Successful Greek women who have risen to the top in their chosen fields were celebrated by the Daughters of Penelope on Monday, International Women’s Day, in a webinar attended by women around the globe.
Each Greek woman spoke to the participants about the path she had taken in her individual journey to success. From opera singing to painting to cooking, the women have risen — despite any obstacles or self-doubts — to the pinnacle of success in their chosen fields.
Daughters of Penelope Grand President Celia Kachmarski remarked to attendees that indeed there are still challenges women face in the world today. However, “a challenged world is an alert world. And from challenge comes change. “Take action for equality.”
The webinar was, as she said, an opportunity to “celebrate the accomplishments, the passion, and the beauty of women.” She said the women taking part in the presentation were a great representation of the motto “Do what you love and love what you do.”
Self-taught artist Katarina Mertikas
Married at the tender age of 17, she decided that she did not want to go to university but become a wife and mother instead. However, her artistic bent would not be denied, and she spent the time her children were at school or on weekends at her easel.
Working later as a medical secretary during the weekdays, she found the doctors there were interested in buying her paintings, which gave her confidence to exhibit her works at a gallery in Ottawa.
“You have to be strong to be in the arts”
Before she knew it, she recalls, a man walked in during her first showing and plunked down $300 for one of the paintings she had just created.
From that time on, Mertikas rose to prominence in artistic circles in Ottawa, being chosen as an official artist for UNICEF in the 1990s. And she has continued to devote her artistic talents toward helping others ever since that time.
After the shooting that occurred in the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa several years ago, she recalls, she painted a portrait of the police officer who had been killed that day. Auctioned off, the painting earned almost $8,000 for the son of the officer.
Mertikas’ works have also been auctioned off to benefit breast cancer research, with as much as $40,000 being raised at one time.
With her feet solidly on the ground, the artist says that it is important for young women not just to dream, but to find out if one is truly talented in something “along with the love or passion” that one has.
“I don’t believe in just dreaming,” she stated, adding that it is important to pursue what you love in order to learn whether or not you have talent in that arena.
“You’ve got to be prepared, to be disciplined, and work hard,” she declares. You’ve got to be able to take criticism and learn from it… you have to be really strong to be in the arts.”
Opera singer Eleni Calenos
The Greek-born soprano spoke to the group about her rise to prominence in the extremely demanding arena of opera despite not taking up the discipline until quite late in life, relative to other opera singers.
With parents who encouraged her despite them not being musical themselves, Calenos was originally a cello player in the Thessaloniki Municipal Orchestra before taking what she recalls as a “leap of faith” to move to Athens to develop her singing career.
After six years of performing in concerts and on television and radio there, Calenos took voice lessons just to strengthen her voice — or so she thought at the time. But that just set the stage for another, much greater leap of faith, that would come soon.
Right away, she said that she “immediately saw the potential for opera,” and made the staggering decision to move to the United States to learn the craft. “Without knowing anyone,” she says — or even where she was going to stay — she left for Boston and New York to study and work.
“Deceptively strong inside”
She ultimately earned her Masters at Queens College in New York City, making the United States her new home for the last 18 years. In that time she has sung all over the US and Europe.
Calenos explained to the participants that her favorite role is Madama Butterfly, because — undoubtedly much like herself — “it shows a woman who seems petite but is deceptively strong inside.”
Open to mentoring young women like herself, she says, for the opera singer it’s all about “talent, perseverance and patience” if you want to succeed. For young aspiring female singers, she says, “we not only have to do the technical part (of the craft)… we have to know ourselves, to learn to communicate and to connect” with others and the audience.
“Try to become a better human,” she says, at the same time as you are honing your skills.”
Artist/Sculptor/Writer/Politician Marina Vamvakas
Vamvakas, another Greek woman who has succeeded in several of her chosen fields, explained to the Daughters that she has “always believed in myself” and that the “satisfaction and joy” she felt since a very early age from her art and writing led her to believe that she would become a success.
The polymath was such a proficient artist even in her first years of school that her teacher allowed her to be completely self-directed, and her writing at that age was of a standard that she was encouraged to become an author by her writing teacher.
Moving to Brussels to study sculpting at an academy there, Vamvakas felt her creativity flourish in that discipline as well, and she has had her sculptures exhibited in many shows throughout Europe.
Vamvakas has also written a best-selling historical novel.
International Women’s Day celebrates giving to others, not just achievement
However, the brilliant artist never allowed herself to become self-absorbed, saying that helping others was also one of the cardinal forces in her life.
After becoming involved in politics, she became the first foreigner elected as a city councilor in her city where she lives in Belgium.
Asked what keeps her going, the Renaissance woman says “My husband believes in my talents and has supported me all along the way. He inspires me every day. We met at a young age… he is my biggest fan and greatest supporter. Everything I have achieved was made possible with his help, motivation, generosity. He is my compass.”
However, in the end she says, when it comes to her creative side, “when I paint or write, ultimately I do it for me, because of the joy it gives me.”
If she were to give advice to a young woman, Vamvakas says, it would be to “discern all your talents and abilities… choose and set your priorities.” However, she cautions,”Don’t forget people in need. Charitable giving nourishes the soul.”
Cook, Author and Television personality Diane Kochilas
Diane Kochilas, who appears regularly as the host of “My Greek Table” and has authored a number of cookbooks, is another of the strong Greek women who lent their voices to the International Women’s Day webinar.
Inspired by her travels and family gatherings, the recipes and stories Diane Kochilas shares in her acclaimed television series “My Greek Table” celebrate the variety of food and the culture of Greece.
She stated that the inspirations who moved her when she started out included her mother, who was widowed at a young age and managed to take care of her family afterward with great fortitude.
As a young writer, she moved to Greece and “used food as a tool to explore” the country, saying “The food that is on the tables in Greece is a mirror of this complex country.” She then had a televised cooking show in Greece and dreamed of doing another such show in the US.
“Man plans, God laughs”
She is now working on the fourth season of “My Greek Table.” Asked what she would say to a young woman who would like to pursue her own culinary dream, Kochilas chuckled, saying, “I’ve always gone by the saying ‘Man plans, God laughs.'”
One thing she has been thinking about recently as a result of the pandemic, she notes, is how very important our eating habits are to our overall health.
Pointing out that obesity is a leading factor in coronavirus morbidity, she says that over the past year, “we’ve all come face to face with the realization that what we put into our bodies” is crucial, perhaps now more than ever.
A descendant of a family from Ikaria, where the longevity of residents is world-renowned, she said that a plant-based diet may help in keeping weight down over one’s lifetime.
Kochilas added half-jokingly that she would like to see an advertising campaign by the GNTO which urges people to “Come to Greece and Eat your Vegetables.”
Asked what her advice would be for aspiring young females in the world today, she says simply “Stay steadfast and plow ahead. Don’t give up. Take no prisoners, and don’t be afraid. Stay true to yourself. If you believe in what you’re doing, the universe will help you. But you have to work.”