KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 1: Fall 2014
CNF Essay: 988 words

A Daring Soul: Tribute to Betty Ryan

by Amalia Melis

I was at a memorial service with my father for a village family friend in Andros. Without meaning to I wandered in the direction of American English words floating above the Greek whispers surrounding us. Our hosts introduced you as Mrs. Betty, nothing less, nothing more.

You told me you were living in Patouria (also known as Apatouria), the Andriot village my father is from. “Drop by some time.” And you were gone. I, a young mother with a baby, did just that the following day. Leaving my daughter with my mother, I walked from Apikia to Patouria in search of you. Old Cypress trees swayed in the breeze, and lizards darted left and right as I passed the worn old rocks that my grandfather and father walked on their whole lives when each one arrived or left on one of their numerous journeys as sailors—a profession of many poor men from Andros.

People did not leave their houses in mid-day; shutters were locked and no sounds emitted from behind the walls. There was only one way to find you: I shouted your name, “Betty, Betty!” at the few houses I stopped in front of.

Luckily, you answered my call and opened a worn wooden door to welcome me. Inside the cool stone house was a desk, cats, and many canvases lined up in no particular order. I gathered from the easel and paintbrushes that you were a painter and I was in such need of something I could not identify at the time. I sat and listened to you introduce me to your life. Cigarette dangling from your mouth, your body frame petite or as Greeks say “delicate like a sparrow,” thick eyeglasses, and a nervous hunger to beat time for what you had to keep doing: painting the rocky terrain of Andros, island houses, and the animals so much a part of your landscape—donkeys, cats, goats—and the ever present Greek sunlight. Not the blinding sunlight that washed out any attempt at color but the one you said was here in Andros “rising from the earth.”

You revealed that you were the first line in Henry Miller’s book The Colossus of Maroussi. He wrote that he never would have come to Greece had he not met you. Your words painted your travel experiences roaming about the world and mesmerized Miller enough for him to take the voyage to Greece that so captured him like the rest of us. Everything you had told him lingered like masterpieces in his mind.

Then I knew.

I am a line in no one’s book. Lines stirred in me, but I was just scraping up the courage for my first efforts at fiction. You were determined to help me believe in myself. “Of course it can be done,” you said, even though I was overwhelmed by an infant and adjusting to a new country that had doors firmly shut in my face for any kind of employment. I had not formed my story yet, one I have carried with me from childhood. I had no direction on how I would go about putting the story of three generations of immigrant women whose lives were spent searching for “home,” on paper. I still carry a sadness that comes from not really belonging anywhere—I am a little of this and a little of that. I am part of one continent and yet part of another but when I am in one of those moments: the squeaky violin note playing an island ballo song at a village feast, church bells calling everyone to mass, the smell of wet earth, the Meltemi winds that whisper—then for that one moment I am truly at peace. We discovered we had that in common through conversations, storytelling, letter writing, and silent nods.

We continued meeting at your house in Patouria all of summer 1998 through 2002, the last time you left Andros—the island you painted, the place that captured you as it captured me, the place we both called home.

Your failing health forced you to leave Andros more than once. Soon the correspondence began with letters addressed to Madam Amalia Melis. The envelopes between us traveled from Paris to Andros to Vermont to Athens to New Hampshire to New York until the end. You were witty and I was not. You were daring and followed your muse your whole life and I was frozen in place. Paris before the War, living and working with artists, writers—names I loved through their work: James Joyce, Chagall, Duchamp, Durrell, Anaïs Nin, Miller, and so many more daring souls. The more we revealed to each other the more I understood I had to fly—to make the leap and grab that pen before my stories devoured me.

Apatouria: Painting by Betty Ryan

Apatouria, painted by Betty Ryan, 1979.
Photographed by Amalia Melis.
Image used here by permissions
from author, and artist’s estate.

Before you left Andros for one of your trips to Paris or to the U.S., I worked up the courage to ask you if I could buy one of your paintings. A specific painting with a ray of light cutting across a landscape in Patouria with golden green, yellow hues illuminating a small, white-washed house in the village. It reminded me of my grandmother’s house, the house where my father and his two sisters were born. The first place I stayed, as a child of six, on our first summer trip to Greece from New York.

Your canvas painting followed me to New York and back to Greece several times on my many moves and now hangs in my living room in Athens. When I look at it each morning I smell lemon blossoms, I hear water flowing, I feel sun on my skin just as when the world of Greece first opened up to me. In your art I see you and understand the communion between country and home, location and belonging, between inspiration and story.

— Andros, Greece, July 2014

Amalia Melis
Issue 1, Fall 2014

Greek-American journalist and fiction writer born and raised in New York, who currently lives in Greece. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories and other publications. She is working on a longer essay about Betty Ryan. She has completed her first novel and is now working on a new one.

Ms. Melis is the founder of the Aegean Arts Circle writing workshops, which host annual writing seminars with award-winning international authors in Andros, Greece. An artist as well as writer, her assemblage sculptures have been part of group art exhibits in Greece, Germany, and the U.S.

Aegean Arts Circle

Betty Ryan [Gordon] (1914–2003)
Issue 1, Fall 2014

North American painter who lived in Paris in her twenties in the studio below Henry Miller’s in Villa Seurat. She was a member of his literary circle, which included Anaïs Nin and others. Ms. Nin makes numerous references to Betty Ryan in her diaries. Many years later, Ms. Ryan shared with Erica Jong that she and Miller had fallen in love over what became a mutual fascination with Greece. Yet they managed to keep their relationship secret from most everyone, including Nin, with whom Miller was having an affair. (See also pages 122-123 of The Devil at Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller.)

Ms. Ryan lived the last 25 years of her life in Andros, Greece. Before returning to the U.S., she donated many of her paintings, letters, and personal items to the Kaireios Library of Andros.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Opening pages, with references to Betty Ryan in the first paragraph, from Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi, quoted in Fiction International (6 October 2007)

Betty Ryan paintings, an announcement about an exhibition on the centennial of Ms. Ryan’s birth, in Times of Change (3 April 2014), which includes a slide show of three of her paintings

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