Art, Adventure, and Adversity: How John and I Started Collaborating Artistically


Snapshot of the streets and buildings of Thessaloniki, Greece

We were living in Thessaloniki, Greece— a bustling, polluted yet gorgeous city, home to ancient ruins, incredible shopping, and restaurants. This city inspires us the most. John and I, along with our three girls, ages 1, 3, and 5, came here seeking new inspiration, breakthroughs, and purpose. We craved a shake-up, feeling like we were stuck on a treadmill, painting the same subjects over and over, but not getting anywhere. Moving to Thessaloniki for six months was a desperate act to reinvigorate ourselves and our work.

Unexpected Nightmares and Financial Struggles

But we hit a rough patch. This trip, designed to be a glorious adventure brimming with new inspiration, morphed into a nightmare of drained savings, fights with family, miserable babies who weren’t allowed to make noise during the Greek siesta, and intense homesickness.

We were barely navigating through the hidden landmines of our emotions and discouragements. John and I, simultaneously, found ourselves in a serious creative rut. Our intention was to collaborate, but our paintings turned out worse than if we painted alone. We tried painting abstracts again but still failed miserably. We had a studio floor piled with loose canvases of creative disasters and failures.

Betrayal and Backstabs From Our Art Dealer

We had hit an all-time low when we began receiving emails from friends saying they had seen our prints in Costco. We found out that the dealer we were partnered with in Scottsdale, Arizona had betrayed us, printing and selling our artwork in Costco without our permission and without compensating us! We were livid! While we were abroad, he took the opportunity to sneak in a lucrative side business behind our backs.

I confronted him over our painfully expensive Greek flip phone. He didn’t deny his actions and tried justifying them by saying, “You guys need us. Without us selling your artwork, you would have nothing.” He insisted that if we didn't allow him to continue, he would never buy work from us again.

I told him the relationship was over and I wouldn’t subject myself to blackmail. I hung up the phone, feeling both furious and scared. I had just cut off our main source of income while living in a foreign country, and our bank account was seemingly doing intermittent fasting. But I couldn't just let him get away with it. I knew he would continue selling our prints in Costco, and there was nothing I could do about it until I got back.

The injustice infuriated me. I felt helpless. We were only three months into our trip and still had another three to go. We contemplated leaving early but changing our tickets would cost a fortune, we would have to sell the car we just bought and had already paid our rent in advance. We felt like we didn’t get what we came for and needed to stick it out and persevere.

Financial Struggle and Dwindling Savings: The Cost of Perseverance

Before we left for the trip, we had $10,000 tucked away in savings and were earning plenty of money. However, the moment our feet landed in Greece, we received an email informing us that our renter had backed out, and the furnished apartment we had secured in Greece was no longer available. We were already homeless upon arrival. Over the next few weeks, we hemorrhaged money. We found a new apartment, but it didn't even have light fixtures or appliances. There was no access to Goodwill, thrift stores, craigslist, or garage sales, so our only option was Ikea.

Our savings? Nearly gone. We had to buy an old Citroen from the 80s and paid extra for the registration because it was so old. It broke down more than a few times. We got the car so we could roam around Greece, taking our girls on camping adventures and showing them the beaches.

Instead of finding inspiration and advancing in our art careers, we were trying to survive day by day. Summer had ended and fall was proving to be very cold. The winter box we shipped from Arizona had yet to arrive, and because of the petroleum strike happening, we had no heat.

A Battle With Hunger and Desperation

Weeks went by and October felt like a harsh dark winter. We could no longer eat out or drive anywhere. We huddled together in our t-shirts and borrowed blankets in our tiny uninspiring apartment, waiting for our box of clothes. We were expecting a royalty check at the end of October for licensing art and could finally breathe a little, but I wondered how we would survive until then. Normally our licensing money was a bonus, something we could save or reinvest, but this time we needed it to just feed our children.

I looked in our fridge and it was practically empty except for mustard and some wilted parsley. The pantry was empty, too, except for spices and olive oil. I contemplated calling my parents to ask for a couple hundred bucks to tide us over until the royalty check came in, but I just couldn’t bear to hear my dad say, “If you’d married an engineer instead of an artist, you would be able to feed your children right now.”

Echoes of Past Warnings and The Starving Artist Myth

All of my dad’s early warnings were resurfacing, echoing in my ears. “Don’t be a starving artist. You won’t make it. Your children will be on the streets with bloated bellies, living in cardboard boxes. Art isn’t a real career.” How did I get here? For years and years, we had been doing great. We overcame the starving artist myth, so why were we now on the brink of starvation?

Lunchtime rolled around, and there was no money and no food. John and I rummaged through all our pockets and lifted every couch cushion looking for money. We managed to scrape together about three and a half euros. John said it was enough to buy a giant sausage sandwich from the shop below our apartment, and we could split it into five pieces for lunch. The girls and I waited, stomachs growling, for John to return...

How will the tale unfold? Will we ever find a way to fill our empty stomachs? Find out next week in the Artist Odyssey newsletter to discover how we overcame adversity by collaborating artistically!


 Share your thoughts in the comments below!


  • Dorothea Photinidis

    I omitted to mention a very important note; the funds I invested for the Mastery program recently, I earned from doing an unexpected commission – a black & white portrait for a client in South Africa, introduced to me by a friend who knew I was looking for ‘work’ to fund the schooling I need to push me onto the next level of Mastery! I am 73 years young having just joined the ranks of being unemployable ! 😍

  • Dorothea Photinidis

    My heart went out to you Elli – for you and John with the 3 kids was extraordinary courageous and brave. It’s where success lies, in nerves of steal. Bravo.

    I resonated with your arrival hiccup in Greece as it happened to me too … arriving in Greece January 2020, 6 weeks before the world shut down for Covid. With the shortness of funds – I developed shortness of breath …. no way of flying back home to South Africa. Somehow faith in oneself, bitting the bullet and breathing deeper, thinking out the box, one survives.

    Currently still coasting on survival mode. The first lot of funds I could lay my hands on – I signed up on the Mastery course. Determined to make it, am still on the first few weeks in – lack of funds scrounging to buy paint and economic canvases, yet determined to succeed, I am hanging onto your every word, every step of the way, you don’t know it – you are my inspiration and my “American-Greek” family from far. Proud to say I love the “Bird and the “night scene” I created of the radiant underpainting /subtractive glaze / opaque layer. The “Pears” a success of a different kind – I decided to shade it in “colour” – to cheer me up

    Thank you for the radiant colours you use that offer me hope and to keep on creating ✨. Dorothea Photinidis

  • Aruna Mettler

    Kudos to you for sharing your stories with gut wrenching honesty and truth. I was touched and connected when you and john “John & I rummaged through and lifted cushions and searched every pocket.” I have been thre tool. Your struggle, courage, and belief in yourselves is commendable. I am so grateful to the higher pwoer to have found you. Thank you.
    Elli Milan Art replied:
    Hi Aruna. It’s these times that make us humble to know that we need God to help us and get us through. 🥰🙌🏽

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