That’s the distance between Tbilisi — the capital of the Republic of Georgia and Dimitri Mais‘ birthplace — and Brooklyn, where he’s presently residing. It takes 14 hours to fly to the Republic from New York. It took 18 years for Dimitri to return his ancestral village in remote Northern Georgia.
The painter-cum-portraiture photographer travels home every few years to see friends and family. What made one of Dimitri’s most recent trips different was that, for the first time in nearly two decades, he ventured into the mountains of Tskhmori to visit that ancestral village and see his dad, Paata.
I go back to Georgia every couple of years to visit family and friends. For the past 18 years I wanted, but never managed, to go up to the mountains where my father lived. It became a dream and a challenge — not only physical, but mental — that I had to overcome.
During my visit last year, my friend was headed up to the same region at the same time I wanted to go and could give me a ride. So I called him to plan things out, met up with him, bought some food and provisions for a couple of days, and off we went.
Dimitri’s parents separated when he was six years old, part of why he “never had a solid relationship with [his father].” Get-togethers between the two were few and far between even when Dimitri lived in Georgia, with the occasional visit or phone call representing their most substantive interactions. Upon graduating from art school in 2004, Dimitri moved to New York to forge a career path and reunite with his mother, who had immigrated stateside five years earlier.
After moving to the U.S., it became more difficult to connect [with my father], but I guess our relationship evolved into a simple mutual acceptance and love of each other. We connected much more over the past few years; he would call and share stories from his life and anecdotes about our family and ancestors. He wanted me to be close to him and his side of the family.
This increased correspondence helped convince Dimitri to visit his father up in Tskhmori, which is about six hours northwest of Tbilisi. Once he arrived, Dimitri felt the warm embrace of a community that welcomed him as one of their own.
It was truly heartwarming how everybody knew of me and how much my father was expecting my visit for years. He was so happy to finally walk around with his only son that came to visit him from America.
A reunion years in the making quickly became a highlight of Dimitri’s — and Paata’s — life. The Georgian spent a magical few days reconnecting with his father and “seeing the world through his eyes.” The simplest activities provided a backdrop for unforgettable bonding sessions.
[At one point], he was picking hazelnuts in our yard. He seemed relaxed and calm in this environment. We shared the stories of lots of similar, almost parallel life experiences that definitely brought us closer.
Growing up, I didn’t know much about his everyday life. We ended up discovering that we both worked the same odd jobs (construction, restaurants, etc.) and had similar injuries, like when we damaged the same tendon in the same hand at the same age. I also found out that I went to the art school he really wanted to attend.
I am a lot like him. My love for art comes from him. He was a self-taught artist as well as a painter. We are also similar in that we both long for solitude and a simple, peaceful life.
As father and son grew closer, they explored the village’s idyllic surroundings, strolling down a memory lane unbothered by the trappings of urban life. Dimitri, who constantly dreams of “having the courage to leave New York and move to a place like [Tskhmori],” lovingly captured the land of his ancestors — a paradise seemingly indifferent to the passage of time.
The hike was exciting. Last time I was there about 18 years ago, I walked the same exact paths. Even though Tskhmori was much bigger and more beautiful than I remembered, it was incredible how little it changed and how familiar and wonderful it felt after all this time.
I guess everything felt familiar because I saw it all 18 years ago, but most importantly it was details of my father’s everyday life that connected me to him more.
Much of the bonding between Dimitri and Paata was non-verbal, as the two men spent a good bit of time just “sitting on his porch, quietly enjoying the views and the cool breeze.” The comfortable silence gave both parties a chance to reflect, yes, but it mainly allowed them to simply appreciate the other’s presence. Dimitri’s weekend was filled with these evanescent junctures — the kind of perfect, fleeting moments that life gives us every so often.
Those days were some of the most peaceful of my life. The trip was incredibly short and memorable. Every second felt like an hour. I was aware of — and at peace with — everything.
Some of the best images from the weekend perfectly encapsulate the therapeutic nature of Dimitri’s pilgrimage. Shots of an ethereal night sky and nearby Shaori Lake are terrific in a vacuum. With context, they become soul-stirring.
[These images] expressed my state of being better than I could in words. They were a bonus and a wonderful ending to a perfect weekend.
Dimitri took the Shaori Lake picture the morning he left Tskhmori. As it turns out, his rekindling of a once-dormant relationship with his father doubled as a goodbye; Paata passed away on May 5, 2019 — mere months after his son’s visit. While Dimitri returned to Georgia for the funeral services, his weekend in Tskhmori was the last time he and his father spoke face-to-face.
I feel incredibly lucky that I got the chance to reconnect and hang out with my dad. Visiting the fatherland was cathartic and as personal as it could get.
If there could ever be a perfect moment of peace between a father and son, that was it for me.
See more of Dimitri’s work at dimitrimais.com.
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