From the BBC to Bespoke Art Tours: Cindy Polemis

Above: Cindy Polemis, patron of the arts, craft and home.

It’s difficult to keep up with Cindy Polemis. In any given week, this former BBC journalist may be guiding art lovers at the Tate or giving bespoke art tours around London, sitting on the board of the Geffrye Museum, lecturing in history of art, tutoring children in the East End, cooking, gardening, or even making flower arrangements for her husband’s restaurants, Fernandez & Wells — a London-based café chain.  Her admiration and awe for the human spirit and her passion for the home propels her into a multi faceted life where all the dots seem to connect together seamlessly.

Cindy’s first stint at the BBC in the mid-eighties as a cub reporter was to cover the miner’s strike in North Yorkshire. She then came back down to London and worked her way up through the World Service as a producer, editor and presenter — all the time honing her communication and organization skills. A husband and three grown daughters later, Cindy has been using these skills ever since to promote the causes she believes are important for nurturing the soul. With her infectious smile and enthusiasm leading the way, she takes us through one of her weeks.

Cluttered desk with iPad and computer. Cat peers out from beneath.
Above: Cindy’s desk where the news and her cat, Lola, are always in the background.

What gets you out of bed in the mornings?

I’m afraid once a journalist, always a journalist. Despite leaving the BBC over twelve years ago, I can’t get up in the morning without tuning into the Today Programme. And I am still glued to my newspapers, much to the despair of my family who tell me I get far too worked up about things — especially at the moment.

I first worked for the BBC World Service from the mid-eighties to the end of the nineties (Cindy later worked at the BBC from 2003 – 2005). As many horrible things that were happening — Lockerbie — for instance, there were also so many positive things emerging around the world. The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Ceausescu was overthrown in 1989, the Cold War was beginning to crumble and then Nelson Mandela was released in 1990. If you think about what our lives are like right now in Europe alone, in terms of integration and free movement, those days were seminal. It was a great time to be at the BBC because they had such a fantastic reputation for world reporting and getting the news out. I met so many nice people who are still good friends, my husband included.

Woman looking at Frank Auerbach painting at Tate Britain
Above: Cindy prepares for one of her guided tours in front of a painting by Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain. “I always go around once before the tour just to make sure everything is where I think it is,” she says. “They like to move things.”

After the BBC, you enrolled to do a BA in Art History at Birkbeck University and enjoyed it so much you eventually completed your Masters five years later. Tell us more.

Going back to university was one of the best experiences of my life. I had read history at Oxford and reading history of art seemed like a natural progression — it was something I had always wanted to do. I knew I enjoyed art but I wanted to know more about the stories behind the art works. So there I was in mid life, staying up until 2 in the morning, writing essays to meet deadlines. It was all a bit frantic and my kids thought it was very funny.

What did you take away from this experience?

I am a great advocate for mature learning — well, all learning actually. But as we age, there’s a terrible temptation to think we no longer need to learn. When you learn something new, it makes you think in different ways and encourages you to become less rigid and opens up new possibilities, which I find very exciting.

Gingerbread iced with smiling woman in front of painting
Above: A portrait of Cindy in front of a painting, decorated for her on a gingerbread cookie by a friend.

Tell us about some of your new adventures after the BBC.

Interestingly, they all have to do with learning. While I was doing my BA, I signed up to be a volunteer art guide at the Tate. The waiting list is very long so I knew it might take awhile and had actually forgotten about it when they called me up four years later. The Tate were recruiting more guides in view of the opening of Switch House, Tate Modern’s new extension. After 3 months of training, I qualified last May. Off the back of that, I have been teaching an Introduction to Modern Art course to the staff of a London-based interior design company as well as giving bespoke art tours around town.

Cindy Polemis. Woman in black standing in atrium of Tate Britain.
Above: A rare quiet and still moment for Cindy at Tate Britain.

For the last three years, I have been working with Into University, an educational charity that supports the learning of underprivileged children. Every Thursday afternoon, I mentor and tutor children, ages 11 – 16, at one of their centres in Bow in the East End of London. In a way it’s like a glorified homework club. Depending on their needs, I help them with a variety of things centred around their school work. In reality, though I am helping them build their confidence. I find with girls especially, and I know this because I am the mother of 3 daughters, that they can be self-effacing and constantly worried that their work isn’t good enough. It’s a very interesting and rewarding 2 hours out of my week.

Four women
Above: Cindy with her three daughters.

And in May 2015, I became a trustee at The Geffrye —Museum of the Home.

What is it about the “home” that you feel is significant?

I have always been drawn to making sense of what makes a home. The Geffrye was originally set up as a museum about homes for the middling classes, but its remit is much wider now. When you ask the question,  “what makes a home today?,” people will give you many different answers depending on their circumstances. There is a basic need to make a home wherever you are. The plight of the Syrian refugees in Turkey, who are living in tents that serve as their temporary homes, schools, restaurants, medical clinics illustrates this point. Everything they have is in these tents. I deeply admire the way that The Geffrye catalogue the artefacts and stories of the home, giving you a sense of the development of what makes a home.

It’s an exciting time to be part of The Geffrye. They have a new director and a capital program underway to build an extension, adding more space to show its permanent collection. It’s definitely a place to watch in the next few years.

Artwork of terraced houses by Victor Stuart Graham hung on bright yellow wall
Above: A row of terraced houses by artist Victor Stuart Graham hangs in Cindy’s kitchen.

And how does the Geffrye tie in to your personal love of the “home”?

I have always been drawn to the intersection of art and utility. My Master’s dissertation was about the mid 18th century French painter, Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin and his sill lifes about food. These are beautifully understated private paintings about domestic objects. I love what his portrayal of cultural artefacts around a home tells us about this period of French history.

Another area where art and utility intersect for me is in craft that is generated for the home. Before I was consumed by my studies, I used to hold small craft exhibitions in my home and got to know some wonderfully creative artists. I like nice simple things that have been well thought out. We use them everyday, and I think these things add to your human spirit in a way.

Photos hung on yellow wall of kitchen, Marianna Kennedy painting
Above L: “In my own home, I I like to compile an aesthetic entity if you like. Whether that is laying a nice table or putting pictures on the wall in an interesting way. I love the thought behind it.” Above R: A painting by artist Marianna Kennedy sums up Cindy’s kitchen well.

How do you get creative?

For me it’s all about cooking and gardening. I do them both to decompress. My garden is an extension of my kitchen and nothing makes me happier than looking out at it every morning at breakfast, even at this time of year when I start planning for spring. This year, I really only want to grow potatoes — perhaps some lettuce and rhubarb because it’s so beautiful to look at. I’m actually not even a big potato eater but there is something about digging up your own potatoes and eating them straight from the ground. They are truly a wonder of the world.

As for cooking, well, I guess it’s in my Greek blood. My mother taught me to cook for which I will always be grateful. I have recently learned how to make sour dough bread and it’s become a bit of an obsession now. I just find it totally amazing how you can make a loaf of bread thanks to the natural chemical reaction of flour and water. It’s pure magic, but then I again, I think that a lot about cooking.

London kitchen looking out onto garden in summer
Above: The view of Cindy’s summer garden from her kitchen table.

Any Wardrobe Wisdom?
I have come to avoid recognisable labels and instead seek out things that are a bit eclectic. I don’t really know what my style is but I do love a classic white shirt and often find myself opting for the work wear look. I’m on my feet a lot and always moving so I stay away from high heels and favour comfortable shoes like brogues or Chelsea boots. And also, nothing is more important than a good hair cut! I have been getting my hair cut for more than twenty five years by Richard Stepney at Fourth Floor in Clerkenwell.

Young girl with colourful hat, Guerrilla Girl and Cindy Polemis
Above L: Cindy wearing her infectious smile at the age of twenty seven. Above R: Cindy makes the acquaintance of a Guerrilla Girl last year at the Tate.

What’s in your Prescient Pantry?

Good olive oil — I get mine from  friends at the Oil Merchant — garlic and tinned tomatoes. And the best complete meal out of a tin is Confit de Canard — it is the ultimate fast food. And flour for my sour dough bread, of course. I now have bags of Gilchester’s Organic Wheat Flour.

A tin of confit de canard, bag of Gilchester flour, tin of tomatoes, two bottles of olive oil
Above: The items in Cindy’s Prescient Pantry uncovered.

How do you stay strong and well in body and mind?
I love cycling and bike around London except in the rain and around big roundabouts — too scared. I try to go to the gym regularly because I think it’s important to do strength training. I also do yoga and circuit classes. But the thing that keeps me sane is weekend wild swimming in the Highgate Ponds with my husband — I go to the Ladies’ and he goes to the Men’s. We do it all year round even in the winter — yesterday it was 2 degrees Celsius — bloody cold but so much better than any therapy. At first, you think there is no way you can get in all the way and then you do. “Wow, I can do this,” you think. It’s a sort of psychological and physical leap of faith and you are on a high for the rest of the day.

Gray sweater jumper with magenta darned patch
Above: A weaver friend recently taught Cindy and her daughter how to darn. “In the old days, everyone used the same colour yarn — I think it’s more fun to use a contrasting colour.”

If you have any messages to you your younger self, what would they be?
Caution is way overrated. There are many things I could have done when I was younger and didn’t. I do regret that. And learn how to do something with your hands whether it’s cooking, sewing, knitting, kneading bread — something creative.

Cindy Polemis and Rick Wells, Fernandez & Wells
Above: Cindy and her husband Rick Wells. In “Rustic” his book about Fernandez & Wells,  Rick credits Cindy with making the first cakes the restaurant chain served.

What do you hold most dear to your heart?
Sitting around a large table with my husband and three daughters and closest of friends, eating, drinking, laughing.

 

Illustration of dining table with potatoes, gardening tools, frying pan, yarn, painting and bread. Illustration by Christine Hanway.
Above: Cindy’s Still Life. Artwork by Christine Chang Hanway.

A Fabulous Fabster thank you to Cindy Polemis!

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