It's my 49th birthday, and I'm in Nafplio, Greece, with John and Dino. We've just arrived, exhausted from our long trek from Athens, Georgia. In celebration of my birthday, we are determined to go out for a beautiful Greek feast, even if it means our eyes cross and possibly fall asleep on our plates.
We are heartbroken to find out that Jake, Dimitra, and two crew members missed their flight. A Delta manager at departures, unaware of the May 2nd repeal of all Covid restrictions, insisted they get a Covid test. John, Dino, and I lucked out and were checked in by someone who knew the rules had changed. This setback meant the rest of our team had to spend the night in an Atlanta hotel. My birthday celebration was beginning to feel like a flop.
Navigating Unforeseen Hurdles
Now that we were here in Greece and feeling the initial unfamiliarity and foreigners, I could tell I was feeling insecure and worried – even a sense of dread rather than excitement. I felt in over my head. Who was I to think we could pull this off? So much money is on the line, and if we fail, we will really eat it! I hoped this wasn't some kind of omen. It wasn't exactly the smooth start we had hoped for. Nevertheless, we took lots of pictures of our delicious food and birthday festivities, sending them to Jake and Dimitra, hoping to rile their jealously while they spent their night in Atlanta.
Dimitra, Jake, and the crew arrived the next evening exhausted, still salty about the Delta employee's oversight. We have three days in the ancient city of Nafplio before our big van picks us up for a two-hour drive through the mountains on our way to Spetses. These three days are our only chance to overcome jet lag, acclimate ourselves, and get ready for six weeks of hard-core work.
We are taking on a huge project way outside our comfort zones. With only two seasons under our belt, previously filmed in our cushy studio back home in Georgia, we are now attempting something much more grandiose: filming "The Outstanding Artist" reality show on a little island in Greece. We rented an entire hotel for the next six weeks to film 12 episodes.
Scrambling for Solutions
We are nervous about the project. Already, we've faced tremendous obstacles. Earlier in the year, we hired a trusted film crew from Ukraine for this project. However, the outbreak of war in March prohibited the crew from leaving their country. Changing plans wasn't an option as we had already paid a huge chunk of money for the hotel and plane tickets and would not get refunded. We found ourselves scrambling to assemble a new crew and bring all the necessary equipment ourselves.
Then, just a week ago, while trying to rent a van, we discovered that the island of Spetses doesn't allow cars! There are only two vans, four taxis, and two buses on the entire island. All the locals and tourists typically walk or use mopeds and quads to get around the island. How are we going to film in multiple locations if we can't transport people or equipment? It feels impossible. It's a big unknown, and it seems like a daunting task.
For now, I try to push my concerns out of my mind because here we are, going for it. It is all about to begin, and once it starts, it can't be stopped – there is no turning back. 12 artists from all over the world are about to arrive, each making their own way to the island in hopes of winning $25,000 and being crowned The Outstanding Artist.
The Last-Minute Contestant Change
The day before we leave Nafplio to go to the island, I get a message from Ritika, one of the contestants from India. She tells me that she doesn't think she can come. Her visa hadn't arrived yet, and there was no sign it would get there in time. She apologizes, feeling terrible and disappointed. What are we going to do? Every challenge is planned, and our strict schedule includes 12 contestants, not 11.
I call Tanya Johnston. It's only 8 am her time. She usually stays up very late painting, so I'm not sure if she'll answer. To my surprise, she answers the phone. "Elli! Aren't you in Greece?"
"Yes, I'm here. Remember how you asked to be a backup for Outstanding Artist? Well, Ritika didn't get her visa, so we need you. What do you say? Can you get here by 5 pm tomorrow?"
"Ughh… Let me talk to my family, and I'll call you back."
In the meantime, I started looking for flights. She lives in Virginia and has to drive three hours to get to D.C. to catch a flight. I can't believe what I am seeing. There is a flight that afternoon at 3 pm that will get her to Athens the next morning. A direct flight for under a thousand dollars. Finally, something is going right!
Five minutes later, Tanya calls back. "I'm in! I'm coming to Greece!"
I tell her about the flight and how to get to the island.
"Go pack. We've got art supplies here, but bring whatever you want!"
Now we're back on track with 12 contestants, and all our plans for the episodes will work out. I start feeling a little more relaxed and gain a boost of confidence.
Transportation and Luggage Logistics
The next morning, we all lug our two large suitcases each, along with extra bags of equipment, down to the street where the van will meet us. Looking at everything we have and how much space we will need, I'm certain that whatever van is coming won't fit seven humans, 14 bags, and Jake's humongous equipment bag, which is at least six feet long. It ominously looks like a bag you would hide a dead body in.
As people pass by us, they look judgmentally at our heap of luggage for only seven people. The van pulls up and looks to be a 9-passenger. We're all clearly nervous about fitting everything, but none of us want to say anything. I've seen Greek drivers skillfully pack a massive amount of things like a game of Tetris, magically knowing upon first glance if everything will fit.
The driver greets us, looks down at our pile of bags, and shakes his head side-to-side, muttering, "We will try." At this point, I know not to help and just pray. They know precisely the best way to pack everything in there. All we need to do is stand around and wait for instructions. He begins with the far back seat, loading up two large suitcases, then tells Dimitra and another tiny person to squeeze in there. Next, he works on the back of the van, meticulously stacking the suitcases in two rows and stuffing every nook and cranny with purses and backpacks. He shuts the back door with confidence, but I can still see a couple of suitcases and the body bag.
He stuffs some suitcases where our feet would normally go and tells Dino, John, and I to get into the middle row. Then he lays the body down the narrow side aisle of the van, slightly perched onto the seat next to Dimitra. With a look of satisfaction, the driver crams the remaining people and bags into the front, both guys holding a carry-on in their laps. By some miracle, we all fit.
It's the longest two-hour drive, which could have easily been an hour and fifteen minutes, but our driver had to go slow up the winding mountain roads. It's a queasy, hot, and stuffy ride, but none of us dare to complain, knowing we were just one backpack away from not fitting.
We finally arrive at the small town of Kosta, where the water taxis are to pick us up. Two taxis arrived pretty quickly as we were still pulling the endless stream of staircases from the van. One taxi driver, eyeing Jake's long bag, grins and asks, "What you got in that bag? A dead body?"
Jake looks at him, expressionless, and deadpans, "Yes."
The taxi driver's grin fades as he continues loading our luggage.
Adapting to Change
Surprising Twist and Unexpected Problems
I get the Wi-Fi password and look at my messages. I see several messages from Ritika: "I'm coming!" "I went to Delhi and picked up my passport and visa." "I changed my flight and will arrive the day after tomorrow, ready to paint!" and finally, "I'm on my way!"
Now, what were we to do? We had 13 contestants instead of 12! As Dimitra and Jake were talking and getting a tour with Panayiotis, I was panicking internally to myself. As Panayiotis walked away, Eva added to my anxiety, whispering, "We have some problems with the place. We'll need to be smart and fix some things. I'm sorry, but the man did not keep his word to me." She looked worried, and I knew that our rest in Nafplio would be our last. I knew today and tomorrow would be filled with running around the island, searching for supplies to "fix" whatever was wrong with the hotel.
The pressure was mounting, and part of me wanted to turn around and go back to Georgia. What am I doing? How did I get myself into this mess? So many people are depending on me. This could turn into a huge disaster. I quickly reached the end of myself and my capabilities while maintaining my composure and telling Eva with a reassuring, "Sure, no problem, we'll figure it out."
Finding Strength in Flexibility and Faith
At that moment, I realized that to do this show justice and create something profound, I had to be adaptable. Like a painting, the show knows what it needs to become. We have our plans and we have our visions, but I have to be willing to let it go for something more beautiful to form. Almost every painting I create, at some point, looks so ugly and unresolved that I think this is the one painting I can't fix. But it never turns out that way. It always works out.
Just as the Divine hand guides our brush, there is something greater, something outside of us, that is writing this show. I knew I had to do my best to handle the problems and surprises with grace and wisdom. I reminded myself that no matter what happens, God is creating something powerful with "The Outstanding Artist." Often, the greatest achievements in life are met with obstacles and challenges. Rarely does significant progress come easily. Sometimes, we have to fight. Sometimes, we must contend for greatness.
Stay tuned for next week's blog post, where I'll unveil the rollercoaster of events that unfolded during the filming of Season 3 of The Outstanding Artist in Greece. The adventure, the drama, the art – it's all part of a story that's as unpredictable as it is inspiring.