A Mosaic Artist, Yiannis Frazis
Tourist groups from Russia to New York City often find visiting St. Eleftherios Greek Orthodox Church in Chelsea on their list of attractions. The church was built over 90 years ago, but tour groups started arriving only recently.
The reason, according to Reverend Father Nicholas Soteropoulos, has to do with the two mosaic icons that have been recently installed on the exterior walls of the church. “People marvel,” says Soteropoulos. “Non-Greeks, non-Orthodox look and glare.”
The credit belongs to Yiannis Frazis, a Brooklyn-based artist commissioned by the church to create the mosaics. “The Church of St. Eleftherios has a magnificent history,” says Frazis. “I am honored that the community chose to place my work on their historic structure.”
Frazis, 33, is one of very few artists in the United States that works with Byzantine mosaics, a unique art form that rests upon an artist’s ability to properly assemble an image using hundreds of carefully cut mosaic pieces, or tessarea, as they are called. In his home studio in Brooklyn, Frazis uses a seemingly simple pair of pliers to complete a very complex task: cutting tiles of glass, stone, gold, and other materials and using them to create images of Greek Orthodox saints.
“Byzantine iconography is a very intricate process that requires a tremendous amount of patience,” says Frazis. The process starts with Frazis creating a sketch of the desired icon, very often originally designed by him. “I prefer original design. It gives me greater sense of ownership of the mosaic,” says Frazis. Upon completion of the sketch, he selects the material and color of the mosaic pieces. His work, according to Soteropoulos, “has a good color combination” not easily achieved by all iconographers.
Soon after he selects the color palette, he begins the tedious task of cutting the materials into the appropriate shapes and sizes and laying the miniature pieces into place using a special type of adhesive. The process can take weeks, even months to complete, depending, according to Frazis, on the intricacy of the design, the type of material used, and the size of the icon. Larger, however, does not always mean longer. In fact, Frazis has found that creating miniature mosaics can often take as long, if not longer, than a large icon.
Born on the Greek island of Kalymnos, Frazis credits his parents for giving him the characteristics that he considers vital to his profession: inspiration, discipline and determination. One of five children, Frazis comes from a home with a keen appreciation for the arts. “My father was a teacher, a mathematician, who loved Greek culture, and would always talk to us about books, music and art,” says Frazis. It was no surprise then that Frazis gravitated toward the Archaeological Agency of Kalymnos, an entity responsible for the excavation and preservation of the island’s various archaeological treasures stemming from Classical and Hellenistic times, but also from the Byzantine era.
In fact, it was during an excavation at one of the hundreds of Byzantine churches located on Kalymnos that Frazis came face to face with his first mosaic icon. “I will never forget how mesmerized I was,” he says. “The icon was so beautiful, even though it was aged and damaged. Working with the Agency’s preservationists, we slowly brought it back to life. In many ways that is how I feel every time I create my own mosaic. By putting together the mosaic pieces one by one, I see the icon coming to life right before my eyes.”
This incident inspired him to create his own mosaic, even though he lacked formal schooling and relied upon his own studies of the art form and on the practical training that he acquired while working at the Agency. “I knew that it would not be easy,” he says. “But, I was inspired and determined.”
His first mosaic was a mural of Alexander the Great, currently in the possession of a private collector in Sydney, Australia. “Once I completed Alexander,” he says, “I knew that I could move forward. The people of Kalymnos are very religious. The island has a very religious spirit, so in many ways it was very natural for me to eventually move toward Byzantine iconography.”
“Yiannis was born with this talent,” says Kiveli Christakos, a Greek artist of impressionism and surrealism who lives and works in New York and is the proud owner of one of Frazis’s mosaics. “Had he attended university, he would now easily be able to teach mosaic art. Not only does he know his work, but he is a phenomenon.”
Although most of his work remains with private collectors, Frazis was commissioned to create a mosaic icon for St. Nikolaos Church in Tarpon Springs, FL, and a mosaic cross that has been mounted on the ceiling of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of New Jersey. He also has been involved in the preservation of icons, including those of the Holy Trinity Church in Westfield, NJ and those of the Church of the Holy Cross in Brooklyn.
“Icons are the most distinguishing feature of any Orthodox Church,” states an article in the parish newsletter of the Holy Trinity Church where Frazis completed the restoration and preservation of icons. “However, after three decades of services and constant exposure to smoke and soot, a need arose to clean these beautiful works of art. Holy Trinity called upon the right man, [Yiannis] Frazis, to accomplish this feat and restore them to their original luster.”
In addition to mosaic iconography and preservation, Frazis has recently ventured into the area of jewelry design. Only a couple of months ago, he completed a Byzantine engolpion, a pendant worn exclusively by Greek Orthodox Bishops.
“The engolpion that I created is one-of-a-kind,” says Frazis. “It has a miniature mosaic interior, which to my knowledge has not been created before.”
Ambitious but also very humble, Frazis uses his raw, natural talent to create pieces that those around him say have a lasting impression.
“His work is magnificent,” says Soteropoulos. “He is involved in the icon. It must be perfect. He is a person that you delight working with. He feels the spirit of the icon.” #