By Sophia A. Niarchos
OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – Louis Trakis remembers like it was yesterday the August day in 1988 when he played in a celebrity-studded softball game with a guy people in the Hamptons barely knew. The game was the East Hampton Artists and Writers Soft Ball Game, an annual tradition that celebrated its 55th anniversary on August 16. The man standing behind the pitcher in the “safety-first” position of umpire (they wear no protective clothing) was then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton.
“People were getting their pictures taken with all the celebrities but, because they hadn’t heard of the governor of Arkansas, they didn’t care about having their picture taken with him,” Trakis recalls, chuckling at the folly.
Up to three years ago and for more than ten years, Trakis, an award-winning artist, professor emeritus and former chairman of the Art Department at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., played center field on the artists team at the East Hampton event. When a valiant attempt to catch a fly ball resulted in a strained ligament, the 70-year-old artist/baseball player decided it was time to take a less active role in the game and became a third-base coach.
He proudly remembers playing and coaching such artist team members as Paul Simon, Alec Baldwin, Roy Scheider, and Eric Ernst, grandson of surrealist painter Max Ernst, as well as other sculptors and artists. This year, everyone but Simon had returned to show off their baseball prowess, and the game – despite some uncontrolled pitching by Scheider and New York Daily News sports writer Mike Lupica – surprisingly exciting, with a 9-9 tie in the 9th inning building suspense until the writers defeated the artists in the 10th by a score of 11-9.
The team rosters were fashioned by Ken Auletta, the New Yorker columnist and author of eight books, including World War 3.0: Microsoft and its Enemies. Among those on the winning team were Carl Bernstein, who – with the assistance of author Bob Woodward – exposed the Watergate scandal, leading to the resignation of then-President Richard Nixon; author, actor and lecturer George Plimpton; Fox News Reporter Rick Leventhal; and once-NYC Democratic mayoral candidate Mark Green.
Watching on the sidelines at this year’s game were sex therapist Ruth Westheimer, comedian/actor Chevy Chase and actor Ed Burns.
While Trakis enjoys participating in this annual Hamptons charity event, his enthusiasm and passion are especially apparent when you ask him about his career as an artist. Though names of many of the dozens of past ball players fade from his memory, he still hasn’t forgotten the New York city-wide award he won at a very young age.
“After I won the third-prize Wanamaker Award for drawing, my second-grade teacher told my father, who had built up a successful retail clothing business, that he should let me develop as an artist,” Trakis said.
When he went to junior high school, such was his talent that he was able to attend a special school for art study every Friday. But the privilege was combined with challenge as the young man had to walk a couple of miles to get there.
Trakis met with artistic success throughout his youth, leading to a coveted four-year scholarship for art study at Cooper Union, followed by two years (the 2nd being a renewal based on excellence in the first) of study in Rome and Milan through a Fulbright grant.
“I remember the 1960 Rome Olympic Games, where Mohammed Ali (then Cassius Clay) got his gold medal,” he said. And far into the future, the event connected the artist with the honoree at Manhattanville College through an Olympics-inspired sculpture.
In the spring of 2002, when Manhattanville honored HIP Health Plan President and CEO Anthony L. Watson, the award he was presented was a bronze sculpture Trakis created.
“I did the sculpture in welded steel,” Trakis said. “It was a dancing figure and reflected the grace and beauty of the athletes in Rome. Little did I know when I was inspired to create it that Watson had competed in track-and-field in the Rome Olympics. I later looked at my memorabilia from the event and found I had kept all the ticket stubs of the track-and-field events of the Rome games!”
An artist often inspired by visions and dreams, especially of those that bring the theme of longevity into his creations, Trakis expresses artistic work as “man looking at nature, disentangling it, and setting it free by making it a personal statement.”
Very proud of his Greek heritage (his father was from Crete, his mother from Samos, and Trakis remembers daily Greek school obligations for which he is still thankful), one of his most memorable sculptures is a head of Kazantzakis, which New York’s Kouros Gallery was once interested in purchasing.
“It was semi-abstract, with one side of the head showing the Apollonian – or thinking – side of the man, and the other showing his Dionysian – or feeling – side.”
Trakis, a two-time recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Award, studied at the Athens Polytechneion and, between 1980 and 1985, taught sculpture in a summer Manhattanville program in Crete.
During his travels to Uganda and the Congo, he realized a significant difference in the cultures of primitive tribes from those of modern Western civilizations.
“Unlike the Western world, where art is relegated to something you visit at a museum or gallery, in those primitive cultures art is a daily routine, expressed in the jewelry they create for themselves by hand, their elaborate face make-up, and the dyeing of their clothing. In our culture, instead of everyone creating their own art and making it part of their lives, artists do it for them. As an artist, I don’t believe that I should be put on a pedestal; people should be put on a pedestal…they can do it.”
Trakis, who still plies his craft (he also draws and creates prints) in studios in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and in Southampton, is especially concerned about the absence of art in the lives of today’s youth.
“Young people need to know their center, they need to experience the reality of their spirituality,” he says. “Good art teachers will teach their students that they respect their center; helping the students learn to respect the centers of others. There is a lot of destruction, a lot of fragmentation, in our world, which splits us apart; but by learning to respect the center of the individual by working in art, the student can overcome that destruction and fragmentation.”
The recent terrorist attacks on New York City are for him a symbol of that destruction and have a personal connection:
“My cousin, Joanna Axladiotis, worked for Cantor-Fitzgerald. A week before the terrorist attack on September 11, she went to Las Vegas on business, sharing the trip with her parents. They returned Sunday night, but Monday morning when she went to work, 30 people at Cantor Fitzgerald got pink slips. They were fired on the spot and escorted to the door. She called her mother and said “Mom, I’m so happy and lucky I wasn’t fired today.
“The next morning, Tuesday, September 11, she went in at 7 a.m. for the European market. At 8:45 the planes hit and that was it. They found her DNA three or four months later. Now we memorialize her through a project I’m working on with two colleagues. We are contributing a design to the 9/11 memorial competition. Although the finalists will be announced in September and the winning design selected in October, it’s a nice thing for us spiritually even if we don’t win the competition because it will be seen.”