revered in Greek mythology as a symbol of Athena’s wisdom.

The fine arts courses included painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. Brett deemed it essential that a vibrant curriculum should add music, archaeology, and creative writing to these fundamentals. Every instructor he recruited wholeheartedly believed in his holistic approach to art education as “an environment of free learning.” For example, in the early 1970s he secured Lee Harwood [1939–2015] the English poet of the Beat generation known for his alternative poetry style to be the school’s writer in residence. Harwood likened his poetry style to an artist’s process of creating collage — being scraps of conversation revealing intimate experiences, interjected with open pauses — thereby inviting the reader to fill in the blanks with their own imaginations and emotions. In this respect, Brett and Harwood were kindred spirits as storytellers. To top it off, Brett also made students feel comfortable, adding that “the relationship of the staff to the students is completely informal.” Building upon his ethic of “guided exploration,” in 1980 he added the Aegean School of Classical Studies and Philosophy on Paros and the Peloponese, directed by Humboldt State University. Brett summarized his philosophy and the type of experiences that students should come to expect:

The Aegean School is a group of people involved in educating each other in a conducive setting. It fills the need of many students and artists to get outside their familiar environments in order to see themselves in a new light. Meeting life on different terms is an important form of learning and this usually begins the moment one arrives in Paros or Naxos. It becomes clear that the school is more than classes given in a beautiful place; it is instead something which can occupy all of one’s waking hours. As a result, the student discovers a general learning experience which uses the program as its mode of discipline and definition.

A Little Island Drawing Rare Personalities
Willy Hempel’s Stadt (1965, 16.5 x 31.9, oil on panel) is a geometrically stylized view of a port in the Aegean.

During his first few years on Paros, Brett’s bonding with the locals, assimilation of their lifestyle, and understanding of their culture had made him proficient in reading and fluent conversing in Greek. Together with Gail, many friendships were formed with European artists who were attracted to the little island. There was Willy Hempel [1908–1985], a burly, barrel-chested painter, who proudly showed off his scars from being shot in World War II fighting alongside his Yugoslavian Partisans against the Nazis. Despite strongly disagreeing with Brett’s alternative approach to teaching art, Willy acknowledged Brett’s charisma in creating a cult-like following among his students. Wynn Parks, who taught creative writing at ASFA, recalled visiting Willy on the island of Rhodes on the eastern side of the Aegean off the coast of Turkey. “Willy told me about how one could start an ‘Age of Aquarius’ type cult on Rhodes, or any place for that matter. He joked that we could perpetrate it for a hoot someday. That made me realize that Brett’s work could be presented as the exemplar of an art colony on Paros.”

Brett’s falcon, Rah, sits on his gloved hand. The following is a stanza from Brett’s poem, “Telephoto Orange” (ca.1970):

Last night I trapped five mice
At the end of a very hard week.
All that death, clanging of the little trap.
But I have frozen them
And their sweet kitchen squeaking
And will give them to my crippled falcon
One by one.

Another newly-arrived expat was Gyp Mills [1946–2019], who in 1973 bought a farmhouse on Paros. Mills had been the manager of the musician Donovan [b.1946] — famous for his “Mellow Yellow” song that had rocked the charts in 1967 — and would visit Mills on Paros. Mills had ended his music management career by 1969 and instead pursued sculpture. While in the process of restoring his farmhouse and studio he found a kestrel falcon with an injured wing. He brought the bird to Brett for nursing because the artist’s extensive knowledge about birds was well known on the island, especially after the local newspaper published his illustrated “Field Guide to the Birds of Paros.” Brett adopted the falcon and named it Rah after the falcon-headed god of the sun in Egyptian mythology.16

Also in 1973, a Paros local brought Brett four fledgling owls in a grocery basket, explaining that he had accidently killed their mother when he was fixing a wall of his home. Brett found homes for two of them and kept the other two — naming them Steinkautz and Athena Pallas. Every day he fed them fresh spleen from the butcher, and after a few weeks they got their characteristic brown and beige feathers. They later shared in whatever meat Brett and Gail had for dinner. An injured bittern was soon added as a studio mate, and Lucy Willis noted that “it always stood in the corner with its beak in the air pretending it didn’t exist, as they do in the wild.” Brett brought it fresh fish every morning until its wing healed and then set it free. The menagerie was headed by a beloved dog, Woodyard, named after Sam Woodyard of the Duke Ellington Band, because of the rhythmic beat of his tail. Woodyard was a stray who forced his adoption upon Brett. He had followed him everywhere for three days until the artist finally gave in and fed him. Another stray was a burly black cat he named Strayhorn after a jazz project; and a second cat, Harvey, had such big paws that it was named after the rabbit in the eponymous 1950 movie starring Jimmy Stewart. The group was rounded out with a tortoise named Achilles, a hedgehog named Piglet for its voracious appetite, and a sequence of four injured kestrel falcons.

Brett’s owls, Steinkautz and Athena Pallas, rest on his hands. (Right) One of the owls typically sat upon his shoulder as he painted.

One day, an enterprising British journalist who heard about the two owls came to interview Brett about them. Soon, a humorous story began to develop when the journalist was stunned upon noticing that one of the owls, Athena Pallas, had a blue chest. Brett noticed the writer’s fixed gaze but purposely avoided talking about the mysterious blue-chested owl. That spring, after his two owls had mated, Steinkautz laid her eggs on the canned goods shelf. Athena Pallas brought her food daily. However, after two months the female attacked the male, keeping him away from her unfertilized eggs by repeatedly pecking out the feathers from his chest, all the way up to his head. Brett separated the pair and kept the balding Athena Pallas to his studio. As the owl’s feathers grew back over the months, he also enjoyed taking baths in Brett’s powdered blue pigments. Thus, when the journalist arrived, he could barely hide his enthusiasm. Despite the journalist’s amazement, he took many photographs of the blue-chested owl but never asked Brett any questions. Six months later, Brett and Gail received a letter from a friend in London including an article crafted by the same journalist announcing with great excitement a new species of owl he had discovered on a remote island in the Aegean. “By that time,” Gail explained, “Athena Pallas had realized his modeling career was finished, as he began molting again.”

Maturation of a Sensual Revolutionary
On the Mountain, ca.1973, acrylic on canvas, 53 x 73 inches “It is possible, on Paros, to climb to high points and observe nearly the whole island at one’s feet. The horizon rises with the ascent until it looks like a vast dish. Aided by the encircling horizon, the sky feels so much like a dome that the observer feels more than ever before at the center of all he sees. Brett recreated this experience in a painting called On the Mountain (1970). After wrestling with the problem of expressing this experience on a rectangular surface, he painted the sky both above and below. In between, he created a great vista. He informally construed the whole thing within a kind of Mercator map format. Not only does this painting disorient the viewer with a dizzying experience, it accomplishes other things as well. Despite the fact that the painting represents a landscape, the viewer is offered no place to stand. He feels carelessly tossed into space and left to flit among pictorial elements as a bee flits among flowers. Eventually, a further reading become possible. Once stabilized in the painting’s interior, the viewer can imagine closing the Mercator map around himself to behold the landscape painted on the inner surface of the globe. Brett’s Mercator map is far from perfect. Once inside it, anomalies would prevail. The globe would be puckered and lumpy, suns would shine everywhere.” — Frank Galuszka

“After exposing On the Mountain to a group of students, Brett turned to a male who had his head
between his knees. He asked the student, ‘Are you alright?’ The reply was,
‘That painting makes me dizzy!’ Brett was pleased.” — Gail Wetzel McAdoo

Brett placed Robert Doisneau’s classic photograph — Picasso et les Petits Pains (1952) — on his studio door as a reminder that the master was always challenging him.

Like all educated artists emerging during the early 1960s, Brett was both enlightened and weighted by an acute historical awareness that during the first decade of the century the mettle of Europe’s avant garde was displayed in their seminal forays into abstraction. While aware of his own innovative accomplishments he was also heedful not to be self-complacent in his quest. “The power of the ego is such that even when looking at the sun we are blind to it,” he wrote. “What strength awaits us when all this power is unleashed towards seeing?…On the edge of thinking there is thinking — in thinking there is no thinking. On the edge of work there is work — in work there is no work.” Again referring to his ego as “It,” he wrote, “Only when its name dies and all consciousness of it, only then does it come to life. On the edge of being a man there is the man — when the man vanishes, I will emerge truly a man.” It was with this psyche that Brett appreciated the seismic disruption that was the Analytical Cubism of Picasso and Braque. They dismantled artists’ expectations of how to perceive a subject by simplifying forms, flattening shapes, and rearranging the pieces in compositions. Soon thereafter, Kandinsky would create totally non-objective paintings devoid of any reference to subject, earning him the title of the father of Abstract Expressionism. There was more to come. Rodchenko and Malevich were the Russian pioneers who went even further, reaching a conceptual conclusion in their non-objective compositions by focusing on simple flat shapes in solid colors, presaging Minimalism of the late 1960s. Throw into the mix the dreamworlds of the Surrealists, the no-holds-barred approach of the Dada movement, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism — all bracketed by two world wars — and you’ve got an art world turned upside-down. Through it all, however, most artists still found the need to express their interpretations of recognizable figures, landscapes, and still lives, albeit with a twist of abstraction. This was the essence of what would soon become known as the School of Paris, perpetuated to this day by the internationally inescapable influence of Picasso. Like many artists who never visited Greece, Picasso was nonetheless inspired by its ancient culture and myths, repeatedly tapping these themes. He was especially inspired by the simple geometric shapes and chalky painted figures inherent to ancient Cycladic sculpture. By the mid 1920s he was connecting with André Breton and the surrealist manifesto. Brett was intrigued by how Picasso had managed to fracture space into multiple viewpoints as well as how he had wildly distorted his figures. He was also well aware of, and had affinities with, those American artists pioneering abstraction during the period between the two World Wars, especially Arthur Dove, John Marin, Morris Graves, and e.e. cummings.

Observing day-today real situations was an objective that became Brett’s natural way of seeing what no camera could see — psychic snapshots intended to evoke an emotional experience, not an overt meaning. His transformation into a mythmaker also expressed a multi-dimensional fracturing of land, sea, and sky spaces. The result is a sense of motion, as if we are looking at stills from a movie…or even sequential cartoon panels. His immersion in the environment of Paros meant he was at once grounded on the shore, floating upon the sea, and gliding above it. This experience is most clearly expressed in two canvases — Homage à Mercator Postage Stamp and On the Mountain. Refreshed and eager to share his epiphany of presence with his students, he wrote, “Maybe it’s time to release myself more to the world: to make less comparisons — with people, things, values. To disperse my center of perception. As if — when a person or a landscape is ‘speaking’ to me face-to-face I could receive their messages with a 360° view; in 3 or 4 dimensions, not simply from the location of myself. I knew that (in the real sense of knowing) 20 years ago, but I let it go. My sternest teacher is myself of 20 years ago.”

In addition to his awareness of Mercator’s geographic edges, Brett also made reference to Leon Battista Alberti, the polymath of the Italian Renaissance whose theories argued the limitations of linear perspective, instead anticipating the fourth and fifth dimensions. A hundred years later, the Flemish cartographer and cosmographer Gerardus Mercator created the first world map depicted like a series of wedges of an orange.

Homage à Mercator Postage Stamp, ca.1969, acrylic on canvas, 35 x 53 inches. The shocking Aegean light not only isolates and flattens forms, it confuses the perception of distances. In Brett’s paintings this experience led to original speculations beyond Cubist descriptions of space. Most Cubist paintings present intimate subjects in cozy spaces. Even when the subject is a landscape, all the elements are made to crowd up toward the picture plane. In the open island spaces, Brett was likely to look from the earth at his feet to a distant chunk of coastline, see little difference in contrast and clarity between them, and exchange the two playfully in his mind. — Frank Galuszka

Despite Picasso’s penetrating gaze and the innovative variations of the American modernists who followed him, Brett had something quite different in mind. Beginning in his undergraduate years, he developed his own unique approach to abstraction that blossomed on Paros as a merging storytelling, surrealism, and figurative abstraction. Paintings like On the Mountain and Homage à Mercator Postage Stamp are examples of this new approach to painting. Each canvas expresses an encircling horizon, creating the feeling that the viewer is looking up at a scene painted on the ceiling of a cathedral’s dome.

The paintings of several American modernists active during the first quarter of the 20th century serve as instructive precursors leading to Brett’s mature style. Arthur Dove [1880–1946] traveled through Europe from 1907–1909, absorbing the modern movements. Soon after returning to New York, he was represented by America’s most influential dealer in modernism, Alfred Stieglitz. Dove’s distinctive approach is seen in Harbor Bank (left — 1940, watercolor, 5 x 7 inches.), earned him the distinction as America’s first major abstractionist. In parallel with Dove’s importance was John Marin [1870–1953], who traveled to Paris and then through Europe from 1905–1910. He was profoundly influenced by the six-year working relationship between Picasso and Braque that had begun in 1908. Once back in America, Marin was also promoted by Alfred Stieglitz, and by the 1920s had become a powerful force in the movement away from naturalistic representation towards expressive abstraction. Brett knew that Marin was also inspired to produce many vibrant paintings of abstracted forms and flattened planes that express the robust nexus of the ocean with the rugged islands of Maine — as in Sea & Boat Fantasy (right —1944, oil on canvas, 28 x 34.25 inches). In his compositions Marin pursued Picasso’s prismatic fracturing but always kept viewers on balance by never losing sight of the ocean’s horizon line as an anchoring mechanism. Brett also retained the vocabulary of landscape, but his narrative style of abstraction instead set viewers off balance, striking up a rhythmic and lively conversation within topsy-turvy spaces. This new way of seeing matured on Paros and is Brett’s greatest achievement, separating him from his peers.

Even though Brett was inspired by the poetry for which e.e. cummings [1984–1962] had become best known, he was also aware that the poet was in parallel a prolific creator of lyrical landscapes — such as his Shorescape (left — ca.1925 (36 x 48 inches, oil on board). Morris Graves [1910–2001] and Brett shared a love, rooted in mysticism, of all wild creatures. Right: Brett’s Gull (right — acrylic on board, 12.5 x 15.75 inches), painted in 1962 during his undergraduate years, shows a stylistic affinity with Graves’s Shore Birds of 1939 (below — 25.75 x 30.75 inches).



View from the Bed by the Window, ca.1970, acrylic on canvas, 33.5 x 40 inches

Brett saved an untitled poem that Lee Harwood wrote on Paros in the summer of 1971. It could well be describing the above painting, View from the Bed by the Window:

The clear blue sky over the mountains reflected
in an enamel miniature portraying exotic scenes with
ornate buildings — The Far East?
“Abandoned temples and palaces set deep in the jungle…”
“things” crowd in (a fascination with the
form of obscurity) then move back
giving you that space around you
It is beyond any conscious decisions, but in the end
involves them
your kiss
some form of floating
High above the rock outcrops ravens, and falcons
circling. dwelling on one spot below

Brett Taylor’s tree of artistic descent

A style that began its evolution in Philadelphia bloomed on Paros. In sketching his tree of artistic descent (right), Brett acknowledged great modernists from the mid 19th to the mid 20th centuries. Plus, at Tyler he reinterpreted famous paintings of the Old Masters — showing his deep appreciation of artists from the Renaissance to the Dutch Golden Age. Plus, his daily exposure to ancient Hellenic art strengthened his sensitivity. Among the painters of the Italian Renaissance, he was particularly attuned to Piero della Francesca, and referred to him in his writings:

To be thinking of Piero’s regimented compositions at this time is ironic but I’m beginning to see what I need to ‘depict’ — my secret area od sensations is becoming more clear, visually, and lions will probably end here. I this, personal as it shall be, I can find something more universal — become personal first — and strangely, Piero has some of the answers. What he did with his spiritual, I would do with my mental-sensory. What to do with space — God only knows! — It rings true only when it is complexly vague (“Day Image”) and I want to simplify. I predict that the few solutions open to me will take a lifetime to find and these will be my most important pictorial achievements.

Two fundamental forces were urgently driving Brett toward a singular and unprecedented style. First, he was exhilarated to fulfill his destiny as “an agent on a cosmic island in the eye of a small galaxy.” Second, he was propelled by the certainty that it was his fate to die before he turned forty. His own writing eloquently sets forth his awareness that both forces were at play:

My infinitesimal, frantically impotent instant of uncertain existence is only a speck of dust to be blown away by the sour hot breath of cosmic death. An experience like big, slow, moments of heat rising from a railroad track, the heavy warm smell of tar, and trees offering their wilting leaves to glare, and the stillness of hot perspective — is crushed by its own minuteness. The graves of poets yield ragweed beside the graves of books, which yield only graves. But the experience of existence dissolves abstract fears of minuteness and death. A painter must thrive in spite of these fears, knowing them as fully as realities.
What I really want to paint can’t be spoken of. There is sort of a pressure exerted by a vibrating complexity of images. Nothing can be eliminated. The “essence” of one image is not only the whole image but it’s environment of mental and instinctual associations. Blue-green and ochre ripping through an aura like late afternoon cannot be separated from Brahms-made-visual. The essence of any floating form incudes the moon I experienced when I was four, and the space in Bartok-made-visual and gulls. An interior kind of light conjures up un-simplified luxurious visions and jazz sometimes, depending on the association. Autumn is Brueghel orange-green with cloud-winded light probing shining dampness. There smells the fertile sound of discarded dead leaves the day I kissed her and drove. The solid curve of unseen passion.

Dénouement — “Blown Away by the Sour Hot Breath of Cosmic Death”
Brett holds a speargun while he and Gail take a “Greek Gothic” pose at the country house before moving to a new stone home in Paroikia.

“You want immortality in linear time — afterlife etc. Try non-time sequence, vertical non-death, being endlessly alive through the channel of this moment, like achieving a route of immortality through events of ten years ago — a final mind from non-past, non-present future. Anyhow, ideas of endless being only matter when you live — or you come around the end of this physical life within a being that you are now — or is that an accident?”
— Brett Taylor, undated note

In 1978, Brett and Gail purchased a stone house in the ancient Castro quarter at the center of town. Blocks of marble from a 13th century Venetian wall just below it were used in its construction, and its two floors were connected by an outdoor staircase. The house sat atop a knoll overlooking Paroikia’s harbor and became a popular meeting place among both faculty and students — especially because they boasted hot running water and electricity. Despite enjoying these amenities, Brett and Gail were consumed by a chronically dire need of capital. Keeping a small school afloat when it averaged about ten teachers for only twenty students a semester proved to be a constant source of stress on the school’s coffers. Every year was a struggle, alternating between a small loss or a small profit.

The first prospective donor for which Brett had held especially high hopes of receiving a grant was the Ford Foundation, in 1967. Brett’s office assistant, Dolores Poulis, recalled the foundation’s cultural attaché three-day visit with Brett and visiting the school’s classes. As the diplomat was leaving, he confided in Dolores, “I’ve been a diplomat all over the world, especially in the Middle East,” he said. “And I have seen it all. I have seen guys like Brett, out in that sun, drinking alcohol all day, the glass in one hand, the cigarette in the other hand. If he doesn’t mend his ways, I can sign in blood that he will never make it beyond the age of forty.” At that point, Dolores began to cry because she was not only very much aware of Brett’s prophesy of own death before forty, but she was, like many people, unaware that he was an alcoholic. There was never any slurring of speech, wobbly walking, tremors, or inappropriate behaviors. Jeff Carson noted that over the years, Brett was not only a heavy smoker but his creeping escalation in consumption of ouso and retsina (Greece’s most popular — and very strong — alcohols) was accompanied by a decrease in eating. “Brett’s drinking was getting obviously worse and worse,” he recalled. “For those of us who knew him, you didn’t go to his house and find him drunk — almost never. But if you hung out with him all day, he would get up and maybe have a glass of wine, and an hour later, he’d just have another glass of wine. An hour later, he’d have another glass of wine. Now that’s like 14 glasses of wine a day — and he wasn’t eating more than a little taste of this, a little taste of that.”

In his studio in the Castro quarter ca.1980, Brett works on a canvas from the nautical series with a vantage point from the cockpit of the Corinne. Pallas Athena sits on his shoulder.

Wynn Parks, who had traveled from Alaska in 1974 to join the staff as a creative writing teacher, tried to assist Brett in fundraising. “Brett was preoccupied, in a state of quiet desperation over money,” he recalled “He kept up a brave face and often talked about finding an ‘angel’ to get the school out of trouble. He was hanging on to hope. It was all he had, and I didn’t want to take that away, but those whom he approached often didn’t grasp his paintings or the way he managed the school.” As the prospective angels consistently withdrew, the financial crisis came to a crescendo by the end of 1980. “I don’t like to write much when I’m depressed,” he wrote to Mykia, “but it’s high time I sent a word or two…We are alarmingly broke, but I’d almost rather go to jail than ask anyone for a loan again.” His own painting had begun to trail off, too. Nevertheless, this persistent optimist wrote his first resumé to validate the fundraising effort and continued to make his pleas, appearing undaunted, and clinging to his ambitious plans for expanding ASFA’s offerings. A return trip to Philadelphia in December 1982 turned out to be his final fundraising effort. On the bright side, he could boast that most of the students that had attended his school were from eighty-three American colleges. The greater numbers hailed from MassArt in Boston and Antioch College in Ohio, followed by the Tyler School of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and Amherst. International balance came from universities in England, Wales, Israel, Australia, France, Greece, Hong Kong, Denmark, and Norway. Now, he brought with him a revised curriculum vitae that described schools for Natural Sciences, Behavioral Sciences, Crafts, Sailing & Navigation, Environmental Design & Architecture — albeit noting, “all of which are still pending.” He even conceived of a center for celebrities who wanted a quiet refuge from the paparazzi. “After all, in those days the native Parians were not too hip about stars,” Gail recalled. “The Beatles, for instance, were on the island in 1967 and few recognized them.”

Sadly, Brett’s presentations were betrayed by his jaundiced complexion, bony physique, and swollen stomach. Among his friends in Philadelphia who were most disconcerted was Frank Galuzka, who had taught at ASFA, and was then teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He recalled seeing Brett one evening at an opening at a gallery in February 1983. “I remember Brett as he came into the gallery from the street,” he recalled. “His eyes were darting about as he came into the place, but not really taking in the show or the crowd. It was something else. After the show, my wife, Diane, said to me, ‘Did you see Brett’s eyes?’ As I recall, Brett’s pale blue eyes were often or maybe even always watery and inflamed, but this evening they were particularly agitated. I asked her what she meant. She said, ‘He looks like he knows he’s going to die.’ ” Pieri, also an artist, confirmed the ominous experience. “I remember that exact encounter with Brett,” she said. “It was the first time I saw a person who knew he was dying. It was startling and sad. Brett was a major alcoholic who died just before he turned forty. On Paros, it was said that he brushed his teeth with Retsina.”

Meanwhile, there was a crossing of paths when Gail had to quickly flyto a hospital in Boston after a suspicious lump was found in her breast. Thankfully, a thorough examination determined that the lump was benign. In March, Brett returned alone from his fundraising trip with little more than his enduring optimism. He even bought more canvas. He sensed that death was near but maintained his sense of humor when, with biblical overtones, he wrote that he looked forward to being included in “The Book of Cancellations.” While Brett’s health quickly worsened, Wynn Parks, Dolores, and neighbors took turns preparing meals for him and making sure he was helped upstairs to bed. Parks disposed of Brett’s hidden stashes of alcohol but soon found empty bottles under every bed or sofa. “In the end, I knew he was still drinking, but couldn’t figure out what. Finally, I looked in the medicine cabinet and realized he was drinking Everclear — a straight grain ethanol, which was available from the pharmacy.”

Dolores was frank. “It takes a lot to shock me, and this was shocking,” she recalled. “Brett was almost as a skeleton, totally emaciated. I realized that his face had been transformed into the face of the saints that we see in the icons in the Greek Orthodox Church. They look drawn and very serious, with heavy, maudlin eyes. That’s how they paint them. It’s almost as if they are not of this world. Brett was transformed in this way when I saw him during in his last days on Paros — probably a month before he died in America.”

When Wynn alerted Gail to Brett’s failing condition, she strongly petitioned the doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital to treat him. Back in Paros, Wynn cajoled and finally convinced Brett to go to Boston. Wynn accompanied him on a little island-hopper plane from the new airport on Paros. When they arrived in Athens there was no wheelchair to meet Brett, so Wynn carried him in his arms. “He was around six feet tall, but so emaciated that it was like carrying a child. Just when it was time to go from the waiting gate to the international flight, they’d finally found his wheelchair,” he wistfully recalled. “He turned and waved from the chair as he was being pushed across the tarmac and happily called out, ‘Thanks for everything!’”

The examination at Mass General quickly determined that Brett was acutely jaundiced, his abdomen swollen with accumulated fluid, and he was experiencing shortness of breath. This was end-stage cirrhosis. He needed a liver. Tragically, since his severe weakness meant that he would not survive such major surgery the surgeons determined that he did not qualify for a liver transplant. Since Brett had frequently considered his impending death before forty to be a matter of fate, he had already written two epitaphs. One was “Last line for a book: Thank you, I think I now know what I’ve been looking for.” The second was “A suggested epitaph: Goodbye. I just reached the end of my roll of toilet paper.”

Nest this drawing, 2.5-3” tall, with caption:

Seven years before Brett’s passing, he drew Bartok in Hospital (1976, pencil, 6 x 5 inches) presaging his own fate. He was aware that neither he nor the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók [1881–1945] ever pushed for the full recognition they deserved. Bartók, considered the father of ethnomusicology, had emigrated to New York in 1940 but died of leukemia just weeks after WWII ended. It was not until 1988 — forty-three years after his death — that his native Hungary arranged for a state funeral and his portrait appeared on one of the country’s banknotes. In 1964, during his first year as a graduate student, Brett wrote: “One can remotely compare Stravinsky to Picasso or Klee to Schoenberg. But Bartok can’t be related to anyone in any terms. I sometimes believe that he is maybe the greatest composer that ever lived.”
Brett passed away on March 2nd — one month before turning forty. Michael Duffett, a writer with whom Brett shared the prophesy of his own death in 1966 wrote, “Brett once told me that he knew he would die young — a mysterious intuition, of which he was full!”17 The Irish poet Rory Brennan, a Paros resident, was inspired to write “The Lapped Waterline” as a memorium:

I found your old boat beached under the shade
Of tamarisk trees, sand silting up the deck,
The cabin shuttered, fittings and lifeline frayed.
Here is your island grave, not transatlantic

Cemetery of coffined rows under a lead-lined sky.
From here I watch the bay you used to sail,
Can nearly hear you start again some wry,
Outlandish, life-enhancing tale

That always made us listen, laugh — and love.
For what so grieved you there’s no gift or cure
Like the lapped waterline your boat’s above.
The once-enriched feel keenly to be poor.

— Rory Brennan.17

“Last line for a book: Thank you, I think I now know what I’ve been looking for.”
— Brett Taylor, Feb. 1968

In the Fall of 1983, the tradition of group shows at the Tyler School of Art was broken by a memorial exhibition for Brett Taylor. The invitation concluded, “Brett would say that art is a sensory explosion first, perceptual experience second, and an analytical or intellectual exercise last. It is meant to stimulate. Stimulate connections, Stimulate thought. Enjoy.” Students from around the world wrote tributes to Brett, describing how about how his teaching had changed their lives. They were joined by scores of poets, writers, musicians, and artists. Mykia wrote, “John Masefield’s line about Rupert Brooke, who died on the island of Skyros, seems appropriate here: ‘A part of the island till the planet ends.’ ”18

Following the exhibition, Wynn and Gail returned to Paros she invited Wynn. They launched a dinghy and rowed out to Brett’s favorite point off Paroikia. When they reached the chosen spot, they committed Brett’s ashes to the Aegean, accompanied by the scattering of a musical score written by Herman Weiss. Suddenly, they were surprised when a pair of white dolphins leaped over the bow of the dinghy while another pair leaped in unison over the stern. This was confirmation, as Rory Brennan observed, of Brett’s proper “island grave, not transatlantic.”

Since 1984, the art school established by Brett Taylor has been ably directed by John Pack, who has maintained its founder’s philosophy of art education. In 1992, the school changed its name to the Aegean Center for the Arts, and in 2001 acquired a colorful neo-classical building on the main market street in Paroikia.

Gail lived with Mykia until her death in 1992 in Glenside Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. “I then learned why I loved Brett so deeply. His mother was the most wonderful woman I have known.” Soon, she was surprised by a congenial phone call from her first love — David McAdoo — to whom she did not return after having fallen for Brett and Paros two decades earlier. David had moved on, married, and raised a family but he had become a widower. High school sweethearts, Gail and David fell in love — again — and happily married. It was a serendipitous ending of which Brett would have heartily approved.

— Peter Hastings Falk

Brett Taylor sailing Corinne off Paroikia

1 In 1937, Henry White Taylor published and edited The Philadelphia Art News, which after its first year fell victim to the Great Depression. From 1937–38, he was President of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art Fellowship. In 1941, he published his Notes on Teaching. The Taylor archive contains Henry’s original hand-written notes for teaching and lectures, quoted here.

When he was only nine, Brett was creating wondrous drawings like these deep sea creatures announcing a summer workshop at Temple University.

2 Raphael Sabatini [1898–1985] studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and then was a professor of painting and sculpture at Tyler School of Art from 1936–1966. He was President of the Philadelphia Art Alliance. His book, Sculpture Processes, was published in 1957.

3 “Brett Taylor, 14” (Fox Chase, Penn.: The Breeze Newspapers, 20 Dec 1956, clipping). At the time, Brett was attending the Elkins Park Junior High School in Pennsylvania.

4 Dorothy Mitchell Taylor [1909–1992]. Her poems were published in several books by Mercury Projects (Philadelphia) including People on Paros (1979), Inchworms (1980), and Nutshell People and Other Biota (1989). Henry had given her the nickname, “Myke” because he had previously been married to a Dorothy and did not want to call her by that name. Her reply was, “Call me anything. Call me Mike.” Feeling that Mike was not feminine enough, he called her Mykia, but most others called her Myke. Beginning in 1970, Mykia made trips to Paros to visit Brett every three years.

At twelve, Brett captured the drama of a Florida hurricane (gouache on board, 10 x 30 inches).

5 Hard Edge had emanated from Los Angeles in 1959. In 1960, two New York galleries — Judson Gallery and Green Gallery — were the pioneers in Pop Art. By the mid 1960s several prominent galleries were promoting Minimalism (Judson, Castelli, and Pace) and Op Art (Martha Jackson Gallery). The period from 1962 to about 1967 were the most intense years for Pop Art — even though at the same time Hard Edge painting had spread from California and Op Art (so-named by painter Julian Stanczak in 1964) had further served to break up the AbEx painters’ monopoly. In New York the harbingers of Pop were Judson Gallery (showing Wesselman in 1959) and Green Gallery [1960–1965], which in 1961 gave Rosenquist his first solo show. But it was not until 1962 when a major gallery, Sidney Janis, became the first to mount a groundbreaking exhibition of Pop Art (the International Exhibition of the New Realists). Other major galleries that upset their stables of famous AbEx painters included Martha Jackson, Stable Gallery, and Leo Castelli. Several smaller short-lived galleries also played key roles in promoting select Pop artists, such as Bianchini Gallery, Castellane Gallery, and Amel Gallery.

6 1966, after Brett Taylor had settled in Paros, Callner moved to Italy where he further pursued the Lilith series while serving as the founding director of the Tyler School of Art in Rome.

7 Whitten, Jack. Who Are You, Jack Whitten? (The Paris Review, 13 July 2018)

8 Jeffrey Carson taught creative writing at ASFA in 1975. In 1997, he translated into English the poetry of Odysseus Elytis, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979 “for his poetry, which, against the background of Greek tradition, depicts with sensuous strength and intellectual clear-sightedness modern man’s struggle for freedom and creativeness.” See: Carson, Jeffrey and Sarris, Nikos (translators). The Collected Poems of Odysseus Elytis [Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997]

10 The German chemical company Rohm and Haas opened its American facility in Philadelphia in 1909. Otto Haas invented acrylic resin in 1934, and the first synthetic paint by 1940. American artist materials developers like Leonard Bocour began selling acrylic paint in 1946 and Sam Golden invented his own acrylic solution in 1949. Water-based acrylic pigments entered the market during the early 1950s. It wasn’t until 1963 that acrylic paints were finally introduced in Europe, by the English manufacturer, George Rowney. When Brett first arrived in Greece in 1965 he couldn’t get the acrylic base, so for his first paintings he instead used Atlacol, the brand name for a Greek acrylic glue.

9 Whipple, Andy. “Healing and Learning on a Greek Island” (Oberlin Alumni Magazine, 1983, p.36)

10 The original Paros Chamber Ensemble was led by Herman Weiss as pianist and conductor, joined by Bobby Stallman and Chris Kreuger on flutes, Martha Edwards and Danny Graber on violins, Richard Sher on bass, Phil Long on Bassoon, Suzanne Claverton on harpsichord, and Richard McDowell on clarinet.

12 Grosvenor, Melville Bell. “The Isles of Greece, Aegean Birthplace of Western Culture” (National Geographic, Aug. 1972, Vol.142, No.2, pg. 171). Dr. Bell [1901–1982], the grandson of inventor Alexander Graham Bell, became the Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic in 1957 and was Chairman of the National Geographic Society.

13 Ralph Bates was British writer and political activist who from 1923-on lived most of his life in Spain. He served as a propagandist for the government forces during the Spanish Civil War and became best known for his novel The Olive Fields (1936) about revolutionary struggles. From 1948–1968 he taught creative writing and English literature at New York University where one of his students was Jeffrey Carson. It was Bates who urged Carson to visit Paros. Upon retiring, Bates and his wife (Eve Haxman, an accomplished weaver) divided their time between New York and the nearby island of Naxos. His book about the island, as well as a collection of poems, remain unpublished.

14 Schilardi, Dimitrios. The Emergence of Paros the Capital (Pallas, vol.58, 2002, p.229–249)

15 Lucy Willis [English, b.1954] is a master watercolor painter and printmaker with over 27 solo exhibitions in London. She has lived and worked on the island of Syros since 1976. Among her awards is the 1992 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London. She has exhibited widely internationally and contributes to group exhibitions at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol where she was elected as an Academician in 1993. Her works can be found in the National Portrait Gallery in London and in many private collections around the world. She has written four books and many articles on painting technique. In 1980, she established her Somerset printmaking workshop, producing etchings, monoprints, and linocuts.

16 E-mail from Michael Duffett [1943–2019] to Wynn Parks, Nov. 7, 2008. Duffett was a Californian Professor and poet who in 1966 lived for a year on Paros where he improved the classical and Biblical Greek he had studied at Cambridge. This eventually led to the publication by McGraw-Hill of Back to Basics: The Sources of the New Testament (2005). From 1970–80 he was a professor of English at Kawamura Gakuen University in Tokyo before returning to teach at universities in California.

17 Rory Brennan wrote this poem on Paros in 1983 In Memoriam to Brett Taylor. It was later published in his book, The Walking Wounded (Dedalus Press, 1985). See also,

18 Rupert C. Brooke [1887–1915] was a handsome English poet who was only twenty-eight when he died of sepsis on Skryos. John E. Masefield [1878–1967] was an English Poet Laureate.


Many people kindly shared their memories of Brett Taylor in interviews. Foremost among them are Brett’s wife, Gail Wetzel McAdoo and his close friend, Wynn Parks. Together, they formed Woodyard’s Paros, LLC to preserve the artist’s legacy. Free reign had granted me to pour through the Brett Taylor Archive, which contains his journals, loose art notes, his writings and poetry, and numerous photographs.
Enlivening details of Brett’s life — personal, artistic, and academic — came from earnest and straightforward interviews with Brett Taylor’s close friends who have homes on Paros — Writer Jeff Carson, (writer), Liz Carson (photographer), Dolores Poulis (artist), Paulien Lethen (founder of the Holland Tunnel Gallery), Alice Meyer-Wallace(artist), and Rory Brennan (poet). Fortunately, Brett counted among his good friends the painter and art historian Frank Galuszka, who kindly contributed his precise and detailed captions for several paintings, drawn from his essay “Beginning to Look at his Work” — written for the 1983 memorial exhibition, “Brett Taylor: The Aegean Years” at the Penrose Gallery, Tyler School of Art.
Other interviews that illuminated Brett’s life and works came from Laurence Bach (photographer whose works illustrate the Paros Dream Book), David Callner (writer and manager of the Richard Callner collection), Prof. Michael Duffett (writer), Ned Gibby (sculptor), Stephanie Nathan (artist), John Pack, Director of the Aegean Center for the Arts, Diane Pieri (artist), Anne Seidman (former student at ASFA), Nina Stagakis (né Stewarts), John Thornton (painter and videographer on Philadelphia area artists), Herman Weiss (pianist, and founding of the Paros Chamber Ensemble), and Lucy Willis (English painter and printmaker).


2023 — Hollis Taggart solo exhibition
1985 — Memorial Exhibition, Mass College of Art, Boston
1983 — Memorial Exhibition, Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia
1960s in Philadelphia:
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
The Philadelphia Art Alliance
The Woodmere Art Museum
The Cheltenham Art Centre
Tyler School of Art