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Charmed Life

Renaissance Man

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 3/28/2001

Officially, Theodoros Roditis is a sewing-machine repairperson. Well, a sewing-machine repairperson and a typewriter-fixer. A typewriter-fixer and violin-restorer. A violin-restorer and a lamp-maker.

The list goes on as you step further into Roditis' tiny, cluttered rowhouse shop on the 1700 block of Eastern Avenue. The block may not yet have joined the latest Baltimore renaissance, the one changing the face of neighboring Fells Point, but Roditis is undergoing a renaissance of his own--not one tied to property values, but the old-fashioned kind that sprouts art in all directions.

Step past the army of sewing machines (from 1980s Singers to an iron-cast '20s model), the figurines, the plush display of vintage cameras (yes, he repairs those too), into the back of the shop. The room is cluttered with dolls--Barbies stuffed into an aquarium, Victorian-style figures staring from shelves, all being saved, Roditis says, for his granddaughter. There's a shelf dedicated solely to iron typewriters, another reserved for '70s-vintage stereo receivers. Somehow he's squeezed a couch in here. In another corner, surrounded by his paintings, is his music studio, outfitted with keyboards, synthesizers, drum machines, a trumpet, and a guitar. At heart, Roditis is a composer, working under the name Theo el Greco.

"Music," he says, his hands gesturing before him, as if the word itself is sufficient to make his point. "I like to express the problems of life and the world. Plus I like my music. It's like quality food. No trash."

Nearly 30 years after he emigrated from Greece, Roditis' English is still pretty spotty, his sentences swimming against the current of a thick accent as he explains himself to a visitor.

"All this stuff you see around here, I invest my money." Once a week, this mustachioed shopkeeper puts on his fedora with the decorative buttons and goes out in search of treasures in antiques stores. "This," he says, clutching a small sewing machine that he bought for $300 and now is worth nearly $2,000, "is my stock market."

Everything Roditis does--the investing in antiques, the repair business--goes to support his music and painting, the latter a playful blend of innocence and strangeness that could make him a candidate for the "visionary artist" label.

Roditis pulls out a notebook of clippings from Greek newspapers. His music is still performed in Greece, he says. That wasn't always the case; in the early '70s, when Greece was ruled by a military junta, his music was banned because he sang pro-democracy songs. Although the junta was overthrown in 1974, Roditis remained disillusioned with his homeland; he also had fallen in love with an American woman, which led to his emigration in 1972. He worked in a series of plants repairing industrial sewing machinery before retiring 10 years ago to start his own business.

Roditis says he repairs 15 to 25 sewing machines a week in his unnamed shop, plus the occasional old-fashioned typewriter from patrons who have avoided the revolution of clacking plastic keyboards. In between the Singers and Smith-Coronas are small figurines Roditis has encased in mosaics of crushed colored glass, which he buys from a neighbor who sweeps the street. He designs lamps built from china bowls, cups, scraps of old parlor fixtures. And he mixes his own colors for the paintings that have turned his back room into a gallery--landscapes, dancing children, nudes, all depicted in gauzy textures.

While his paintings are inspired by memories of his childhood in Greece, Roditis says the source of his music is the world around him now, be it the news on television or the view from his window. One of his songs is about the Oklahoma City bombing; another urges women to stop wearing black so much.

"For me, black is only used for memorial in my country," he says. "When somebody died you use black color. . . . The fascists use black color too."

No matter what the subject, Roditis' music chimes euphorically in synthesized layers, like carousel music without the waltzing rhythm, or the meandering of a music box. He has never performed publicly in the United States, although he says he regularly gigged in Greece. "I don't go around [saying] this is my music," he says.

Rather, Roditis lives by the code that true art isn't something you put a price on--at least "not today." His paintings of landscapes and fishing boats aren't for sale; he'd rather make a copy for someone than give up the original. A sign stating lamp masterpieces not for sale hangs in a window full of them.

He hopes to eventually sell his lamp designs for production in factories, but in the meantime he'll continue to fix sewing machines, make music, and paint in the rear of his rowhouse. "All this art around me makes me interested," he says, "makes me happy."

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