Mark Twain once wrote, “Nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.” If Twain was right, Aella Diamantopoulos must be a liberal, kindly person indeed. A striking woman, Diamantopoulos speaks with a lilting accent that’s hard to place — probably because it’s from a little bit of everywhere. Born in Greece, she’s the daughter of a diplomat and has lived and studied in several corners of the world. She is currently the chief conservator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where she oversees conservation activities for paintings, frames, paper, objects and sculpture. Diamantopoulos has studied at the Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg in France, the Hamilton Kerr Institute, University of Cambridge and the Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique in Brussels, Belgium, and been awarded numerous grants, honors and fellowships for her work.
PGN: Where are you originally from? AD: I was born in Athens, but soon after I was whisked off to Washington, D.C., where my father was given a post. From there we went to Montréal and from there London, then Australia, then back to Europe for a post in France. After that, I went off on my own to study. I did go back to Greece every year for the summer so I feel strongly Greek, though it’s a strange relationship.
PGN: I dated someone Greek for five years — there’s a lot of pressure to conform. AD: Yes, for me it can be difficult to be a part of the Greek community. They are very traditional and very marriage-oriented. I enjoy going to the Easter services, not for the religious part, but for the beauty and ceremony of it, but sometimes I feel like I stick out like a giraffe when I’m with my partner. The pressure to be with a man can be very aggressive. I’ll never forget once when I was young, back when I was thin with long blond hair, I was propositioned by this terrible man. He was openly trying to coerce me to have sex with him and he was really disgusting. He was telling me that when Greek men had their urges they had to have them satisfied. He told me he even once did it with another man. I said, “So you’re gay then.” He shouted, “God forbid, absolutely not!” I said, “But you had sex with a man.” And he said, “Yes, but I was the doer. I wasn’t the feminine part.”
PGN: How long have you been in Philadelphia? AD: For about 11 years now. I met my partner Laurie in Ohio 12 years ago while I was working at the Intermuseum Conservation Laboratory in Oberlin. I had a two-year fellowship there that eventually turned into a job. When I got the job at PAFA, she came here with me.
PGN: So do you ever get dizzy at work? AD: Why? PGN: I read a little about it and you have to work with a lot of chemicals. AD: Oh! No, there’s so much training involved. There’s your master’s degree and three years training and then internships and fellowships. It’s about 10 years of study for this profession. It’s something that you have to have a lot of passion for. You learn to protect yourself. There are fans to remove the chemicals from the air and organic masks that we wear.
PGN: You must be very patient. AD: [Laughs.] I hate to say it, with works of art, yes; with people, perhaps not so much. I think that’s why I enjoy working so much with the art. I can sit in front of a painting for years and not get bored, but the older I’m getting, the less patience I have with people!
PGN: How long does it take? AD: Some minor pieces may take only a week or two, but some pieces take much longer. I worked on a life-size portrait of George III for a year and a half and that was a quick turnaround. If you can imagine, that painting was sitting in a vault for a hundred years just collecting dirt and deteriorating. It had a lot of overpaint, which means that other people had painted over it with materials that were non-reversible, so there was a lot of work to do. Whatever I do should be completely reversible.
PGN: Is it scary? I’d be afraid of accidentally poking a brush through an original painting. AD: When I trained at the Hamilton Institute, they knew how scared we were. Most of the paintings we restored were from the queen’s collection, so as you can imagine, they were priceless. They wanted to train us on the best. I remember the director broke me in by telling me to go up and bring down a painting from the storage room. It was a Rembrandt. I think I broke out into a sweat because, to get down from the storage room, you had to navigate a difficult set of steps.
PGN: What were you like as a kid? AD: Very quiet, which my friends find hard to believe. They tease me that I never shut up. I was always very detail-oriented. My mother was very instrumental in helping me find my career. Since we traveled a lot, we would always find the museums in each new city. She had a passion for art. She also noticed that I was very careful with things and loved to tinker. If there was something at home that was broken, I would repair it. At one point, we were in London and she took me to the museum, where I saw them cleaning icons in one of the rooms. I’m not very vain, but I remember thinking, “Oh my God, I could do a much better job than that.” And so a career was born.
PGN: Early signs that you were gay? AD: I was a total tomboy. At 3, the neighborhood boys in Montréal didn’t want me to play cowboys and Indians with them because I was a girl. I thought, well, the only difference I can see is that they have short hair. So, I asked my 5-year-old brother to cut my long blonde hair off. When my mother came back from grocery shopping, she looked alarmed and asked my brother, “Where is Aella?” I still remember her expression, an ancient Greek mask of tragedy.
PGN: What’s your most unusual possession? AD: I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. He was a horrible man who tried to grow the population by eliminating birth control and abortions. As a result there were thousands of unwanted kids in orphanages and homeless on the streets. My parents are both of Greek descent, but they were both born in Romania and lived there until their 20s, so they had close ties with Romania. Because my parents were diplomats, they ended up having to attend a reception that Ceausescu and his wife attended. His wife gave my mother a small rug as a souvenir. I have it now. It’s pretty odd to have an artifact from such a terrible person, but it’s nice and I let the cats use it. They throw up on it a lot. Fur balls.
PGN: Disaster you survived? AD: An earthquake in Athens, 6.5 on the Richter scale. Nobody warns you about the non-ending aftershocks!
PGN: An author who has affected you? AD: There are three: Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway and Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet. His sensual gay-themed poems are filled with emotion.
PGN: What was coming out like? AD: I came out to my parents 18 years ago. I just sat them down in my father’s office and said that I had something to tell them. It’s one of those things that you think you are prepared for, but my throat closed up and I cried and it was very difficult. But I couldn’t live a lie any longer and I didn’t want to hurt them anymore. I thought it was something that they suspected, but they acted completely shocked and went through the usual stages, denial — “you just haven’t met the right guy” — to anger to acceptance in the last few years. It’s such a difficult thing. But I feel lucky about one thing: I’m not a religious person so I didn’t have to worry about the guilt that can come with that. I also believe that homosexuality is completely natural. There’s a lot of variety in nature and I believe that there’s a purpose for it all. It’s so sad that variety threatens so many people. It’s such a shame that we can’t embrace differences.
PGN: Do you think your father being a diplomat shaped your views? AD: Oh yes, and just living and traveling to so many different countries. When you have experienced many different places and people and foods and cultures, you learn to appreciate variety and are open to so much more. I meet people who are born in Philadelphia, go to Haverford College and never have the desire to explore other places. It’s hard to understand that, the lack of curiosity. Though the same thing happens anywhere: There are people in Greece who are born in one village and never travel, even in Greece. It’s hard to expand that way. I think being exposed to different people and cultures makes you more compassionate as well.