Thordis Niela Simonsen is a modern renaissance woman: a teacher, photographer, writer, painter and creative guide. In her latest work, "Building on Memory," Simonsen takes a performance approach to sharing and interpreting her book Dances in Two Worlds: A Writer-Artist's Backstory. This Saturday and Sunday, November 10 and 11, Simonsen will present the live piece -- part discussion, part conversation, part exhibition -- at the Denver Woman's Press Club.
In advance of these performances, Simonsen talked with Westword about her second home in Greece, the ancient structure she bought in a village and spent decades restoring, and the writing workshops she hosts on the other side of the world.
Westword: Can you talk a little bit about what audiences can expect from your upcoming performance, "Building on Memory," that you'll be presenting this weekend?
Thordis Neila Simonsen:l, Well, let me read you something that I was writing this morning, as it may be a good launching point:
"Building On Memory is an adventure story; it's about living life by stepping out into the world and exploring it. That world encompasses the physical reality -- whether in backyards or local byways or those farther afield. For me, Greece is an example. That world includes one's inner landscapes as well -- those realms we enter in our dreams and those situations we enter into by trusting our intuition. For me, purchasing a house in Greece and restoring it by hand, when it was the most outrageous thing a person could do. That experience, more than any other, accounts for the dream-like reality of my life; restoring the walls and roofing the house (which I had to pay someone else to do) has opened up many windows of understanding for me.
"The other great source of insight and adventure for me has been the world of creative self-expression -- originally photography, and now writing and painting."
This last year, I read a quote -- unfortunately, it is anonymous to me. It was on the back cover of a book called Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes and it just so captures what it feels like has been happening to me -- this interaction between my life in the world and my life in creativity. My visual images and my word images are exemplified in this quote -- "The ways in which art mirrors life, and then turns around to shape it."
This is what I am so totally fascinated by. I restored a house in Greece, stone by stone, and in the process of that, I started painting. I made paintings that are based in Greece -- I was here (in Denver) but they just intuitively fell onto the paper. A painting of my house, for example. Long after I made it, I see that it expresses something that I put down in words. It was something that someone told me: a woman, Krisula, in the village (of Elika in Greece) who was born in my house (told me) her mother set stones on the earthen floor of the kitchen where she labored and delivered (her.)
I had no idea she was born in my house -- it was standing there, roofless, for years. I said, how do you feel about me restoring the house? And she said -- and this is part of the program -- "Oh, I tell people, an American girl bought it, and she fixes it by herself. She give life to the house again. It will give light."
In this painting, the last thing I did was to put yellow in the doorway. I looked at it a long time later and thought, I put light in the house. This was what she was talking about. That makes me think about why I do this, and what do we mean by light? What's the light in my life? How is this house a metaphor for my movement toward light in my life?What an interesting path to cross -- a woman who was born in a house you've given new life to.
You know what? This sounds really stupid that I should have thought of this before, but if the house and its light is a metaphor for the light in my life, than going out into the world with this program is the light for me. It's what I can give.
Is this the first time you'll be sharing this particular program with audiences?
I did a preview before I went to Greece in May, but this is the first yes. I've been working with Mare (Trevathan) on this program and I'm really excited about it. It will definitely evolve. I just came back from Greece and I'm just feeling so incredibly grounded. I'm so glad I went to Greece on the eve of bringing it out.
Why did you choose Greece as your second home? Do you have a personal or familial connection to it?
I had a roommate after graduate school who was first generation Greek-American and her cousin visited us. Her cousin left the states and married and lived in Greece. She lives in Elika, my village. So I had met this woman who lived in a village in Greece. When I came to Colorado in 1973, I was teaching biology at Kent Denver School, and I asked to teach cultural anthropology. They said yes. I had never studied any anthropology, so in order to prepare, I bought some books and went off to live in a village. I wanted to experience village life, that's how I was preparing. That's what took me to Greece.
What happened was that I went there, and stayed for a number of weeks in 1974 and I was finishing up my first book. When it was finished, I went back to Greece in 1981 -- I had been teaching cultural anthropology all of those years. So when I went back in '81, I thought, I had experienced the villages as a guest and observer. I wanted to experience it as a participant. I left the classroom and went to Greece and lived there for two years, and at the end I felt this irrepressible but totally inexplicable urge to have a house of my own to go back to there.
I don't feel as if I chose Greece; I feel like Greece chose me. I feel that it has to do with the light there, it's something I wrote in the beginning of my book, Dancing Girl -- my ancestry is Norwegian and British. So I thought I should seek the light and the warmth of the Mediterranean.
People tell me they are moved and inspired by my stories. They tell me, I wish I could have done what you did, if I could live my life again. I hope to be able to take my program to younger people, so they can say, this is what I'm going to do, not this is what I wish I had done. It is very humbling for people to say that to me, because I don't feel like I chose my life. I feel that I'm living the life that was given to me.
A woman years ago said to me, if you allow the tear to roll down your cheek, it will release our tears. One of the things I wrote in Dancing Girl (was that in Greece) to be a woman is to be married and be a mother; I'm single and I have no children of my own. To be Greek was to be Orthodox; I don't practice or adhere to organized religion. To be Greek is to do women's work; I do men's work. The women embraced me as much as the men. In thinking about that, thinking about what the common denominator was that leveled our differences, and we all have feelings that need to be expressed and we all have a spirit that needs to be set free.
So (back to the question of) what the audience can expect, they can expect someone who shares feelings and experiences. For me, it is a story of self-discovery, a story of discovering my joy through these experiences that I have. Particularly painting.
How often do you go back to your house in Greece?
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I usually go to Greece at least once a year, and often twice -- I host a writing group in Greece. It's for women writers who like to travel. It's a way for me to go back. We base in the village, and the house -- I never knew why I bought the house, I just new that I needed to. The book I went there to write -- Dancing Girl -- was written before the roof even went on the house. So why did I buy it? It's a headquarters of my writing program. We've had some very, very moving experiences there.